Not too many years ago, a friend called me in tears. She had just returned from a “mother’s day out” group, and while the children were playing, the conversation had quickly turned competitive. One mother’s child had toilet- trained at six months. Another’s was already swimming laps at barely a year. “Dylan is only 18 months old,” my friend sobbed, “and he’s already behind.”
|We should respect children’s right to acquire knowledge in their own way at their own pace.|
I have thought about this vignette as my own children have grown, and I’ve had my own experiences with competitive parents. While it is unsettling to have people try to convince me that their child is the smartest/fastest/most talented person on the planet, my primary concern is about how their attitude affects their child—and how it affects overall school policy.
I would never want a child to believe that the love of his parents was contingent on his performance in some activity. Similarly, I would never want us to base school policy on the misguided notion that if we can teach children to do things younger, we should.
My second-oldest child is in the 4th grade this year. Half the students in her class have not yet mastered their multiplication tables, yet they are working on a probability unit. When I discovered this, my first thought was that we are teaching statistics to 4th graders so their parents can brag to the neighbors that little Joey is a statistician. Clearly, we have decided to throw the research on developmental readiness out the window and make sure we jam the curriculum down the throats of these children at the first possible moment.
I don’t hear parents discussing how to help children love reading. I hear them discussing how they got these children to read at as young an age as possible. Is there a winner in the academic race, or is it only important that everybody finish?
At what cost do we try to get our children to grow up younger and younger?
My four children toilet-trained, learned their math tables, learned to read, and learned to speak (and debate) at very different ages. Three of them are developing within the normal developmental ranges, and my child with a disability has developed at her own rate. She now reads above grade level, but still struggles with abstract concepts. For the first time this year, my oldest child saw her report card. She is in middle school. Up until now, she has learned merely for the beauty of learning. But now with heavy tracking segregating her group of friends, she wants to see how she is “measuring up.”
This sense of measuring up to the group speaks to how overbooked and stressed out children are. It is quite stressful for them to try to learn things for which they are not developmentally ready. Because they want to please their parents and teachers, they will try. Because they want to please their parents, they will join 10 activities at a time, all of which they may have some genuine interest in. But they quickly discover that, taken together, it is too much, and leaves them little time to be children.
As the theory and research of learning move further away from the autocratic curriculum articulation of “standards” and closer to a model of respect for different ways of knowing and different rates of acquiring knowledge, the politicians and governing bodies of education seem to be moving in the opposite direction. They seem to believe that all students should be carbon copies of one another, able to assimilate information at roughly the same pace and able to be assessed in precisely the same way.
|I would never want us to base school policy on the misguided notion that if we can teach children to do things younger, we should.|
The fact is that SAT scores continue to go up, when we take into account the changing demographics of the test population. We hear sensationalized stories about students who graduate unable to read, but we hear little about those who graduate each year with above-average skills and a desire to continue on in school.
At what cost do we try to get our children to grow up younger and younger? Soon we really will develop toddler algebra courses, and expect youngsters to be miniature adults from the time they can talk. It’s important that we—whether parents, teachers, administrators, or policymakers—understand the difference between adult needs and childhood needs.
We should respect children’s right to acquire knowledge in their own way at their own pace, and support the process in as many ways as we can. We should offer enrichment, so that students who would learn probability at age 9 can. But we should make it equally important that students who would learn other fare—like their multiplication tables—can do that as well.
Jennifer Gerdes Borek teaches at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Why the Rush?