There was an article in this morning's Los Angeles Times about the rising demand for private tutoring for children as young as 3 years-old. These days, parents aren't just concerned about whether or not little Susie's going to get into Harvard. Now, they're worried about whether not she'll get accepted to the "right" kindergarten.
To ensure acceptance to the "right" elementary school, preschoolers are being sent to learning centers where they sit at desks and complete worksheets. They're taught to count dots on a page, name body parts and animals, and write their name, skills usually expected of a first-grader. Thanks to acts like No Child Left Behind, academic standards have "elevated" to the point where, kindergarten, at least according to this article, is now "the new first grade."
Personally, it makes me sad and angry that children so young are trading in time at the park for sitting behind a desk. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for academic achievement. I'd be thrilled if my kids went to Harvard because they'd have more opportunities. But is private tutoring really the way to help them achieve the academic success necessary to gain more career opportunities? I don't think so.
As parents, we're proud when our little ones can count and recite their ABC's. We beam with pride when they suddenly speak new words and correctly name objects. But sometimes I think it's good to remember that monkeys can be taught these things as well. Just because a child can recite her ABC's, count to 30, and identify a baboon doesn't mean she's smart. It doesn't mean she'll develop critical thinking skills. And it certainly doesn't mean she'll make good life choices.
This is why we really need to think consciously about what we want for our children. What does "success" mean?
To me, success is being emotionally, not just academically, intelligent. I've known people who have the best education money can buy, yet they're estranged from their children, they've had several horrible marriages, their employees despise them because they're mercurial and incapable of controlling their emotional outbursts, and if you ask them if they're happy, they're not. Yet, if you were to meet them at a cocktail party, you'd judge them as being successful because they're a lawyer with a good trial record at a well-renowned law firm, making a ton of money, and they own a large house on the expensive side of town. Frankly, I want more for my kids than cocktail party success.
Having a high EQ (as opposed to IQ) provides a good foundation for academic and overall life success. It involves, according to Daniel Goleman, "self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself," requirements for high academic achievement. Self-control, as I understand it, is not just about impulse-control, it's about being able to recognize our own emotions and manage them effectively. Knowing how to manage our emotions and use them wisely in our rational decision-making process leads to better choices in life, and, as I've said before, better problem-solving skills.
How do we help our children achieve higher EQ's? We spend time with them, offer them empathy, and coach them through their frustration, anger, sadness, fear, and even excitement (see Gottman's book on our recommended reading list). Not only does this teach self-control, it also promotes zeal and persistence. They may feel excited about doing something, but the frustration of successfully completing the task may be too overwhelming if we don't emotionally coach them through it. And, their eventual success with that and other tasks promotes further internal motivation to try and accomplish new things.
How else can we help prepare our children for academic success?
The LA Times article suggests playing with our children. As I've mentioned before, when we play with our children, their level of play becomes more complex. Plus, play is an opportunity to do emotion coaching as described above. But there are other things we can do, and may even already be doing, in our everyday interactions with them.
One of my favorite longitudinal studies was conducted by a Standford linguistic anthropologist, Shirley Brice Heath (1982). She examined the use of bedtime stories and interactions between children and parents in three different communities: "Maintown," a mixed middle class town, "Roadville" a primarily white working class town, and "Trackton," an African American rural community. Maintown and Roadville children were at an advantage academically because these communities had more literary traditions than Trackton, which engaged in a more oral tradition. (Keep in mind one tradition is not better than another, they're just different. The differences, however, do contribute to one's ability to sit in a classroom, which is a very particular type of environment. For the purposes of this post, I will not be discussing Trackton because my point only involves comparing the two communities with more literary traditions.)
However, Heath also found that the Maintown kids were at an even bigger advantage because of how their parents spoke with them. Maintown parents asked their kids a lot "rehearsal questions," questions where the mother knew the answer. They asked questions that were genuine requests for new information (where the mother didn't know the answer). And they asked a lot of open-ended questions, where the child was allowed to relate experiences. Additionally, Maintown parents verbalized connections between what the child saw in the real world with what they read about in their bedtime stories. They also allowed their children to read the book as he or she wished. If the child wanted to skip pages, move ahead, or read from back to front, the parents acquiesced. Finally, when Heath looked at the reading materials of the Maintown parents, she found they had far more critical and educational sources than Roadville parents. In other words, Maintown parents were more interested in gaining new perspectives through reading and didn't only read books reinforcing their already held beliefs.
The Roadville parents, on the other hand, insisted the children read books from beginning to end, with no skipping ahead. Rather than rehearsal questions, the number one communication parents had "with" their children was "running commentary" involving "rhetorical questions." Parents would comment on their own behavior or tasks and would ask questions like, "where are my keys?" without expecting any kind of answer from their kids. Essentially, their main communication wasn't really an interaction. Parents did ask rehearsal questions but far fewer than Maintown parents. The third most common communication was a "question directive," where the parent gave an order in the form of a question. The least type of question Roadville parents asked was that which involved requests for new information. Finally, Roadville parents rarely made connections between what the child saw or experienced in real life and what was read at story-time.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
In a nutshell, Maintown parents promoted critical thinking in their children. True, they gave them rehearsal questions to practice learning new facts or new words, but they also wanted to know what their children thought beyond the "right" answer. They got their kids in the habit of thinking about connections between different things, which promotes thinking beyond the information given and developing more sophisticated inferences. Teaching critical thinking at home, I think, is what prepares our children for academic achievement, not sitting behind a desk doing worksheets. Remember, they're not little adults. They're very young kids.
If you really want your child to achieve academically, don't spend a couple hundred dollars a month on some learning center. Put that money towards maybe working an hour or two less a week and spending some interactive time with your kids.
Heath, Shirley Brice (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language and Society, 11, 49-76