Our society is in a rush, a rush to see children read, write and do math at a young age. Baby Einstein is a mass success. Parents read books and take classes about working with their infants to put them on the fast track to academic excellence. Why is this valued so strongly? Is this common in other cultures? As sensitive, modern parents, is this the path we want to take?
These are observations and questions that I did not ask of myself as a young mother. It was a given that the ability to count or to write her name were in some way a measure of my daughter’s intelligence and progress. I can see how this happens, because we do watch our babies hit milestone after milestone from raising that head to rolling over, crawling, etc. As they become older toddlers, the physical milestones greatly slow down and we begin to reach for intellectual milestones to chart growth. Grandparents want to hear the 2-year-old say his ABC’s. Preschool teachers expect the 3-year-old to recognize letters and numbers. The pressure is on.
In the past year I’ve been reading and pondering this social climate that focuses so strongly on academics from the youngest age. As it turns out, it’s not a universal assumption. In European countries such as Sweden, Germany and Poland, children begin first-grade at around seven years old and aren’t expected to be able to read at all at the beginning of first grade. Here in the States our education system has long since fallen behind our European neighbors. Our answer? Start teaching them earlier! Move letter-recognition from kindergarten to preschool and reading from 1st grade to kindergarten. Get them out of the home and into school as soon as possible! Ouch. The results have not been pretty. Farther behind and more stressed out than ever, children and parents are starting to say “no”.
Quite frankly, I think this value in early academics is misplaced. The kindergartner who has an active imagination, who relishes artistic expression and who relates well with pears is better poised for success in our world than the one who lacks the above but already knows how to read. Creativity and sociability really count for a lot in our high-tech, automated world. I have confidence that the academics will come too, when the child is ready. That’s why I subscribe to a “Better Late than Early” mentality when it comes to childhood academics. But, more on what that means later.
My advice to new parents (besides to read, read, read about it) is to relish early childhood as a time for innocent, free exploration of the world, unburdened by schoolwork. Approach your preschooler and kindergartener with the confidence that your family dynamic is the foundation of her future self. Think holistically about fostering growth in all areas: body (physical milestones and skills), personality (social skills and soul nurturing) and intellect (via direct experience with a beautiful, natural environment). That’s an echo of the Waldorf mantra: head, heart and hands.