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Experience is certainly among the best of all teachers. I also believe that learning from the wrong turns we take can cement the knowledge we gain even more firmly.
Shortly after our son was born, a cousin sent us a parcel with items that her son had used when he was little. Included in the package were some hand-me-down clothes for special occasions and a set of magnetic letters of the alphabet to be placed on the refrigerator. As our child was still a toddler, it didn’t occur to me to employ the letters as an educational tool. Instead, I stuck them on the fridge as they were colorful and also could be used to hang photos and grocery lists. Later our son became intrigued with the letters and on his own discovered the magic of magnets. The letters swiftly joined blocks and other objects he could manipulate and use for construction or add as flavoring to the dinky car soup he regularly concocted. Somewhere in the mix of our playing, we began to ascribe names to the letters, just as we did to anything our son touched, saw, heard, and otherwise experienced. We knew that he could identify and distinguish letters and even write his name. However, it wasn’t until he dazzled the twelve year old boy who was visiting us by pointing to the doormat and spelling out the word, “WELCOME” that it became apparent how much he had internalized.
After he began to routinely and excitedly spell and occasionally recognize words he saw on billboards and in print, I had the idea that formal reading lessons were in order. So, using a Dr. Seuss book as a primer, I encouraged my pupil to sound out the letters and identify the words. In short order, annoyance and frustration supplanted excitement and it was abundantly clear that teaching reading at this point was causing unnecessary tension and serving no purpose. This experience taught the would-be teacher an invaluable lesson; that learning is best achieved when the child is ready and receptive. Further, educational initiatives, especially for young children, have greatest effect when they are natural extensions of play. Perhaps the most important lesson here, though, is that education is most successful when it is a natural outgrowth of a child’s own curiosity, rather than when it is imposed.
I strongly believe that if a parent pays attention to his or her child, then that parent will not only know when to widen the child’s horizons, but also in what way. I am reminded of the time when our son was a kindergartener that we brought home and watched as a family the movie 1776. Certainly, that musical has some catchy, if not moving, tunes and rich and feisty characters. Yet it was clear that our son was most drawn to the story underpinning the film, the birth of our nation, our history. Seeing his enthusiasm about early American history, in turn, inspired my husband and me to find ways to fuel his interest and expand his understanding. We discovered a wonderful series of books that follows generations of a fictional family from Colonial America through to the War of 1812. We were implored to read these books practically non-stop and we spent a large portion of one summer under the massive maple tree in our backyard learning about America in its early decades. Our son’s interest and knowledge continued to grow and we later spent countless mealtimes reading; about military engagements and novels like The Red Badge of Courage that describe the horrors of war. We made treks to Plymouth and Independence Hall to provide a visual understanding of the places where American history unfolded. The point is that our family’s quests and intellectual journeys were sparked by the excitement our son showed while watching 1776. We just sought to sustain and develop that interest to wherever it led us. It wouldn’t surprise me if our son’s decision to major in history years later was in part rooted in those positive encounters he had with Colonial America as a young child.
Now, while I think it grossly unfair – if not cruel – to willfully subject a child to a challenge well beyond his or her physical and mental ability, I don’t think that a parent should prevent a child from experiencing any sort of difficulty or from trying something new. Indeed, some of the most flexible and creative thinkers are those who have had to find ways to address and overcome disappointments and handle the unfamiliar. Facing some modicum of challenge makes for healthy development.
There is a memorable scene from the film, Babies, a documentary that follows four babies from around the world from their births until they begin to walk. In this clip, a months-old girl is sitting on the floor and concentrating on stringing large plastic square-, triangle- and circle-shaped beads onto a pole. She manages to get all the beads on the pole and excitedly lifts the pole only to watch the beads she had painstakingly threaded slide off the other end of the pole and onto the floor. Then she does what I wish I could do in polite company when something or someone is driving me nuts. She hurls herself on her back, kicks her feet in midair, and screams. You don’t need a thought bubble to know what she’s feeling. However, what happened next was a marvel to see. After a short, heartfelt wail, the girl sat up, crawled back to the pole and beads and tried it all again.
Long way around, the time for parents to encourage their child to take another step in development is when that child shows evident signs that he or she not only is interested, but also possesses the requisite maturity or patience to make the effort. This applies equally to learning to ride a bike, read, or use a toilet.
A famous study, colloquially known as the marshmallow test, elaborates on this notion of patience or, more specifically, the ability to delay gratification. In the 1960s and 1970s, a psychologist, then a professor at Stanford, conducted a series of tests on pre-school and early primary school students. The young students were told that they could either have one marshmallow (or Oreo or pretzel stick) immediately or wait fifteen minutes and receive several of these treats. This cohort of students was then tracked over decades. Curiously, the students who delayed gratification generally achieved more positive life outcomes, e.g. higher educational attainment, greater ability to handle stress, healthier body mass index, and perhaps of most importance to those parents who possessed academic ambitions for their child, much higher standardized test scores than those who enjoyed the one marshmallow (or treat) immediately.
The marshmallow test was largely debunked by later studies that maintained that the ability to hold out for more marshmallows was shaped by a child’s social and economic background, rather than by his or her inherent patience or resilience. Still, although the marshmallow test was designed to measure young children’s degree of self control, it actually provides a useful moral for parents. The experiment captured so much attention because it purported to predict a child’s degree of success, as determined by certain adults, a decade or more down the line. But, in the big picture, why should parents even be thinking about how their four year olds will fare on the SAT, for example, a dozen or more years in the future? Perhaps it’s the parents that ought to think about ways to exercise patience and refrain from eating the proverbial marshmallow themselves. Rather than to rush their children’s development for the possibility of achieving a certain vision of success, parents need to wait and see where their children’s interests and curiosities lie and then take steps to fuel that initial excitement accordingly. This brings me back to the lesson I learned in deciding to teach our son to read before he was ready.
Because my husband and I are self-employed and have the luxury of a fair amount of flexibility in our schedule, at least one of us was available to be with our child from his birth. When both of us were free, we tended to travel as a threesome, whether to the grocery store, library, or the backyard. It’s not surprising that all this time together helped to forge our close-knit family. Also, as we were close, we valued and sought our son’s opinions. As such, he weighed in on family-related decisions, including where we might eat out on those infrequent occasions when we opted not to cook. We generally frequented inexpensive, fast food places. As our son grew older and could express his preferences, we would take turns deciding where we should dine. This was taken quite seriously and a record was kept as to whose turn it was so that there was parity in decision-making. All this is to explain that from a very early age, our son’s choices and views mattered, especially when they concerned his own experience.
The time came when we decided to look into pre-schools with programs that ran just a couple of mornings or afternoons a week. Our motivation to explore pre-schools was largely for the social experiences they offer. As our son was and is an only child, we thought he might benefit from the chance to meet and interact with others his age. Several friends had recommended a school that their children attended. It happened that a significant number of families affiliated with this nursery school also were associated with a leading university located nearby. We figured that if academics enrolled their children in this place, it must have some merit. The day of the pre-school’s open house arrived and prospective students and their parents swarmed into the facility, listened attentively to the teacher as she described the program and its approach, noted the furnishings and toys, and sought clues about the essence of the place. It was clear that here, education, specifically academic schooling, was valued. It was also clear that the target of the teacher’s attention at the gathering was the parents, rather than the prospective students. Whenever the teacher spoke to a child, her tone seemed to lack genuine warmth and, worse, her manner was patronizing. We’d been in the building all of ten minutes when our son quietly started asking when we would leave. The signal was unambiguous. He wanted out.
A few days later, we visited a public nursery program run out of the local recreation center where we had been invited to stop by any time the pre-school was in session. When we arrived, a group of children was happily navigating Big Wheels around their classmates in the airy, though relatively small space that housed the school. Spying an unoccupied vehicle, our son asked if he could join the fun. With a nod from the teacher, he climbed on the Big Wheels and pedaled away beaming. Guess in which program we enrolled our son. It so happened that this pre-school also had a valuable educational component. The students were exposed to the rudiments of language and arithmetic and they were read stories about Native Americans and dinosaurs, but the approach was low-key and inviting. We were also pleased that our son made some fast friends with whom he played routinely inside and outside his school. Our family’s experience at this pre-school opened my husband’s and my eyes to the importance of early education, not only what was taught, but how. Looking back I realize that the pre-school teachers reinforced the way we ourselves interacted with and engaged our son at home, by sharing our excitement about our own interests and discovering and identifying the topics and activities that tickled and fueled his own imagination. The pre-school experience also served to motivate us to partner with our son’s teachers down the line to try to echo the approach he was fortunate to have experienced in his very first formal schooling.
Now back to the subject of decision-making and the reason for talking about our son’s pre-school in the first place. I suppose that our son could have had a positive time in the first program we visited. There had to be a reason the pre-school was so highly touted by those who were affiliated with it. However, even if my husband and I hadn’t been put off by what we had observed at the open house, the most compelling factor and what clinched the decision to choose the program we did was the way our son responded to the options before him and his excitement to attend the school he preferred. I have absolutely no doubt that if a child is comfortable about a school, then that is the place to pursue. In fact, this is my mantra with respect to educational choices and following it has always served me well. First, no matter how wonderful an institution or educational program seems on paper, I think it is essential to visit the school and witness it in action. Second, you may never be able to explain why a particular pre-school, program, or even college feels right, but if it does, then it is right. Conversely, even if a school can boast an impressive array of graduates or possesses state of the art facilities and eye-popping resources, if your child doesn’t feel right about the place, then the school isn’t right. For us, the pre-school decision-making process solidified what we always intuitively knew. Our son’s feelings and views were essential ingredients in determining what next step to take when it concerned him, even where to eat for dinner.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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