The NIB State Of The Nation Parenting Survey (Pt 3)

‘One in four parents had felt pressure about their child's stage of development or pressure from friends or family to raise their child in a certain way.

Wallis said it was usually parents with babies and very young children who succumbed to "antenatal class syndrome" comparing how quickly a child reached different milestones.

"No one actually wants to say out loud that the baby who walks first is going to be the cleverest because no one really believes that but there's still an unspoken competition over whose baby walks first and whose baby sleeps through the night first...it's a very unhealthy culture."’

In our society today, whether in education or parenting, we seem to get very excited about developmental stages when it comes to learning. It almost gets to the point where we talk about stages as if they were distinct as the life cycle of a butterfly from an egg, to larva, to pupa, to butterfly. It turns out that according to most neuroscience and psychology most of these human developmental stages and critical stages, in particular, are a myth. For sure, there are certainly some physiological changes and hormone changes that humans go through but in large part, we are born as fully functional human beings and remain so. The way we learn remains basically the same. Those stages that we do go through are often gradual and can vary greatly from person to person. It is also easy to fall into the trap of dehumanising children as still being in the ‘caterpillar’ or ‘chrysalis’ stage and talk about “preparing them for life” as if their life hasn’t already started.

When is the best time that a child should first walk, or first talk, or first run, or first read, or first do maths? The overwhelming answer from all the research I’ve studied is that we don’t know. There are some extreme instances where learning some things too late does have major consequences. For example, a boy that was found at age 13 without any prior verbal interaction never really learnt to speak, however, a girl that was found in a similar condition at age 6 only took a couple of years to catch up on good language skills. Yes, these are extreme examples but it goes to show that the basic functioning of human beings is generally not impaired except in extreme circumstances. A study done here in New Zealand on children learning to read found that children who began reading at age 7 as opposed to age 5, caught up to their peers by age 10 in their decoding skills and had slightly passed their peers in comprehension. This links to another common myth, that younger equals better. It has been shown repeatedly that this is not the case.

The competition culture that we have is indeed an unhealthy culture when it comes to learning. The tragedy is that we like to push our children to compete in areas where there are a lot of competitors meaning that they are more likely to fail (think school prize-givings). A basic rule of economics is that it is very hard to compete in a market where you are offering the same product as everyone else. The point is to differentiate and be successful in your own niche. This is the same for our children. Allow them to find success in the things they enjoy and have an aptitude for rather than focusing on competing in the areas that are common to most children. As pointed out above, a child learning to speak before another child of the same age is not an achievement and does not say anything much about that child’s intelligence or future success.

Yes, children often learn things at similar ages, but why? We learn things when we have the capabilities of achieving them and the motivation to do so. Most children learn to talk because they become physically capable of doing so and find the motivation to do so by observing other people communicating around them. This is individually determined and cannot be forced into a timetable. As we saw earlier if they don’t have the motivation to learn (no other people around) this learning may be delayed.

As a teacher, the thinking around learning in stages was an increasing frustration. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is built strongly into the system with major panic should a child “fall behind”. This is partly why people buy private tutoring and send their children to private schools. Although how a private school is supposed to add $18,000 worth of extra learning in a year I’m not sure, which possibly shows that it is not extra learning that parents are buying. That is another topic for another time. In the schools themselves, parents basically fight over the available teacher aide hours to at least get some attention for their child. I noticed that this led to parents trying to portray their children as more behind than they really are, which is a fascinating reversal. I go into this in my presentation at www.frankeducation.nz/page/the-education-crisis/

So let us get away from the “antenatal class syndrome” and come to enjoy just watching the precious and beautiful way that children grow and learn.