Learning programs for infants and toddlers like “Your Baby Can Read” are aggressively marketed to new parents and appeal to our most sincere instincts – to do what is best for our children and give them every advantage in life. The children in the promotional videos look so happy to be reading words (words that some cannot even speak yet!), and their parents are so proud. We naturally wonder, “Those people are teaching their toddlers to read? Am I failing my child? Will she fall behind before she even starts kindergarten?”
Parents can relax. Early learning gimmicks have been recycled for years, yet not one has ever been scientifically proven to enhance a child’s learning abilities (or increase intelligence, for that matter.) The reality is that we harm our children when we control and push forward their development, rather than facilitating and letting it happen. Infants and toddlers need time to follow their natural curiosity and interests, which can only happen when they are engaged in uninterrupted, self-directed play. So, when we give a baby reading lessons — or any kind of instruction — that child pays a steep price. She is deprived of the vastly more important, age-appropriate activities that prepare a foundation for true reading comprehension and for the higher levels of brain function in the future.
We all are born with the desire to explore, experiment and discover. Babies will find cognitive learning opportunities in the simplest environments as they work to make sense of the world. They are eager to spend time imagining, reasoning, developing formulas and testing them. Why does the ball roll more quickly on the wooden floor than it does on the rug? What makes the clouds move? Does the plastic ring fit around this bottle top? These kinds of early experiences ignite the neural pathways that lead to a strong and active mind.
So, why are we so ready to interrupt and squander this time — this precious window of accelerated development in our child’s life — by showing him a flash card that directs him to clap like a performing seal? We are certainly not helping him to develop his intellectual potential, and the ‘head start’ we imagine will quickly disappear by second or third grade.
We need dreamers, big-picture thinkers and creative problem-solvers to inherit our world, not machines programmed to memorize and mimic.
Furthermore, while a program like “Your Baby Can Read“ may train a baby to recognize words, it cannot teach him to comprehend more than the most basic ones. A child is not ready to learn letters, numbers or words when he has not had the opportunity to build a sensory foundation for what these symbols represent. “Reading comprehension is built on mental networks formed throughout childhood from real experiences with the world,” writes educator and brain researcher Jane Healey, PH.D., in her book, Your Child’s Growing Mind.
The mechanics of reading are not difficult for the average child to learn when he is ready to do so. Reading comes easily, but only when the timing is right, and children who are naturally interested in reading at an early age will teach themselves. One of my three children became a self-taught reader when she was four years old. Her desire to read was a wildfire that could not be contained. She still loves books, creative writing and the literature camp she has chosen to attend the last three summers. Reading is one of her personalpassions, not something she does because it pleases her parents.
And our babies are driven to please their caregivers. Their basic survival depends upon our acceptance of them. We should use this power wisely and not abuse it. When we teach a baby something he is not choosing to learn on his own, we put him on course to ignore intrinsic motivation in favor of performing for others — namely us. The child distances himself further and further from his unique goals and passions. We must give our child unconditional acceptance and respond with the same amount of approval for all her accomplishments, big and small, to encourage her continued authenticity.
“When we instruct children in academic subjects at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm,” warns Dr. David Elkind in Miseducation.
As I sadly watched the testimonials from parents on the “Your Baby Can Read” site, I couldn’t help but wonder about the videos I wasn’t seeing: the ones where the children suddenly wake up years later and realize that their entire lives have been motivated by the need to please loved ones.
Then there are the children who do not succeed with the “Your Baby Can Read” program. They have disappointed their parents and find no joy in learning. Instead of learning naturally and joyously through play, they equate education with tension and failure…and they are only 3 years old.
Lastly, and most unfortunately, a baby who reads because it makes his parents happy is receiving the message — in his most important, intimate relationships — that his value is based on performance and accomplishments. The children I observed in the “Your Baby Can Read” videos were ecstatically soaking up the positive attention they were getting for being precocious readers. They seemed thrilled by the pride their parents exhibited. Do these parents respond enthusiastically when the child paints with water on the driveway? Do they show pride when the child buries his feet in the sand? Do they enjoy him when he picks up a ladybug or splashes in a mud puddle? The child can only wonder if he would be as appreciated and loved if he did not perform for his parents. His mud pies and skinned knees might not be enough.
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