First of all, I sincerely apologize if you felt I was scolding you for teaching your baby to read. It’s clear you care passionately for your daughter, and I understand and admire your desire to help her avoid the reading difficulties you experienced as a child. It sounds to me like she would have good communication skills for her age regardless of her ability to recognize words in print because of your attentive care and the time you spend reading and talking to her.
My point is this: Babies need to build a good base for reading comprehension through natural interactions with parents and caregivers and real experiences in the world. They need to internalize words with all their senses, like your daughter does when you tell her about the warm water and yellow washcloth you bathe her with, or acknowledge the birds, big trucks, or helicopters she hears outside. These language lessons are not the isolated words heard in videos or images on flashcards. They are in context and have relevance to your baby’s life. When we direct a baby — eager to explore his world — to words on a page, flashcard or TV screen we are misunderstanding brain development.
I don’t judge you (or any parent) for giving children early academic instruction. We all have good intentions. Parenting is a series of difficult choices, and we’re all choosing the best we can. I do assail supposed ‘experts’ — product manufacturers and marketers — for capitalizing on a parent’s worries, misleading us with false claims, misinformation, and fabricated ‘studies’ that support their pitches.
Yes, babies are ready and able to learn. That is one thing all the experts agree upon. The first years are a crucial period for brain development. Those who sell early learning products (that can run as much as $200) will tell you to take advantage of this precious time by using videos and flashcards to stuff babies with information (which they call ‘knowledge’), get them on a “fast track” by gaining precocious reading and math abilities before school even begins. However, other psychologists, neuropsychologists and educators warn that teaching babies to read is not only a waste of time and money, but can be detrimental to the higher level brain function a child needs to be a success in school, and even have emotional consequences.
So, to your question: where is this information that shows teaching babies to read is not beneficial? I didn’t have to dig deeply to find examples, even though these experts, researchers, and educators don’t have marketing campaigns, TV commercials or 800 numbers. Here are a few of their opinions:
Regarding the “earlier is better” myth… Early childhood educator Tonya Wright, in her insightful article “Teach Your Baby To Read???” (on the site: Literacy Connections – Promoting Literacy And A Love Of Reading), writes, “Really…what is the rush? Do we stand a four-month old up on his feet in an effort to make him “walk”? Because surely if he walks at 4 months old, he will be the best walker in his class by the time he gets to kindergarten! Why do we have to rush children? Why do the wonders of infancy have to be punctuated with flashcards and DVDs?”
Psychologist/neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., explores the threat early instruction can be to healthy cognitive development and secure attachment in “Your Baby SHOULDN’T read” . ”The brains of young children aren’t yet developed enough to read without it costing them in the organization and “wiring” of their brain. The areas involved in language and reading aren’t fully online — and aren’t connected — until age seven or eight. If we’re teaching children to do tasks which their brains are not yet developed to do via the “normal” (and most efficient) pathways, the brain will stumble upon other, less efficient ways to accomplish the tasks — which lays down wiring in some funky ways — and can lead to later learning disabilities, including visual-processing deficits.”
Educator, brain researcher, reading/learning specialist Jane Healy, Ph.D., explains in her book Your Child’s Growing Mind, “Yes, even babies can be trained to recognize words. Babies, however, cannot read, tapping into a vast personal storehouse of language knowledge that takes years to build. Most preschoolers, likewise, can be trained through a stimulus-response type of teaching. The human brain can be trained to do almost anything, if the task is simplified enough and one is willing to devote the necessary time and energy. Yet the brain power – and possibly the neural connections – are stolen from the foundation of real intelligence. Reading becomes a low-level skill, and there is a danger that it will remain at the level where it was learned and practiced.
I believe that formally teaching reading to preschoolers is a serious intrusion on natural mental growth. Only a few, who spontaneously, motivated by their own curiosity, teach themselves to read because they want to find out the meaning, are true early readers. Pushing others to call out words is a grossly oversimplified version of a complex intellectual feat. If we get children to “read” words before they have ideas, thought and language to make reading interesting, we hand them a key to the door of an unfinished garden.”
In Your Self-Confident Baby, infant expert Magda Gerber implores, “Does it ever come up later in one’s life whether a person learned to read at four, five, or six? Learning academic skills should be saved for school-age children. Before that, let your child learn and follow his own rhythm. If you push, he loses his appetite for learning. And it’s that appetite that makes him interested and want to learn.”
I don’t believe you hindered your daughter by teaching her to read. But I do feel protective (maybe overly so) of those first years of a child’s life. I know how hard it is not to project, to worry about every aspect of our baby’s development, rather than accept what our babies choose to do — and do naturally — as enough. My hope for all of us is to find a way to slow down and enjoy the present, relax, trust nature, our children and ourselves.
For more about natural learning, please read the articles and books linked to (above), my other posts on this subject: “Your Baby Can Read” Costs Too Much and Baby Einstein Is No Genius, and my new book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo by antisocialtory, on Flickr.)
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