“Earlier Is Better” and Other Child Development Myths (with Rae Pica)

Early childhood education luminary Rae Pica joins Janet to share her expertise about how children really learn and to debunk some common parenting myths that can impede a child’s natural development. Rae has dedicated herself to the mission of developing and educating the whole child. She is the author of 20 books, a popular keynote speaker, and throughout her decades-long career has consulted with numerous diverse public and private groups as well as schools and health departments throughout the U.S.

Transcript of “‘Earlier Is Better’ and Other Child Development Myths (with Rae Pica)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m joined by Rae Pica, a true standard bearer for early childhood education. I’d never met Rae, but I certainly knew of her and her work. She’s been focused on this for over 40 years. So I’m thrilled she agreed to come on the podcast. Rae is dedicated to developing and educating the whole child and she’s written 20 books on the subject. She’s a brilliant keynote speaker and, as a consultant, she’s offered her expertise and experience to an incredibly diverse list of organizations, both public and private, including the CDC, Sesame Street, Mattel, Gymboree, Nike, Nickelodeon’s “Blues Clues,” and many health departments in schools. Rae and I will be discussing how children actually learn, how to encourage their intrinsic developmental processes, and some of the parenting myths that are so common these days and can stifle a child’s natural instinct to explore, discover, learn, and flourish.

Hi Rae, welcome to Unruffled and thank you so much for being willing to share with my listeners today.

Rae Pica:  Oh, I’m happy to. Thank you so much. I love the title, Unruffled, that’s just great.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh, well, it’s something to strive for. I think when we do understand child development and our place in it, all of that perspective can really help us. We don’t have to pretend we’re unruffled, but the way that we see children and trust them as capable, it can help us to actually be unruffled.

Rae Pica:  Yeah, understanding child development is so important.

Janet Lansbury:  And I know that’s been life’s work and that you have been such a wonderful communicator of your knowledge to the public. So, anyway, I’m thrilled to have you here.

There are so many things we could talk about, but I was thinking the other day that what I would like you to share is, I think, something that will be very practical for parents and helpful. I always try to focus on what can I offer that might help, and one goal that we all have as parents is that our children thrive. That they flourish physically, cognitively, creatively, socially, emotionally; that they reach their potential in all those areas. Sometimes there are things that we don’t realize are getting in the way of that.

What are some of the common hinderers of this desire that we have for our children? What gets in the way?

Rae Pica:  Well, Janet, I think the biggest one is, I hate to say this, all the misinformation floating around out there. There’s just so much information. I mean, there’s so much information. Never, in the history of parenting, has there been so much information and so much of it is wrong, in my humble opinion. It just is wrong. Ugh, gosh, that just sounds so negative.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, I think what you’re saying is this is a blessing and a curse. I think most of us understand the blessing, hopefully: that it’s helping make our lives easier and making our role clearer, helping us with our children’s behavior in the moment, all of that. So hopefully it’s doing that, unless we’re just getting very confused, which is also very possible. So what do we need to look out for? Like when we’re getting information, how do we know…?

Rae Pica:  Yeah, how are you supposed to sort through it all and know what’s right and what’s wrong? I mean, we mentioned child development earlier. Most parents, unless they’re in a field that requires it, haven’t studied child development, and they sure as heck don’t have the time to keep up with the research and anything pertaining to young children or early childhood education. So, yeah, there are several pieces of misinformation. Let me just start with the biggest that has become very prevalent in our society and that is keeping children from thriving. We think that it’s doing the opposite. That piece of information is that earlier is better.

Earlier is better” is a myth. I don’t know how all of this started. I do know that traditional and social media haven’t helped. They’re very good at perpetuating myths and in fostering competition. And I’m not just talking about parents, but policymakers, adults in general have received the idea that we have to give children a jumpstart. Whether we’re talking about academics or athletics, we have to get them started as soon as possible because if we don’t, they’ll fall behind forever and stay that way.

And it’s just not true.

The harm is that, well, for one thing, it puts a lot of pressure on parents. Pressure that doesn’t have to be there.

For another, it puts a lot of pressure on the children because child development is a process and it can’t be accelerated. You know how much they want to please the important adults in their lives. The little ones do, and when they can’t do what we’re asking them to do because they’re not developmentally ready to do it, they’re not supposed to be doing it yet, it puts a lot of pressure on them. They feel anxious and depressed and just plain unhappy. So let’s start there, Janet, because I can just ramble on.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. I’m absolutely in agreement with you here, nodding my head, and that’s exactly what Magda Gerber used to say, “earlier is not better.” I have a couple theories as to how this could be being perpetuated. One is from when I had my first daughter, which was 28 years ago. There was this whole “super baby” trend at that time and it was so much pressure and it just always seemed so arbitrary to me. “Stimulate them this way at this age and then by this many months, you’ve got to do these games to your baby and do this to make sure they’re getting that,” and the whole responsibility was on us. That we were going to miss windows or we were going to-

Rae Pica:  Yes, the windows.

Janet Lansbury:  Those horrible windows. It was up to us to make sure those windows were getting filled with something.

Rae Pica:  Well, if you could name another group of people easier to scare than parents, I mean, of course, they were frightened by that. I mean, they want the best for their children and if they didn’t get on board with all of this … and, part of it, I remember, and I don’t know what year it was, when Rob Reiner came out with “This is Your Child,” I think the program was called. He was very excited. It was very well-intentioned and I really don’t know a lot about it, except that it was based on the new research about the first three years of life, how many brain cells and neurons and all of that. All of that that’s happening in the first three years. Well then, then the marketers jumped in and they aren’t necessarily well-intentioned except to line their pockets.

Janet Lansbury:  True.

Rae Pica:  But they jumped in with, “Well, you need these flashcards and you need infant lap wear, and you need all of these doodads.” So parents wanted to be good parents and they rushed out and bought them. It was based on the idea that enrichment matters in the first three years, but nobody told them that enrichment is really as simple as paying loving attention to your child.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, and trusting them to play and see what they’re interested in. Taking a step back and observing who they are.

Yeah, so I think the other part is this sort of general idea that I know I had before I started working with Magda Gerber and learning from her, that children respond because we do something to them first. That we have to teach them everything that they are going to learn.

Both of those ideas, the “super baby” and this other kind of more general idea that if we don’t pull a child’s hand up and get them on their feet, they will not walk…

Rae Pica:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  Magda countered that with, no, children are actually born self-learners. That there’s a wisdom in all children that should be trusted in terms of their timetable, what they’re working on, who they uniquely are, and that there is something there. They’re not just blank, waiting to be filled in by us.

Rae Pica:  Exactly. Exactly, they’re born with a love of learning. I mean, they’re all about learning and asking questions, exploring and discovering, and they need the time and the space to do that.

I hear so many stories about children who were really excited about learning and so they were excited about going to preschool and kindergarten and, days in, they’re miserable and they’re burnt-out in kindergarten, because learning, this is where the policymaker piece comes in, the curriculum has been pushed down to accommodate this education race, and it’s just preposterous. Again, child development cannot be accelerated. So why has kindergarten become the new first grade?

A University of Virginia study showed the differences between kindergarten then and kindergarten now, and, oh, it’s just horrifying. You talk about your empty vessels. We’re trying to pour information into their little blank heads, forcing them to sit and do worksheets, and it’s just …

Janet Lansbury:  And there’s no joy in it for the adults, either because, again, as we were saying, the whole onus is on us to do everything. So, of course it’s, well, let’s get it done sooner because then we’ll be done with that and onto the next thing and we’re doing a better job that way if we get them all doing this, really.

Rae Pica:  Yeah, it’s a terrible amount of pressure. Parenting, I think, has become harder because of all this misinformation.

I remember the young mom who approached me after a keynote speech and said … this was a few years ago. She said, “Is it okay if I don’t sometimes… if I don’t always play with my child?” I honestly, Janet, did not know what the heck she was saying. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it, and then it dawned on me. She thought she had to play with her child all the time in order to be a good mom. “I have to keep my child entertained” is another one of those myths that I’m trying to debunk.

I like my mother, I love my mother, but I can’t imagine her playing with me all the time when I was little. Benign neglect was sort of our parents’ parenting style and it worked fine. I mean, I think I turned out okay.

Janet Lansbury:  I think we can say yes on that. I think also that parents do want to be more involved. I mean, that’s why they’re taking in all this information and they’re excited and they want to learn, and that’s such a positive thing.

The thing about the benign neglect is that you can give children the benefits of that, that you got and I got when I was just playing all day, making up games, discovering our own ways to play. They can have that benefit, but still be involved, if we can learn to tune in and just enjoy what our child is doing and be the audience, not the player. So we can still have that.

I don’t think it’s a question of: Well, I’m just ignoring my child, or I’m playing with them. There’s this whole other area that brings so much joy and discovery of our own child. It’s so educational for us. We’re the passive partner in their play, just responding when they’re asking us to, and letting them know that we’re there and we’re present sometimes when we can be.

Rae Pica:  You’re right, there’s definitely a balance involved. I’m just encouraging parents to know that it doesn’t have to be as challenging as maybe it’s been to this point.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes.

One more thing I just thought of when you were saying about the parent believing that we need to entertain and play with our children all the time, which I definitely did at first. I believed that with my infant, that I had to keep her busy. In fact, I was completely over-stimulating her and then she would get really cranky and I wasn’t understanding the sensitivity of her to stimulation actually.

But one of the big pieces of misinformation parents are getting is that their children being disappointed or having feelings or crying about something is actually dangerous. That whenever a child is crying, because they maybe want the parent to do something the parent can’t do it right then or doesn’t want to do in terms of play, or any boundary, really, the child is disappointed and cries about it, then that child is in danger of what people call “cry it out” and this causes brain damage. So there are parents living in that fear.

This was brought to my attention recently by a psychologist who follows my work and said she finally realized that this fear was what was behind parents never wanting to say no to their child in regard to play or anything. So that’s heavy.

Rae Pica:  If you hear these things often enough, of course, you’re going to believe them and that puts even more pressure on you, doesn’t it? You must say yes to your child all the time.

I mean, I think that boredom is a gift for children because then they will use their creativities, their imagination, their wonderful mind to come up with something to do. Now, I’m not saying that you just say, “Go away.” Maybe you have to ease into the child learning how to play on his or her own. You set up some art materials over here and maybe some blocks and Legos, construction materials over there, and you give the child a choice. “Well, there’s this over here. There’s this over here. Pick one.”

Do you want to hear some other myths?

Janet Lansbury:  Yes, I absolutely do.

Rae Pica:  One is that “play isn’t a productive use of time,” and it’s closely linked to “earlier is better,” because if we believe that earlier is better, then what we value is accomplishment and productivity, and I’m not so sure those two words should be associated with early childhood. So, play seems like something frivolous, not a productive use of time. But nature had a plan in mind and we really can’t imagine that we have a better one. Nature intended for the young of almost every species, including human species, to learn through play. It’s the basis of the adult personality. They learn self-discipline, conflict resolution, negotiation, cooperation, and collaboration, how to take the perspective of others. They learn all of these skills that will serve them so well throughout life through play, through free play.

Free play, authentic play, is child-initiated and child-directed, which is why we can’t put them in an organized soccer game and feel that they’re getting the opportunity to play. It’s not the same thing.

Play is how they express their fears and their feelings. During the pandemic, a lot of children were playing doctor or hospital. Right after 911, a lot of children were building block towers and knocking them down, and that is how they take some control of their world and they need to have that. No matter how loving we are toward them, how much love and attention we shower on them, they still need to have some control, make some sense of their world. And they do that through play.

Janet Lansbury:  This is true on their own, not just with others as well, right?

Rae Pica:  Oh yes, absolutely.

When I did workshops in the past on creativity, I would ask the participants to list some words related to creativity and then list some words related to play and they always, they always intertwined. There was such an overlap there. We give a lot of lip service to creativity in our society, but we don’t do a lot to promote it. We don’t really value it the way we should. It might be because we associate creativity simply with the arts, but we need creativity in business and industry, technology, science, medicine. Creativity is about problem-solving. It’s about seeing beyond what already exists, seeing beyond the problem to the solution.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, I think we can get caught up seeing creativity as a product, that our child is able to finish a drawing or something like that. Instead, it’s a process, it’s a way of thinking. It’s an aspect that I think we all have in ourselves to some degree. It’s not just certain people are creative and others aren’t.

Rae Pica:  In early childhood education, we’ve been saying it for decades, if not longer: with young children it’s all about the process, not the product. It doesn’t matter if the finger painting ends up all black. It really doesn’t matter, that’s the product. What matters is the process in getting there. So, yeah, it’s hard to describe how important these things are in early childhood.

Janet Lansbury:  One of my mentors actually, an associate that also studied with Magda, she, I remember, brought up an example once of a teacher going over to a child who was painting, a young child, and saying, “What are you painting?” and the child says, “Paper.”

Rae Pica:  I love that. I love that.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s a good answer.

Rae Pica:  Yeah. Well, there’s a whole podcast to be done on how we should respond. “Oh, I see you’re using a lot of purple in that drawing,” is non-judgmental and gives the child some information and values the process, not the product, so yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  It’s all about the process, and that’s the learning process that we want them to stay in love with as they get older.

One of the things we notice with young children, with what I do, we notice in infants that they’re fine with not being able to reach what they’re reaching for, unless we start to react to that. They don’t mind challenges. They don’t mind “failing.” I don’t think they even understand that’s a concept that applies to life. It’s just: I’m doing this, I’m reaching my arm out. I’m trying to touch this. It’s beyond my reach. Let me try something else. Or not, and I’ll do something else altogether.

So it’s just not this fraught thing that we can sometimes feel as parents like: Oh my gosh, I better get it for her because she needs it.

Rae Pica:  Exactly, because the reaching is the process and if you get there, that’s great. But if we make a big deal about them not getting there, then we’re putting our emphasis on the product again.

And that’s one of the other myths, that “we have to protect them from ‘failure and mistakes.‘” My gosh, you and I know we learn more from mistakes and from failure than from successes, and there’s not a single life that avoids failure and mistakes. Not that they have to get used to it when they’re little, but they have to learn how to begin to learn how to deal with it in a positive way.

Janet Lansbury:  And that is normal, right? I mean-

Rae Pica:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  And we’re not trying to train them into that. It will happen, if we can trust that it’s okay. It will just naturally happen. Children will seek out those challenges that are just beyond their reach, or…

Rae Pica:  Yes. Taking those risks, climbing the tree or hanging upside down from the monkey bars, and all those things that we’re frightened of these days, because we’ve been made to be frightened of them. We’ve gone a little bit overboard on that.

Janet Lansbury:  Would that be another myth that we need to-

Rae Pica:  Yes.

Janet Lansbury:  … protect them from doing anything that could possibly be a failure or dangerous, or?

Rae Pica:  Exactly. I mean, it’s funny, I had a call this morning, a voicemail on my phone from a grandmother. She follows my work and she and I have become friendly. She had to pop in to say, “I’m here at the playground with the little ones, and even with everything I know about how we should let them take risks and find the edge of what they’re capable of doing,” she said, “I heard myself saying, ‘Be careful.'” I thought: Well, of course, you did! I mean, we all have to retrain ourselves, right?

Janet Lansbury:  Yes.

Rae Pica:  I mean, I know the statistics, and this is true, that it is the safest time to be a kid in America. It’s the truth, and the information is out there. I know all of that. Yet we hear so many horror stories through the media that if I see a little one outside playing by herself, my first instinct is, “Huh,” and then I have to think it through, like someone who knows better, but it’s hard.

Janet Lansbury:  It really, really is hard to calm ourselves. And I think that’s a good place for us to segue right now…

Okay, so we know that these myths are getting in our way, but how do we stop? How do we trust that it’s okay for my child to be doing what they’re doing right now, and not doing this next thing that my friends are doing?  Or that I saw somebody on the internet doing? That their kids can do? How do we find that in ourselves? How do you help parents and professionals understand this?

Rae Pica:  The comparisons are brutal, aren’t they? I mean, if you do happen to believe and know in your heart that your child doesn’t need to be enrolled in 47 million programs, but another parent looks at you and says, “Seriously?” with horror on her face, then you’re going to start to doubt yourself.

So, you’ve used the word “trust” several times and we do have to trust our instincts, trust our hearts, trust that the children know best.

One of the ways that I’m trying to help parents … Obviously, if you’re finding information, you need to be able to trust the people you’re getting that information from.  Like you. And, I hope, like me. And I’m not sure how we know that we’re the right people to get information from, but I have started a new program for parents, because I want to reassure them, and I want to make parenting easier. I want to help them to make their children’s lives… to live that life that we’re talking about, the healthy, physical, social, emotional, all of that. It’s a monthly membership program and anybody who wants to know anything about me can go to raepica.com.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, tell me a little about what you’re going to be doing in the program.

Rae Pica:  Well, I’m offering a video a month and it’s just 10 minutes max, because parents are busy, so I keep them short. In each video I tackle a myth.  I don’t think it’ll be ending anytime soon because there are so darn many of them floating around out there!  And then there’s also a transcript.

Maybe, most importantly, there is a private Facebook group with like-minded parents. Because I want to also share… What kind of things do you say to the mom who looks at you in horror or doubts what you’re doing? How do you respond to that?

So I want to support the parents, but it will also help early childhood education. Because so many parents believe that play isn’t productive, that they have asked when they’re interviewing at preschools… They want to find the academics-oriented ones. And the play-oriented ones are sort of going the way of the dodo bird and we can’t have that happen.

So anyway, I’ve taken on this huge task and I would just love to have people join me on this journey.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, I’m sure they will.

What you were saying about preschools, that’s absolutely the case that the one that my children went to. Didn’t have a fancy name for the philosophy or anything, it was just the old-fashioned kind that I’m sure you endorse, that I know Magda Gerber used to endorse, which is this-

Rae Pica:  It didn’t have academy in the name?

Janet Lansbury:  No, just learn through play, what we used to call “developmental preschool,” right? But then they started having to make an agenda for parents that said “science” and “math.” Then what science would actually be was that their children were playing with water tables and sand or something like that, but they would translate that to make the parents feel more confident that they’re not going to fall behind, that they’re going to be learning all the things they’re supposed to be learning.

So that was unfortunate that they had to do it that way, and then, of course, the school did go away, like you said, like the dodo bird. So I’m totally with you on that. I would love to see the re-emergence of places that really understand development and where children can really thrive and enjoy learning.

Rae Pica:  Exactly. I mean, other myths are that “sitting equals learning.” Absolutely false, but the belief in it has children sitting for hours either in front of a screen or doing worksheets.

When we look at play, and it is hard to have to justify play in terms of academics or whatever, I mean, the truth is that they are gaining academic knowledge through play, if we could just trust that that’s happening. The research shows that the more senses we use in the learning process, the more information we attain and retain. Doing worksheets isn’t authentic learning and it’s not indicative of what’s being learned. It’s not indicative of intelligence and it doesn’t provide evidence of any kind of what children are capable of. Of course, it uses one sense, the sight.

Janet Lansbury:  And that’s the exciting thing about children that makes them so fun to watch. When they’re given free rein to play and do what they want to do, they use their whole body. They put everything into something, whether it’s an emotion that they’re having or the way they’re playing or the way they’re learning. And that’s what they’re supposed to do. And that’s how it integrates into our whole system — what we’re learning — and it becomes part of us, instead of just this lesson that someone gave us.

Rae Pica:  Exactly, exactly. You just touched on another myth, that “the brain and the body have nothing to do with one another,” and that, that goes way back. That goes back to Descartes saying, “I think therefore I am.” Again, it’s not the truth. There’s more and more research about how the two are … They’re interdependent, and when we make children sit, we’re not providing opportunity for optimal brain development. They do learn with their whole selves and all of their senses.

So if we want children to be successful and to thrive … and I’m talking about successful in terms of being happy and healthy and all the ways that you mentioned … then we need to let child development guide the process and we need to let child development guide our decisions. So I’m on a mission to make sure that happens.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, I’m with you all the way, and thank you so much for sharing with us, and especially sharing your program as well so that we can turn parents onto that. Our job is doing less and enjoying them more.

Rae Pica:  I like that.

Janet Lansbury:  That was a phrase out of Magda Gerber, “Do less, enjoy more.”

Rae Pica:  Writing this down. Magda said, “Do less, enjoy more.”

Janet Lansbury:  Enjoy more. She actually said also, “Do less, observe more, enjoy most,” about children.

Rae Pica:  What a brilliant woman.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, she really was. But anyway, I love all of it, and I’m really glad that you’re out there supporting children, and love you. So thank you again.

Rae Pica:  Thank you, Janet.

Rae Pica’s exciting new (reasonably priced!) program for parents is called: “The Truth About Children.” You can get more information and sign up HERE.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

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