Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The race to nowhere

[Posted by Cee Kay. Also posted at my blog My Two Cents]

I just saw a Leap Pad Learning System's commercial on the idiot box that talked about learning skills for pre-school. I went "WTF???" in my mind. Pre-school teaches kids skills necessary for Kindergarten. When did things get so screwed up that babies need to learn skills to get into pre-school? Here, in the US, even pre-school is optional for kids. Parents don't have to send them there if they don't want to. Of course, there are certain skills a child must have before he or she enters kindergarten - like they should know how to read and write the alphabet, count to 20, know how to write their first and last name, know their address and phone number. THAT'S IT!!! It isn't too hard for a child to learn that. And that is exactly what S knew when she entered kindergarten. She is doing great in school despite the fact that she didn't know anything else. In fact, she is among the top five students in her class. And I am being very conservative when I say "top five". She could very well be on the top but we wouldn't know because no ranks are assigned to kids here. And we couldn't care less.

Every year, just before the November Parent-teacher conferences (that's when parents meet their kids' teachers to learn how their kids are performing in school and get the first progress report), and later before the March conferences, S becomes this pensive, stressed-out mass of nerves. She asks us 10 times each day "What will you do if you find out that I am failing? That I am not getting good grades?". And each year my answer is the same - "If you were to get bad grades, it would mean you need more help with your studies and we would help you. We would help you figure out how to improve performance". I don't care about grades at all. Not in elementary school. Later, when grades do matter, I will see to it that she is putting in her 100% in studies and even then if she scores low grades then I'll accept that - however hard that might be for me to do. All I want is for my child to put in her best efforts. I don't want to compare her to others and drive myself nuts trying to see who reads better than her or who swims faster or who is better at math. All I care about is whether or not she is making a sincere effort at whatever she does.

A friend recently mentioned to me that she is thinking of holding her son back from school one year because she thinks he isn't ready for it yet. That, in my opinion, is the smartest, and the toughest, decision to make. Only a parent can know their child's capabilities and if one honestly feels that starting a year later will help their child, I admire their courage. I say "courage" because this friend said she is expecting a lot of resistance from her entire family including her husband. We Indians, for some reason, place so much importance on starting school early. It is beyond MY comprehension. We don't seem to care how much the child understands of what has been taught, yet we are very worried about how early he or she can say the ABCs and recite the nursery rhymes or how far he/she can count.

At the beginning of this rant I was going to add the note that people shouldn't take offence to what I am going to write because I am not judging anyone. But then I realized - Heck yeah! I DO judge people who push their kids too soon too far to acquire skills that they might as easily learn in due course of time without being pressurized. How does it matter if a child can say the ABCs before going to pre-school? He/She is going to learn it there anyway, right? So, why not let the child sit back and enjoy life without any pressures of formal learning? They do a lot of learning while playing anyway. I am not against teaching them the alphabet, colors or the numbers during play. I am against sitting them down to teach these explicitly. I am against teaching them stuff just so they are "one up" against other kids in a gathering. I am dead against formally teaching anything to a child under the age of 3 years. I know this might not have gone well with the way things are done in India and for that reason I am happy that I live in a place where I can practise what I believe.

We started sending S to KUMON just before she started Kindergarten (a little before she turned 5). Even then we worried we might be pushing her too much so we decided to give it a try and stop if we saw any signs that she was being overworked. Fortunately, the owner of the KUMON franchise that S goes to, has the same philosophy regarding teaching kids. In her opinion, learning is only fun if the child doesn't feel overburdened. So, on occasions when we saw S taking a long time in finishing her KUMON homework (more than 15 minutes), she cut back the number of pages that were given to S for homework. She suggested we always make sure that she gets only as much homework as can be completed within 15 minutes. That really helped. S never felt overwhelmed. And we let her take a break from KUMON for one week 2-3 times a year. This ensures that S does her KUMON work willingly without us having to ride her constantly. Every year her teachers ask us if she feels pressured by the extra work. We don't think she does. For one thing, KUMON helps her stay ahead of the rest of her class at school. She was very proud of her math skills in Grade 2 when her classmates dubbed her the "Math Wizard". Small things like that keep her motivated to do the extra work. And we do see it paying off. Last year, by the end of Grade 3, S was already doing Grade 5 math (division and fractions). If all this can be accomplished without pressuring and pushing a child, then I think we are on the right path.

Once when we were at KUMON (S doing her classwork and I waiting outside in waiting room), an Indian lady came in with her 3 year old daughter. She wanted to sign her up for Reading. Professor P, owner of the KUMON franchise, tested that girl to determine the level she would start from and told the parent that she will be starting the child from the level that taught letter recognition. The parent immediately took offence to that and informed Professor P that her daughter already recognized all letters, thankyou. Upon being told that the girl got confused between lower-case p and q, and lower case b and d, the mom was furious. At her daughter! She started scolding her right then and there, demanding to know how she could confuse p with q and b with d when at home she always recognized the letters correctly. Now, I know children do get confused between these letters quite often and I don't think it is a crime punishable by public humiliation. The lady could very well have signed the kid up for the recommended level and if the child indeed was very comfortable with letter recognition, she would have sailed right through that level in no time anyway. That is MY thinking. We never pressured S into completing a level fast. In fact, on occasions we have requested that she be allowed to repeat a level so that her concepts become clearer (when we feel she is still a little hazy on the concepts). On other occasions, Professor P has recommened that we have her repeat a level and we have happily accepted because if S isn't a 100% comfortable with concepts taught at one level then she WILL face difficulties in future levels even if she scores good on the test. We do have a "positive reinforcement policy" under which S gets to buy a new board game or a book if she completes one level at KUMON. We NEVER associate having to repeat a level with failure. As a result, while friends tell me that their kids stopped KUMON after a little while because it became too boring or challenging or whatever, S is well into her 5th year at KUMON and wants to continue. Our original goal in sending her there was two-fold. One, she would gain self-esteem if she found she was better at something than the rest of her peers and two, it would help her in the (waaay) long term with SATs. We were bang on with the first one and seems like we might be correct about the second one too.

I actually pity a child when his/her parents start telling us how they taught their kid X, Y or Z at an early age. Or when they start comparing their kid with other kids "just to see where they are at". I am all for buying age-appropriate learning games for kids. But this commercial about teaching kids skills to get into pre-school got me. And the "Baby Einstein" DVDs get me for the same reason. DVDs and videos for 6 month old babies??? Come on! One friend of mine proudly told me (a few years ago) how her 6 month old was hooked on "Baby Einstein" videos. So much so that he whined and screamed if someone blocked his view while he was watching one. I guess she took it as a sign that he was a genius. I definitely took it as a sign that she needed to use more common sense in her parenting. (Hey Cee Kay! Bitchy much??! :P)

I think this race to get their kids to the top is all in the parents' heads. The kids will take their own time getting where they want to get, if they want it. And staying at the top once they get there is another matter. One can push their kid to the top, but they cannot keep their kid there if the kid him/herself is not motivated. And most kids eventually catch up to grade level learning. One might be able to push a kid to the top at an early age, but we also have to keep asking ourselves two questions.

1. Is it really going to make a difference in their lives 20 years from now? Will learning the alphabet at age 2 help them when they are 20 and in college?

2. Are they having fun (while learning things to "get to the top")? THAT, in my opinion, is the most important question of all. In my opinion, learning that is done while having fun stays with us longer than learning done under compulsion.

Note: A few comments on this post at my personal blog have prompted me to start another post about KUMON, its drawbacks and why it still works for us. I realized some parents might appreciate information on this topic from someone who has already had some KUMON experience. I hope to be able to put that post up soon.


Sandeepa said...

Thank You very much :)

GettingThereNow said...

Sandeepa: You are welcome. I had been thinking of posting this here as well but couldn't get around to doing it. Your "nudge" reminded me :D

QuantumJourno said...

OMG, I agree with so much that you've written here. My son's 4 and I took a break from Journalism just so I could enjoy him and his early years. I see parents go crazy trying to raise overachiever kids in America.

Asha said...

Great post! Learning alphabets at 2 is ridiculous to me, they should enjoying the butterflies outside!:))

Kodi's Mom said...

oh I was going to ask you abt kumon. was wondeirng why the heck all desi parents swear by it.
I totally subscribe to your fun-while-learning theory.

bird's eye view said...

You're so right. I got my son into a playschool when he was 20 months old, not so much so he could learn things but because he needed to start socializing and there were few kids his age in our colony. I was shocked to find that many of the kids had already been going to playschool from 15 months of age!

It's also important to choose the right playschool when you do decide to send your child to one - the one we picked focussed not so much on the ABCs and so on but on heling children learn to communicate, and it had an interactive parent + child class which was terrific.

mnamma said...

Great post Ceekay! You write things with such clarity and you have very clear cut ideas. Completely agree with you on the concept of not pressuring kids and comparing them with others. In my case since they are twins comparison in almost unavoidable some times. However I make a conscious effort not to compare them against each other or other kids. Eagerly awaiting your post about Kumon.

Swathi & Nagesh - Welcome to our blog said...

Good post! Totally agree with what's written...But this whole idea of overachieving and sending their toddlers to boot camps (that's what i call pre-schools that try to teach kids Kindergarten curriculum) is not restricted to desis. The novel "Momzillas" by Jill Kargman is a good humorous take on the whole daycare/preschool competitive issue from a mom who moved her toddler from California to NYC. Here's an article that I had posted on my blog sometime back: