Why we so desperately want to create gifted children

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Babies don’t come with a set of instructions but other parents - and medical professionals, marketing people and even well-meaning strangers - most certainly do.

When I was pregnant with my first child was born ten years ago, people were full of advice about how to maximise my newborn’s potential. Value adding to your child begins in utero, with a plethora of supplements available to improve your unborn child’s capacity to learn.

Once the child is out, the message gets even louder.

‘‘A baby’s brain is like a sponge,’’ was the common cry. ‘‘They absorb everything. It’s never too early to start boosting their brain development.’’

Indeed, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed as soon as the child is born to foster bonding but also to promote braininess.

A recent study from the US found that seven-year-olds breastfed for the first year of life had a higher verbal IQ than children who were bottle-fed.

Which is not to say that children who weren’t breastfed are condemned to a life at the bottom of the class. Besides, there are so many other things a parent can do to stimulate the synapses of their newborn.

Far from being squirming bundles who just wants to eat, sleep and do unspeakable things in their nappies, babies are potential geniuses and it’s up to parents to unlock their amazing abilities.

Parenting publications are full of advertisements for activities and products which promise to foster learning. There are exercise classes for babies which give nature a helping hand by stimulating their intellectual abilities. There are DVDs to teach your little one all about shapes, colours and even parts of the orchestra. Concerned your baby can’t talk? Check out a baby sign language program, designed to help you communicate with your youngster and fast track intellectual development. 

Once children hit the toddler years, there’s even more on offer. Foreign language classes, music lessons, dance programs and products which can be used at home such as flashcards and wall posters or placemats with numbers and letters on them.

It’s not just marketers eyeing an opportunity, though. As recent research from the University of NSW found, a government-funded website is driving similar emphasis on early learning. Parents can’t simply go out for a walk with their toddler anymore. They need to help the child identify the numbers on the letter boxes as they go. If you’re out for a drive, you can instruct your youngster about colours and numbers by asking them to count the blue cars. Every situation is a learning opportunity waiting to be exploited.

It’s natural for parents to want the best for their children but all this emphasis on cognitive development puts a huge amount of pressure on parents and the educational value of some products on offer is certainly questionable.

As UNSW researcher Ciara Smyth discovered in her interviews with parents, the expectation that ‘‘that they should be promoting their children’s learning in the preschool years was a source of anxiety and many were concerned that they their child could be out-classed by their more cognitively-prepared peers.’’

She also discovered that it was mainly mothers who were bearing the brunt of this pressure as they were more likely to be at home with their children.

And no one wants to feel like the bad mother who has denied her child a wealth of opportunities by refusing to engage in the relentless push of parenting products.

The parents in the research were particularly concerned about school readiness and the statistics show they are not alone. The trend of holding children back from starting kindergarten is a growing one with NSW Department of Education figures showing 19.5 per cent of kindy kids were already six when they started school last year, compared with 17.3 per cent in 2002.

While many parents believe that delaying kindergarten somehow gives children a competitive advantage, many academics say it makes no difference long term. No doubt kindergarten teachers can also find it a bit tricky when they they have some students who can already read and write while there are others who are unable to hold a pencil properly.

The concept of school readiness is a relatively new one. I’d hazard a guess that most people over the age of 30 never went through a retinue of enrichment programs before starting kindergarten and their parents most likely packed them off to school as soon as they were able to go.

So what’s changed? There is the rise of the two-income family for a start. Many of those parents are choosing to have only one or two children, meaning they have more money and time to devote to their offspring.

But there is also a sense that the world is a more competitive place. Children have to perform well in school to achieve the marks to get into their desired tertiary course and go on to get a decent job. And parents, who want the best for their children, are willing to give them a helping hand from their first breath.

27 comments so far

  • The 'school readiness' idea isn't just something invented by competitive parents (although, clearly, competitive parents take it way too far). These days children are expected to be able to write their own names, as well as identify all letters, before they start school. 35 years ago, when I started school, we didn't have to know anything. The curriculum of the lower years of primary school have become more intense over the years and many teachers (rightly or wrongly) think that children aren't able to cope with it before they turn 5. Rather than holding children back until they are 5, or even 6, I'd rather the curriculum was made more appropriate for children starting school aged 4.5-5.5.

    Commenter
    Judy
    Date and time
    September 19, 2013, 9:30AM
    • "when I started school, we didn't have to know anything."

      Unfortunately that's not how the world works any more. I spend my lunch times studying, my evenings studying...just to make sure I can keep a job. It's only going to get worse. Unless you're at the top of the pile, you're going to be right at the bottom.

      Commenter
      Tim the Toolman
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 10:15AM
    • Tim, remaining competitive and up to date in the work force is quite a reasonable requirement, in my opinion. The requirement of children to have a certain level of literacy and numeracy before they have even started formal education is a different issue entirely. Particularly when some parents don't have the resources (whether it be time, money, skill or even desire) to provide their children with this knowledge. I don't think it's fair for some children to be behind at school before they have even started.

      Commenter
      Judy
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 10:51AM
    • Children aren't expected to be able to write their own names before starting kindergarten. My eldest son is starting school next year, and when I attended an information session at the public primary school a couple of months ago we were informed that the basic skills that the children were expected to have were; out of nappies and able to use a toilet on their own, able to follow basic instructions, able to feed themselves, and have good basic social skills. That was pretty much it. They completely squashed the idea that they needed to be able to write their names (or the entire alphabet), count to 100, do 50 push ups whilst juggling and sing the national anthem backwards. So I think this is a notion that is driven by competitive parents and I think daycare centres play a part also.
      They are children. You love them, you care for them, you ensure that their intrinsic needs are met. You play with them, you laugh with them, you read to them and you respect them. You support them when they need support and you teach them resilience and how to eventually care for themselves.These are much more important things to show and teach your kids than how to write their own name before starting kindergarten. That's what the teachers are there to do. You do your job as a parent and let them do theirs as a teacher.

      Commenter
      mum of two
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 11:10AM
    • I agree with your comment. But even then, their are parents that have their three year olds writing their own names, all the letters of the alphabet and getting them to write sentences (usually all large and uppercase, as their fine motor skills are not developed well enough to do anything else, something they then have to unlearn) and teaching them to read, do maths, etc. If a child is indicating they want to do these things, that is fine, but there are very few of them. A teacher I spoke to said that children need to have the cognitive ability to learn these things properly (which for almost all comes only with age) and over time you can see those that have been pushed to early and it does not work in their favour. Reading is a prime example, they can read almost anything, but they cannot understand what they are reading. And not everyone who does not do well at school is doomed. There are plenty of options out there to explore if you want to find them, and you can change your mind as you go.

      Commenter
      justme
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 11:33AM
    • I'm glad to hear that 'mum of two', sounds like a sensible school. Unfortunately not all teachers think like the teachers at your school (I know a few). Also, if there are a large number of competitive and demanding parents at the school the teachers may be under pressure to teach at a level appropriate for their kids and not for kids who haven't been hot-housed.

      Commenter
      Judy
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 12:39PM
    • The school readiness guidelines I've seen don't state that a child needs to be able to write their name. Rather, they suggest that the child should be able to recognise their own written name so that they can identify their clothes peg, labelled property etc.

      I think it's scandalous that so many parents are holding their kids back until they are 6. I work with young children and see this A LOT. Scarier, there's a tendency for parents to differentially hold back their boys, while putting their girls in at the right age, often due to ingrained beliefs that boys are naturally immature while girls are naturally capable to cope, or that boys absolutely MUST be ahead of the class for the sake of their fragile egos, while girls will be just fine knowing they are average. It's truly scary how this sort of differential socialisation, and parental expectations are being given free reign. When I was a kid, if you turned five before July, you jolly well went to school at age 4. Now we have parents saying, "Well, he's a March birthday, so we'll keep him back another year"... so we have a 6 year old learning right next to a 4 year old!

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 3:44PM
  • For the past 15+ years, we've watched in horror as the competitive parents schlepped their "gifted" darlings all over town in search of greatness. We exposed our kids to all sorts of exciting and educational things yet, we allowed them to be children first. That meant getting dirty, climbing trees, and allowing them to fail. We didn't push when they weren't put on the "A" team nor did we insist that our children weren't capable of doing wrong. At the end of the day, our kids have had a wonderful childhood and success came to them through their own hard work and dedication and we just enjoyed the show.

    Commenter
    northshore mum
    Date and time
    September 19, 2013, 10:37AM
    • So true.

      The worst is when so-called gifted children go to gateways or other gifted children programs and come home thinking they know something about nuclear physics or astrophysics or some such. They spout scientific facts when really they have absolutely no knowledge of such things, they just think they do. Furthermore they alienate others with their nonsense.

      So many of these kids end up doing nothing great because they never really measure up to the idea that they are brilliant and don't have to work hard to achieve something.

      It is definitely important to tailor schoolwork to suit the differing abilities of kids but to turn them into self conscious little self proclaimed Einsteins actually does them no good at all.

      Recent research has found that telling children that they are very hard working (when they have worked hard of course) produces a far better educational outcome than telling them how clever they are. Makes sense.

      Commenter
      belle
      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 10:47AM
      • Yes, it is all so exhausting!!! It is like a new form of child labour. I often wonder how the human race came to be developed and civilised before all this madness. I expect though in time the hot housed potential Nobel Prize winners will either burn out and disappoint their parents or be on a the growing waiting list of those needing to see a psychologist. Parents cannot create a "genius". But marketers are making a fortune out of our insecurities and plenty are buying into it.

        Commenter
        justme
        Location
        Newcastle
        Date and time
        September 19, 2013, 11:03AM

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