We constantly hear about the importance of cognitive development and school readiness, but is nurturing kids’ emotional intelligence early on more essential? What weighs on the minds of American parents today? For many of them, it’s a fear that their young children are at risk of falling behind. “I try and read up on … what a 2-month-old should be doing, what a 3-month-old should be doing,” says a mom of an infant daughter, “so I can make sure that I do some activities that are helping her develop those skills and things that she needs to do.” The mother is reading up on what her 2-month-old “should be doing.” She wants to make sure her newborn is on the right track. If you’re a parent living in the United States right now, this concern may sound all too familiar. But taking a wider view on early childhood development reveals many, and differing, perspectives on what success looks like when it comes to how our kids grow from newborns to toddlers to kindergarteners and beyond. Dr. Sara Harkness recorded that story of the new mom and her daughter, along with numerous others, as part of her ongoing anthropological research. A professor of human development, pediatrics and public health at the University of Connecticut, Harkness has been examining parents’ cultural beliefs and childcare practices all over the world, from families in the United States to those in rural communities of Kenya and indigenous areas of Guatemala and Peru, for decades. The modern American parent stands out for placing such a high priority on cognitive processing and stimulation of cognitive development. Moms and dads ask themselves, are my kids losing ground on their peers — maybe even while still in utero? It’s FOMO (fear of missing out) for parents. Where does this fear come from? Where doesn’t it come from? Books. Articles. Casual conversations. Our friends’ Facebook feeds. Geography champs on talk shows. And does anyone remember this oft-repeated message? “The natural window of opportunity to learn written language is at the same time children learn to speak.” That was what the announcer in the “Your Baby Can Read” infomercials repeated again and again, on channel after channel. Except it wasn’t true. Which is why the Federal Trade Commission sued the company behind the claims in 2013. The company’s massive ad campaign was deceptive, according the FTC; and the company eventually settled — but for many parents, the announcer and the commercial can’t be unheard. Even in our schools, mothers and fathers are made to feel anxious. “Parents are now told they should worry about how many words their child hears by the age of 3, and whether their child has the necessary skills to be ready for preschool — essential, in turn, for being ready for kindergarten,” Harkness says. “A preschool teacher told me recently, ‘We are expected to teach things to 2-year-old children that used to be in the kindergarten curriculum.’” Harkness adds that, “The kindergarten curriculum, in turn, looks more like first or even second grade used to look, when learning to read was supposed to be the main agenda rather than a milestone already reached. In short, it’s a lot easier to be developmentally ‘behind’ in today’s world of early childhood education. No wonder parents are advised to start reading to their child before it’s born!” Harkness is far from alone in her concerns. One group of esteemed educators, health professionals and other advocates for children — members of The Alliance for Children — were so alarmed by what they consider to be an educational crisis that they created a public-awareness campaign to restore play to kindergartens and preschools. The introduction to the group’s report, “Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School,” sets the stage for its recommendations:
“Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests… These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching.”
Meanwhile, according to the Alliance, early childhood education is “playful and experiential rather than didactic” until the second grade in China and Japan (both countries that Americans often cite as most successful when it comes to teaching science and math). Kindergartens are also play-based in Finland; Finnish children enter first grade at age 7, not at age 6 as in the United States. “Yet Finland consistently gets the highest scores on the respected international PISA exam for 15-year-olds,” states the Alliance.
In countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Korea, the emphasis on cognitive development is much less intense, research by Harkness and her colleagues has indicated. Spanish and Italian mothers, for example, were concerned with social development and emotional closeness with others which included establishing relationships (done in part through regular excursions outside the home) with people outside of the immediate family. Mothers in the Netherlands as well as in Korea stressed the importance of regular sleep and teaching infants to self-regulate and calm themselves. This wide range of differences in parental expectations and concerns around the world, according to Harkness, serves as a “helpful reminder that there’s much more to early childhood development than just learning pre-academic skills.”
What does Harkness hope American parents might learn from families in other cultures? For one, there is more than one correct way to parent. For another, don’t worry so much, especially about an infant or toddler “falling behind.”
She suggests that parents shouldn’t completely put aside cognitive development as a marker of their children’s growth, but rather treat it as one of a handful of key considerations. “Just as with building a foundation for a house, it’s essential to remember that one wall, no matter how well built, will not sustain the structure above.”
The report from the Alliance for Childhood seconds this: “The power of play as the engine of learning in early childhood and as a vital force for young children’s physical, social, and emotional development is beyond question. … Play works.”