Your Child's First and Best Teacher: You
How much is your child capable of learning before he's six years old and ready for first grade? What happens to his brain during these preschool years when his body is growing and changing so rapidly?
Is your youngster's intelligence level fixed for life by the genes she inherits? Or can it be raised by the way you care for her at home, long before she ever meets a teacher in a classroom?
As a parent, what can you do to give your child ample opportunity to grow in intelligence during these irreplaceable early years of life?
An explosion of new research into how the brain grows is yielding exciting answers to these questions. The discoveries add up to a larger, happier, and extremely important role for parents in fostering the mental development of their children before school age and to the promise of lifelong higher intelligence for these youngsters.
Most child-care books concentrate on helping parents learn how to raise children who are physically healthy and emotionally well adjusted. They have detailed directions about how to become a competent diaper changer, tantrum stopper, rash identifier, bathroom attendant, and referee between rival siblings. But parents receive almost no help or information or credit for their role as teacher and nurturer of their offspring's developing intelligence. Much more has been written about what should go into a baby's stomach than what should go into her growing mind. More emphasis has been put on teaching a child to use the bathroom than to use her brain.
Today, the evidence is overwhelming that the quantity and quality of learning experiences your baby has -- even before he is out of diapers -- can greatly influence how well his brain works all the rest of his life. Scientists have made astounding discoveries about how rapidly a baby's brain grows in the first few years of life -- forming trillions of connections every second that will later serve as the pathways of thought. Learning experiences and loving, one-on-one attention strengthen those connections, actually shaping the neurological structure of the brain. But scientists also know conclusively that without ample, appropriate stimulation, those neural connections will wither and die. In fact, the optimum time for many kinds of learning may already be past by the time a child reaches age six and enters first grade.
These findings provide important information for families trying to balance work and child care. More than half of mothers with young children now work outside the home and fear missing out on some of the best learning opportunities. Fathers increasingly want to play a bigger role in their children's development but face time pressures of their own. Yet helping enhance a child's mind often takes no more time than caring for her physical needs, as later chapters of this book show.
The new neurological discoveries have profound implications for national policy as well. Growing numbers of children are at serious risk of not getting proper stimulation that will help their brains grow. Today, nearly 3 million infants and toddlers under age three live in poverty. More than 25 percent are born to unwed mothers, many of whom are still adolescents themselves. Yet study after study has shown that early learning can go a long way toward making up for those early setbacks and help children of all socioeconomic levels grow up more intelligent and capable than they otherwise would have been.
Not surprisingly, these discoveries have infused new passion into the old political debates over day-care and family-leave policies. They have also attracted the attention of educators, philanthropists, and politicians who see a rare opportunity, and an urgent need, to help ensure that children grow to their full intellectual potential. Governors in several states have championed expanded preschool programs. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sponsored a White House conference calling for greater investment in young children aged zero to three. Even the prestigious Carnegie Corporation of New York has focused its resources to call fresh attention to the critical years between birth and age three, calling for a "national investment" in the nation's youngest children to give all babies and toddlers the opportunity for optimal neurological development.
"The risks are clearer than ever before: an adverse environment can compromise a young child's brain function and overall development, placing him or her at greater risk of developing a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and physical difficulties," a Carnegie task force concluded. "In some cases these effects may be irreversible. But the opportunities are equally dramatic: a good start in life can do more to promote learning and prevent damage than we ever imagined."
What is perhaps most exciting in these discoveries is the critical role that you, as a parent, can play as your child's first and most important teacher. You have the unique opportunity to boost your youngster's intelligence when it is most subject to change, to teach her individually, at her own pace and by what means she is most likely to learn, to shape your relationship with her in ways that can actually help her become brighter. It's time you got more help in this vital role. That is the purpose of this book.
Parents who have tried using early-learning techniques with preschool children often report delightedly about the results. Some cases in point:
- In a small town in Indiana, Jeanne Jenkins is giving a birthday party for her four-year-old daughter and six friends. Toward the end of the party, Ms. Jenkins leaves the young guests alone in the living room while she dips up the ice cream and lights the candles on the cake. From the kitchen, she hears nothing but a worrisome quiet. Anxiously, she peeks into the living room and sees that one of the guests has pulled a Smokey the Bear book from the shelf and is reading with great delight to the other children, who are fascinated by the story.
After the party, Ms. Jenkins telephones the small guest's mother. "Oh yes, Meagan learned to read last summer," replies the four-year-old's parent. "No, she'd never read a Smokey the Bear book before. But she does read everything she can get her hands on."
- In a New York City park, 22-month-old Emily is exploring a large bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland. She announces to her baby-sitter a surprisingly complex thought for someone still in diapers: "I'm going to climb up on mushroom and say hello to mouse."
- In suburban Connecticut, Andrea, age five, scrambles into her father's desk chair, switches on the family computer, and uses her own password to sign onto the Internet. In the space for key word, she types in dogs and is soon clicking through Web page after Web page, printing out color pictures of the breeds that catch her eye. "This is the one I want!" she triumphantly tells her father.
- In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a third-generation Armenian couple -- she a grade-school teacher on extended maternity leave and he a teaching assistant finishing work on his Ph.D. -- want their son, Jack, to appreciate and profit from his Armenian heritage. So they have spoken only Armenian to him since his birth. Outside his home, Jack hears -- and learns -- English effortlessly. Now, at age four, he is happily fluent in both languages and switches from one to the other when it is appropriate.
- In a nursery school outside Los Angeles, Danny, four, walks purposefully over to a supply cupboard and pulls out a box of beads and numbered cards. Sprawling on a little rug on the floor, he arranges a set of the numbers in order from 0 to 9. Beside each he places a little glass dish and into each he drops a corresponding number of beads.
Next, Danny puts another set of numbers in "tens place" making his figures read 11 to 99. With ready-made chains of 10 beads each, he lays out matching rows of 10 to 90 beads beside the tiny dishes. Then he adds a third set of numbers in "hundreds place" and the right number for 100-bead units. When he finishes, he has correctly created and labeled rows for 111, 222, 333, 444, 555, 666, 777, 888, and 999 -- and, with obvious satisfaction, taught himself a major lesson in number concepts.
Meagan's mother taught her to read for fun, using a series of phonetic games and cartoons published by a Chicago newspaper. "We had no idea a four-year-old could learn so fast or enjoy reading so much," she wrote to the newspaper's editor.
Emily's attentive baby-sitter -- and her busy parents, both professionals -- made a point of conversing with her as much as possible and expressing their delight whenever she learned new words and put them to use in sentences.
Andrea has played games on the family computer since she was three and watched her older sister use the Internet for research. Her parents let her set up her own password and watched -- at a safe distance -- as she explored the Internet on her own.
Jack's parents are deliberately using early-learning principles to preserve an ethnic heritage that is important in their own lives and that they want to pass on, with all its cultural richness, to their children.
Danny attends a Montessori school, where he can choose freely from a wealth of early-learning materials.
Interest in early learning and research about it are coming from many different scientific fields and forging exciting new connections among them. Neuroscientists are using new imaging technology to actually watch the brain in action, and they are finding neurological explanations for what pioneering educators had long noticed about how eagerly young children learn. Biologists are conducting experiments probing the effects of early stimulation on young animals and demonstrating how experience shapes the brain. Psychologists are learning more about the biological basis of behavior and studying how a "bad upbringing" may actually change the chemistry of the brain.
Sociologists and teachers are urgently searching for ways to help disadvantaged children, many of whom reach first grade with learning abilities already stunted for lack of adequate stimulation during the first six years of life. Educators are reaching out to some of those children and contributing to the growing volume of evidence that preschool learning experiences can raise their intelligence levels. Many parents are discovering upon thoughtful observation that their own small children are ready and eager for learning previously assigned only to first grade level or beyond.
Computer experts are looking with fresh excitement at the potential that computers offer young children for unprecedented kinds of learning opportunities. "Children take to programming like ducks to water, especially if they are offered a gentle approach to it," wrote Seymour Papert, the Lego Professor of Learning Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and developer of LOGO, a computer programming language.
Research about early learning emerging from all of these sources, from the fields of neurology, physiology, psychology, biology, and education, and from specialists working from many divergent points of view, can be summed up like this:
- We have greatly underestimated what children under age six can and should be learning.
- It is possible, by changing our methods of child rearing, to raise the level of intelligence of all children and to have happier, more enthusiastic youngsters as a result.
- That chance does not last forever. Without ample, appropriate stimulation, unused neurons in a young child's brain atrophy and disappear. Vital connections between brain cells never develop. The brain loses much of its capacity and potential -- permanently.
"To get to the heart of the matter, it appears that a first-rate educational experience during the first three years of life is required if a person is to develop to his or her full potential," said Dr. Burton White, who founded and directed the Harvard Preschool Project, a research study focused on how children develop during the first six years.
Early learning doesn't mean that you should try to teach your three-year-old to read to make him a status symbol, or because your neighbor's four-year-old can read or because you want to be sure he gets into Harvard 15 years from now. You aren't trying to make a six-year-old out of a four-year-old or turn a nursery school into a first grade or deprive your youngster of the chance to be a child.
Early learning does mean that you try and understand your youngster's innate drive to learn, to explore, to fill her developing brain's urgent needs for sensory stimuli and satisfying learning experiences, just as you try to understand and fill the needs of her body for nourishing foods. You aren't stuffing his brain with facts so he'll make Phi Beta Kappa at Yale any more than you give him vitamins to force his growth so he'll make the Chicago Bears' backfield.
Early learning simply means using new knowledge about what your youngster's brain needs during the crucial first years of life so that his mental development will come nearer to reaching its potential and your child will be brighter and happier for it.
Research is showing that traditionally accepted child-care practices may even be inadvertently curtailing children's mental development in some ways. Parents may leave an infant alone and crying with boredom in his crib or playpen, in an attempt to train him to be "good" and undemanding. Yet a baby's needs for sensory stimuli and motor activity -- to look at a variety of things, to listen to myriad sounds and voices, to move and be moved about, to touch, to hold -- are as great as her hunger for food and for love.
Parents may spank the hands of a toddler who is not trying to be destructive but merely trying to satisfy some of her insatiable desire to explore, to climb, to push, to pull, to take apart, to taste, to experiment.
"Curtailing the explorations of toddlers between nine and eighteen months may hamper the children's rate of development and even lower the final level of intelligence they can achieve," wrote Dr. Joseph McVicker Hunt, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois.
Researchers have discovered that even well-read, educated, and intelligent parents have probably handicapped their children in the past because of child-rearing practices that ignored the needs of the developing brain. These are the parents who were most aware of prevailing child-care theories, who heeded the warnings about not "overstimulating" a child, and who read the books that said a youngster would develop "readiness" for learning on his own inner timetable regardless of the amount of stimuli in his environment. Many of these parents feared to stimulate their children intellectually for fear of, "pushing" or "pressuring" them and because they had heard that fathers andmothers are "too emotionally involved" with their youngster to do an adequate job of teaching.
Much new research now shows that the idea of "readiness" has been overrated and that a child's ability to acquire many skills depends on the stimuilation and opportunity in his environment as well as his inner schedule of growth. In fact, some kinds of brain development may actually be dependent on a child's having certain kinds of environmental stimulation, some researchers now say. Most of the experimental programs concerned with early learning have been deliberately designed to remove any kinds of pressures -- or even extrinsic rewards -- from the learning activites and have been set up so that the young children participate only if they wish and stop whenever they choose and are never praised nor criticized for what they do or do not do. Yet even under these circumstances, children of three and four eagerly teach themselves such intellectual activities as reading and writing.
Observers in almost all early-learning research projects comment on the joy and happiness and enthusiasm of the children involved. And the most careful follow-up studies do not detect any ill effects on these youngsters' personality, emotional well-being, behavior, eyesight, or general health.
When Dr. Dolores Durkin, professor of education at the University of Illinois, made studies of children who learned to read before they entered first grade, she was surprised to find that few of them came from professional or upper-middle-class families. In fact, more than half of the early readers in her California study had parents she classified as being lower socioeconomic class. One fourth more she identified as lower middle class.
Studies of the home backgrounds of these early readers -- and of a control group with similar IQs who could not read before first grade -- pointed up an important difference. The better-educated parents in higher socioeconomic groups knew the theories that reading should be taught only by trained teachers and that parents should keep hands off the whole process.
Families less informed about these traditional concepts had happily and enthusiastically welcomed their children's questions about words, answered them, helped them, and accepted their preschoolers' ability to read. None of these parents felt guilty about their youngster's reading skill, as did two or three of the parents with professional backgrounds.
Dr. Durkin's research showed that the early readers consistently outscored the control group with equal IQ in the elementary grades. (But part of the careful scientific design of the research -- which intended to keep each early reader matched with a nonreader of equal IQ as they advanced through several grades -- was upset because many of the early readers were double-promoted.)
The widely accepted idea that a preschooler's only occupation should be "play" and the attitude that play is the direct opposite of learning have also tended to deprive youngsters of desirable mental stimulation. Small children love to learn.
They are born with an innate hunger for learning. And they keep on having an insatiable desire to learn -- unless you bore, spank, train, or discourage it out of them.
If you think carefully about what most interests your baby or your toddler, you'll observe that it is seldom "play," as adults use the word. It's much more apt to be learning. In fact, sometimes you can't seem to stop your baby from working hard at learning in order to persuade her to play or eat or rest, no matter how hard you try.
A four-month-old baby, for example, who is just learning to roll from her stomach onto her back works harder at pushing herself up and over than does a runner trying to shave seconds off a marathon time. Once she manages to flop over, she usually screams until you put her back on her stomach so she can try again. If you offer her a rattle or a cuddly animal so she will quiet down and play and you can get back to your own work, she usually bats it away in her eagerness to resume her difficult learning activity. No one is forcing her or pressuring her or hurrying her or grading her or making her compete or threatening not to love her unless she learns to roll over. She wants to learn, urgently, on her own.
You can see this same phenomenon clearly when your baby is trying to pull himself up on his feet. He grunts and grimaces and struggles and works harder than a weight lifter. At first, when he finally does pull himself up on his feet, he doesn't know how to let go and sit down. So he screams. You lower him gently to the floor and give him a toy to play with. But he doesn't want to play. He wants to stand up. He wants to learn.
How long does a baby practice vowel and consonant sounds, stringing them together in delightful nonsense before he hits on a single word that brings recognition from his mother? No one pressures him into that concentrated practice, which typically goes unrewarded for months. Yet this is what babies and toddlers do endlessly, of their own free choice.
How many questions do two- and three-year-olds ask in a single day? They're trying to find out all they can about the world around them, about cause and effect and all the fascinations of existence. This is not what an adult considers play. Yet a busy, impatient, tired mother can't turn off the torrent of why's even for an hour.
Three- and four-year-olds love what preschool educators call "imitative play" -- pretending to be grown up. But they seldom copy grown-ups at play. They imitate adults at work: washing dishes, caring for babies, going off to work, driving a truck, as doctor, nurse, soldier, mother, father, grocer, firefighter, police officer, teacher.
You can think more objectively about this entire question of preschoolers' play if you keep track of your child's activities for just one day. What makes her happiest? What stimulates her to the greatest concentration? What holds her interest longest? Almost always, it's an activity in which she is learning something that increases her competency or satisfies her curiosity -- especially if her mother or her father is right beside her sharing her excitement about learning.
Countless interactions like these lay the foundation for your child's intellectual development. Very early in a youngster's life, he begins to learn about the world via his five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. An environment rich in games, toys, and other objects a baby can handle helps stimulate his perceptual growth. So does a wide range of experiences and contacts with adults throughout the day.
If you love your child and spend considerable time with him, you may do many things to foster his intellectual development almost by instinct and without realizing precisely why. But parents of youngsters in culturally deprived homes are often absent, too busy, too burdened with economic problems, or too uninformed to make the effort to stimulate a child's growth. Even affluent parents, with the best of intentions, can be "time poor" and leave their child in a day-care center where staff members are more concerned with keeping order than keeping children stimulated, or with an uncommunicative caregiver who watches TV all day. The results show up markedly in kindergarten and first grade.
"All later learning is likely to be influenced by the very basic learning which has taken place by the age of five or six," emphasized one of the groundbreaking reports dealing with this problem that was published by the University of Chicago. There are large, measurable differences in development, the report noted, between youngsters who have had great opportunity to explore, to touch, to handle, to try, to play, to learn, and to be with interested adults and those who have not.
The opportunity to learn language skills also separates children who start school ready to succeed and those who seem marked for failure, even at age six. A child's language development depends to a great extent on the adults around him in his earliest years of life. Parents who are aware of a child's learning needs encourage him to say words. They surround him with talk, used freely and naturally. They cheer on his efforts to say the correct words, respond to him when he tries and when he succeeds, read to him, and provide him with what educators call "corrective feedback."
In this kind of rich verbal environment, a child's vocabulary grows and his ability to use sentences develops. As he becomes more skilled with words, he learns to put his emotions and intentions into language. He begins to compare and to differentiate and to express abstract ideas. He uses words as tools of thought.
In homes where parents make great efforts to motivate a child, reward him, and reinforce him, he "learns to learn," the University of Chicago report noted. "He comes to view the world as something he can master through a relatively enjoyable type of activity, a sort of game, which is learning! On theother hand, the report warned, "If the home does not and cannot provide these basic developments, the child is likely to be handicapped in much of his later learning and the prognosis of his educational development is poor."
Because the mounting evidence about the urgent importance of early learning has been so compelling, a wide variety of programs have been started by local, state, and federal governments, by public and private agencies, by universities, foundations, and churches to make learning opportunities available to young children from homes that appeared to be disadvantaged. Best known are the enormous collection of programs receiving federal money through Head Start.
Unfortunately, the kinds of learning opportunities many Head Start programs offer young children are too little and too late. A large percentage of them pay little attention to using new theories about how to foster intelligence. Most are modeled on traditional social-adjustment nursery schools, with an emphasis on group games and social activities. Many have to be so concerned about the youngsters' physical health and nutrition and about helping their families find essential social and community services that they cannot concentrate on encouraging mental development. And the children usually attend such nursery schools at the age of three or four for only two to three hours a day -- sometimes for only a single summer. Often these programs are able to offer only a little compensation for an unstimulating home environment where the youngsters still spend most of their time.
Nevertheless, research shows that even a little attention to children's learning needs during the preschool years can help. Dozens of scientifically sound, long-term studies have now been completed that trace the results of Head Start and similar preschool learning programs over many years. Almost uniformly, they document significant gains for children in Head Start and other early-learning programs, especially when measured over several years.
The general pattern of such results is that the children show an immediate gain in achievement that usually persists through the first two or three years of elementary school. Then the academic differences between the children who have had the advantage of being in a Head Start program gradually diminish and the gap between them and other youngsters gradually narrows. But subsequent testing at the junior high and high school levels once again shows considerable advantage for the Head Start children in terms of school grades and other measures of mental development.
Compilations of studies on Head Start children, for example, show that they had higher IQ scores than comparison youngsters -- ranging from 7 to 10 points in several studies to as much as 30 points in one report. Far more of them were scoring at grade level in reading and math. Fewer had been flunked and needed to repeat a grade.
One long-term study even offers evidence that preschool education can also pay off in terms of lower costs to taxpayers in dealing with social problems. During the 1960s, the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Michigan, began a study of 123 African-American preschoolers living in poverty and considered at risk for failing in school. Few of their parents had finished high school. Half the parents were on welfare and almost as many were single parents.
The children were randomly divided into two groups. One attended a high-quality preschool program five mornings a week, either for one year at age four or for two years when they were three and four. And a teacher came to each child's home for 90 minutes a week to work with a parent on early learning. The other group had no preschool experience and no efforts were made to help parents increase learning stimuli in the home.
Both groups have been followed and evaluated ever since. At the age of 19, those who had preschool experience were much more likely to have finished high school, to score average or above on competency tests, and to have a job or be enrolled in post-high school educational programs. By age 27, the preschool group had half as many arrests as the comparison group. Those who had attended preschool were also far more likely to own their own homes and to earn $2,000 or more a month and were less likely to have been on welfare or to have had children out of wedlock.
The money spent on providing the high-quality preschool program also paid substantial dividends for taxpayers -- saving $7.16 in reduced welfare payments, court costs, and need for special-education programs for every dollar originally spent.
Preschool early learning starts a "chain of cause and effect the researchers suggested. Because they are more intellectually and socially competent, the youngsters do better in school. As a result, they are more likely to be graduated from high school, less likely to be involved in crime, and more likely to get a job. "These factors weave a pattern of life success that not only is more productive for children and their families but also produces substantial benefits to the society at large through reduction in taxpayer burden and improvement in the quality of community life," the report concluded.
Another such study has demonstrated that intense, early intervention can raise children's IQ scores and rescue those who might have been termed mentally retarded. Known as the Abecedarian Project (abecedarian is Greek for "one who learns the alphabet"), the study involved more than 100 mostly African-American children in North Carolina considered at high risk of academic failure. Half attended a special day-care center with a rich educational curriculum five days a week from infancy to kindergarten. As babies, they were held, fed, talked to, and cared for all day. As toddlers, they could play in different "interest centers" dedicated to art, blocks, language skills, and prereading preparation. The other half of the children were placed in a control group that stayed home and got no special enrichment. By age two, the preschool group had IQ scores 15 points higher than those in the control group. By age 15, the IQ difference had slipped to 5 points -- but the Abecedarian children still scored significantly higher in reading and math than did the control group. Fewer had been kept back a grade or assigned to special-education classes. Several of the control children had been labeled borderline mentally retarded.
"Can intelligence be modified in the early years of life? We believe this crucial question has been settled scientifically. The answer is a resounding yes," declared Craig T. Ramey, a professor of psychology, pediatrics, and neurobiology and director of the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was one of the Abecedarian Project's creators.
Evidence is overwhelming that opportunities for early learning are critical -- but they don't require a formal preschool program. By now, a substantial number of research projects have shown that young children can profit enormously when their parents are given some information and encouragement about early learning. For example, the New Parents as Teachers program has become a national model for assisting parents at home. Begun in four Missouri school districts in the early 1980s, the program involved 380 families from a broad crosssection of socioeconomic backgrounds. Even before a child's birth, specially trained educators made regular visits to each home, teaching parents how to help their offspring develop well. Mothers -- and fathers -- also met periodically in small groups at a nearby school.
Parents were given packets of learning materials, directions for simple learning games they could individualize for their own offspring, and detailed kits of information about every short phase of a child's development from birth to age three. They also got lots of encouragement ("This one will take an extra dose of patience on your part, but it's definitely worth it") and happy suggestions for ways to have fun in making learning a natural part of their home environment.
At age three, the youngsters -- and a comparison group whose parents had not received training -- were tested by independent evaluators. (Outside evaluators are rare in child-care research and give added substantiation to the findings.)
"Children of parents participating in the New Parents as Teachers Project consistently scored significantly higher on all measures of intelligence, achievement, auditory comprehension, verbal ability and language ability than did comparison children," the report noted.
In the Missouri program, gains were chalked up by youngsters from homes with well-educated parents and above-average resources as well as by high-risk youngsters from poor families. Only about 10 percent of American families manage to give their children enough learning opportunities to get them, by age three, as well educated and developed as they should be, according to Dr. White, the senior consultant to the Missouri project.
It is now clear that there are no practical substitutes for involving parents in providing the kind of home life and stimulating experiences that encourage a child's mind to grow. Home and parents are so pervasive, so dominating in a child's life that parental participation in and understanding of early learning techniques is essential -- even when toddlers and preschoolers spend much of their time in day-care centers.
We now know that informed, caring parents -- using many loving, happy, and easy ways -- can do much to raise the level of intellectual functioning in their children and to help them realize to a greater extent their true intellectual potential. In fact, such stimulation may be necessary for the development of a "bright" or "gifted" young person, regardless of his innate potential.
"In no instance [where documentation exists] have I found any individual of high ability who did not experience intensive early stimulation as a central component of his development," pointed out Dr. William Fowler, professor of applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a former director of the Laboratory Nursery School at the University of Chicago. He also noted that deprivation is relative and should be measured against an individual child's ultimate potential." "Deprivation may be just as extreme for the potentially bright who must endure average conditions as for the potentially average to live through conditions below the stimulation 'norms' of the affluent half of our society."
Large numbers of potentially superior, as well as average, achievers are probably lost to our society because of a lack of sufficient early stimulation, said Dr. Fowler.
Recent decades have seen a new and growing interest in children who are identified as "bright" or "gifted," probably for several reasons. Educators and parents are less reluctant to speak out for the needs of these exceptional youngsters, now that special programs are largely in place for children whoneed extra help. Research has shown conclusively that most bright children are emotionally healthy, socially adept, and usually delightful to know.
It has also become increasingly obvious that the United States' position in the free world depends on maintaining its leadership in the sciences and in technology and production. Yet evidence is growing that young people in other countries, particularly the Japanese, are ahead of American students academically.
Even though the average IQ of people throughout the industrialized nations has been rising sharply for years, the Japanese remain in the lead, according to a compilation of IQ studies made by British psychologist Dr. Richard Lynn. In one generation, the mean IQ of the Japanese jumped 7 points to be 11 points higher than the mean for the United States and other advanced Western nations.
Among Americans and Europeans, said Dr. Lynn, only about 2 percent of the population have an IQ higher than 130. But 10 percent of the Japanese do. And 77 percent of Japanese do better on IQ tests than the average for Americans or Europeans.
IQ tests, of course, are a limited and controversial way to measure intelligence. There are many hazards to drawing conclusions from them about the comparative intelligence of different races and nationalities. But the tests used in these studies were designed to be culture free. Testing samples were carefully chosen to measure the same socioeconomic crosssections of population as in the United States.
It's probably not heredity that accounts for this difference in intelligence, said Dr. Lynn, because the increase has been too rapid to reflect a change in the genetic makeup of the population. Because the increase in IQ can be found even among six-year-old Japanese, it's also not likely that what is boosting the IQ is the stiffly competitive atmosphere and rigorous workloads of Japanese schools. Instead, Dr. Lynn suggests, improvements in health and nutrition may be in part responsible.
But what almost certainly accounts, at least in part, for the fact that IQ is so much higher in Japan than elsewhere in the world by age six is probably the kinds of early-learning experiences that the Japanese are giving very young children. Japanese mothers are intensely involved in their children's education; in fact, they are often called kyoiku-mama, a name that translates as "education mama."
A major cross-cultural study made by the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth also found that American children lag behind Japanese and Chinese youngsters in reading and math right from the beginning of first grade -- and they stay behind, especially in math. Japanese children work much harder in school and spend much more time in class than do American children. But what accounts for the differences at age six is that Japanese and Chinese mothers and fathers use more of their time with their children for informal education, for providing opportunities to learn that are fun, and for showing enthusiasm about their offspring's achievements, according to Dr. Harold Stevenson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who directed the study.
The problem with American youngsters isn't working mothers, said Dr. Stevenson. Even employed parents have time in the evening and on weekends to be with their children. The critical element, he said, is that the time together be used fordirect interaction.
It's one thing for the Japanese to build better cars and cameras and TVs. Or for the Chinese to make products for American markets more efficiently than American manufacturers can. But it's much more worrisome to educators and political leaders when the Japanese and Chinese seem to be building better brains -- and making children's learning more successful.
There is also increasing public awareness that bright children are a major national asset and that they should be en couraged and cherished and their intellectual development fostered not only for their own benefit but for the public good as well.
Along with the new interest in the brightest children has come an enormous increase in special programs to identify them and provide them special educational opportunities. These now include everything from special summer camps to early admission to universities, Saturday programs in colleges for young teenagers, enrichment classes, honors academic tracks, individual tutorials, mentors, individualized learning, and many other strategies.
If you fill your child's life full of stimulation all of her early years, if you make your home what scientists call an enriched, "culturally abundant environment," if you use early-learning techniques we now know, you can do much to raise your youngster's intelligence. In such a home a child who would have grown up to be "average" will almost certainly become an "above-average" individual. And a youngster who would have been "above average" in normal circumstances will probably grow up to be "bright" or "gifted."
This doesn't mean that you must set up a school in your family room and proceed to hold formal lessons for your three-year-old. It doesn't mean substituting the alphabet song for your baby's evening lullaby. It doesn't mean drilling a 4-year-old in number facts or showing flashcards with the names of dinosaurs to your 12-month-old baby, as one highly promoted "superbaby" program advocates. It doesn't mean pushing your three-year-old aggressively to get her into a particular nursery school that is reported to be a pipeline to Ivy League colleges. It doesn't even mean you must buy your child toys that are labeled "educational" or send him to a day-care center or nursery school that is promoted as "educational."
Your role may indeed occasionally be to teach your child directly, especially if he's asking questions or trying to master a task you can break down into small steps for him. But more often, you should function more as a scene setter who provides a loving atmosphere full of learning experiences your child can choose for himself and as a coach who cheers him on and shares the exhilaration of his accomplishments with him.
You can guard against any possibility you may be pushing your child undesirably by monitoring his reactions to the learning stimuli you give him. If he's not interested, there is no reason to push a learning activity on him. You should not insist that he stick to a task you have chosen if it's too difficult or he doesn't want to. You should never let him get the idea that you won't love him if he can't succeed in a task you've set. And you should remember that a major purpose of early learning is to make your child happy by fulfilling his brain's need for stimuli and to help him learn at his own individual pace and in his own individual way, as he will not be able to do once he enters school.
Using early-learning techniques with a young child can be just as simple and easy as this incident that occurred in a restaurant. A young couple brought their baby girl, about nine months old, with them and plopped her into a high chair at the table to wait for her dinner.
Looking around for something to do, the baby reached out and grasped a goblet with a single ice cube from the table and put it on the high chair tray. Her mother glanced at her, then resumed talking to the baby's father but kept her hand near enough to the tray to catch the goblet if necessary.
For 10 quiet, fascinated minutes, the baby was seriously absorbed in experimenting with the ice cube. She slipped it in and out of the goblet. She slid it around the tray. She tasted it, rubbed her nose with it, passed it from hand to hand. As it melted, she repeated the activity with the ice water.
Until her dinner came, the baby continued to fill her brain with information and stimuli. And because this filled a basic -- although often unrecognized -- need, she was happy and absorbed. As a fringe benefit, the baby's father and mother were free to talk together at an adult level, without constantly saying no and fussing at the youngster to "be good." It was far easier for them to use the early-learning technique of letting the baby explore a tiny portion of her environment, using every possible sensory organ, than it would have been had they acted as most parents, taking the goblet away and then having to cope with the crying of a bored and frustrated child.
Fathers and mothers who have tried using early-learning principles with their offspring are delighted not only with the intellectual progress of their children but also with the new and happy relationship that follows.
"I had no idea my daughter would be so interesting to me, commented a mother who had been teaching her four-year-old to read. "It's just like the way I felt the day she took her first steps toward me, only better." And because her four-year-old is seldom bored, she is seldom fussy, unhappy, angry, or defiant, unlike many four-year-olds.
You can help your child to become brighter, more intelligent, happier. There is no doubt about it. And in the process your offspring will have a more satisfying childhood, and you will enjoy him more. You don't have to pressure or push your child, and your efforts to help him learn will not hurt him in any way, unless you make your love for him contingent on his performance.
This is not just another job you have to do. It is a wholly new, exciting, wonderful way of looking at your child and your relationship with him during the first six years of his life.
Chapter 2 will explain the new psychological, neurological, and physiological concepts and research behind early learning. Succeeding chapters will give you more precise information about how and what you can do to foster the development of your child's intelligence.
Copyright © 1999 by Estate of Joan Beck
How to Raise a Brighter Child
- How much is a child capable of learning before the age of six?
- What happens to a child's brain during the preschool years when the body is growing so rapidly?
- How can working parents make sure their children are getting enough mental stimulation?
- Should parents help a youngster learn to read before he or she starts the first grade?
- How can parents safely use computers and the Internet as early learning tools?
- Is a child's intelligence level actually fixed for life by inherited genes?