your child’s peril

September 26th, 2011

Dear Dr. Neuroscientist:
Please help us grow up to be safe.
The Kindergarten Class of 2012

Last weekend I saw a story in the New York Times that made my head explode. Those of you who have heard me speak about “my head exploding” know that it is a clever metaphor for when my head actually explodes. The story in the paper was this:

Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril

I have a vested interest in this story, since I – gasp! ­– delayed kindergarten at my child’s peril. (Actually, she delayed it herself by refusing to go.) The gist of the story is that a couple of neuroscientists did some math and concluded that if you keep your child from starting school until he or she is a year older it won’t deliver a measurable competitive advantage. Boo hoo. Here’s the money graph:

In a large-scale study at 26 Canadian elementary schools, first graders who were young for their year made considerably more progress in reading and math than kindergartners who were old for their year (but just two months younger). In another large study, the youngest fifth-graders scored a little lower than their classmates, but five points higher in verbal I.Q., on average, than fourth-graders of the same age.

Say what? The findings, in my book, are benign and irrelevant. What mattered more to me was the word “peril.” Who in their right mind would put the word “peril” in the same sentence with the word “kindergarten,” provoking the subtle suggestion of child endangerment, ensuring that the article would be the number one e-mailed article for days after?

The answer is, someone playing on your fear that you are ruining your child’s life. And someone who wrote a book about it. Yes, these kind of grotesque generalizations and implied consequences are always about selling something you think you don’t have, telling you something you think you don’t know, and convincing you – by way of arcane statistics – of your worst fear: that you are a terrible, rotten and not very good parent, making the kind of irreparable mistakes that will condemn your child to second place, a lowly Von Winklevoss to a triumphant Zuckerberg.

Dear Dr. Neuroscientist:
What makes people do selfish things?

I’ve hissed a fit about this before. I’ve hollered and thrown things. I don’t care what the reason is – and someone suggested to me it was the fault of a lazy headline writer – we have a practice of undermining, terrifying and bullying parents. As neurotic as we parents are, we must look like ridiculously easy targets.

How often are you making parenting decisions out of cynical self-interest and shrewd calculation? I’m willing to bet not often. For me at least, I’m flying blind by the seat of my scaredy pants, making best guesses and gutting out hard choices.

Delaying kindergarten will not, I repeat, will not, imperil your child. But here are some things that really will imperil children, as they imperil us all.

There are 8 million uninsured children in our country.
One in four young children in America live in poverty.
That means 5.9 million children under age 6 live in households earning less than $22,000 a year.
The poverty level is the highest in 52 years, the highest since the Census Bureau has been measuring it.
A presidential candidate repeated the lie that a vaccine to prevent cancer in women causes mental retardation in the girls who take it.
Warren Buffet’s tax rate is lower than his secretary’s, and raising taxes on the rich is political suicide.
Of the 6,000 U.S. soldiers who have died and the 30,000 who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the greatest percentage were under age 21.

Dear Dr. Neuroscientist:
Why can’t grownups see that we are just little kids?

Let’s remember what we learned in kindergarten, shall we? Let’s be kind and keep our hands to ourselves.  Let’s treat others as we want to be treated. Let’s stop scaring parents, and let the children grow up to be alive.

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  1. Thank you. We have become trained to perk up our ears to the phrase “research-based.” Sometimes we just need to clear our minds and do our own “research” by watching and listening to our own children and our own experience.

    Comment by Jane — September 26, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  2. What’s that phrase? “Fear is the root of all evil”. Yes, that sounds about right. I stopped listening to the fear mongering after my kiddos first year. Frankly, I didn’t have the time to read about what I should be doing because I was too busy doing it… or not.

    Comment by Chandra — September 26, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  3. Hear hear. Really no need for such nonsense. IQ reading and maths skills are really no replacement for love and kindness, both of which are best nurtured in the family first.

    Comment by puerhan — September 26, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  4. The phrase ‘measurable competitive advantage’ bugs me. That isn’t what kindergarten should be about. I have heard about parents in the US – and a few here in the Netherlands too – who will do anything to make their kids get ahead of others, believing that it will benefit them. I think they are only doing it for their own sense of superiority – i.e. their fear of being seen as inferior. Kindergarten should be about learning to get along with others, not get ahead of them out of fear.

    Comment by Daniel Hake — September 26, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  5. Kindergarten teaches kids how to act in a social environment with people who aren’t relatives, i.e. the kind of environment they will spend most of their lives in. That is an experience I wish upon all children. Especially those who come from homes where there isn’t enough love and kindness, for whatever reason, those kids need the experience more than most.

    Comment by Daniel Hake — September 26, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  6. Brava! Brava! Bravissima!

    Comment by Meg — September 26, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

  7. We look like easy targets because we ARE. Thank heaven for moms like you.

    Comment by Joanna — September 26, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  8. this was an AWESOME rant! love it yes yes!!! more exclamation points! and looky here: the points you made are ACTUALLY LEGIT!! oh m gee.
    i love when that happens. <3

    Comment by Brittany — September 26, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  9. So since I delayed my son’s entry into kindergarten, I put him in peril? Hmm. Perhaps I should let the excellent university that gave him an academic scholarship know. And he is a bit old to be taken away from me for my apparently poor mothering skills, esp. since he lives many miles away in another state.

    Thank you for the commentary on what truly will imperil our children. You’re spot on.

    Comment by Old Mom — September 26, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  10. i think delaying kindergarten is brilliant…

    Comment by brigid — September 26, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

  11. Loved this… every single word of it!
    Dr Neuroscientist, when will you stop studying things in isolation and realise their is more to childhood, more to life, than one tiny studiable facet!
    (disclosure – I also put my children in peril and delayed them starting school, it had nothing to do with academics and all to do with them being happy. Raising happy children is a terrible terrible thing to do I’m sure!)

    Comment by katepickle — September 26, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

  12. Wouldn’t the youngest kids in the class have higher IQs, on average, than the kids their age who stayed back a year? No surprise that they do better on tests.
    But for very bright kids, holding them back could mean that they may lose interest in school.
    At any rate, the real test is not academic achievement in elementary school but success in adulthood, however that is defined (hint: careers aren’t the only measure).

    Comment by Hannah @A Mother in Israel — September 26, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

  13. What makes me the maddest about articles and books like the one you mentioned is that parenting decisions made out of fear are almost guaranteed not to be received as love. Of course, as a fearful parent, I needed reminding of this today. Thanks!

    Comment by Christen — September 27, 2011 @ 5:35 am

  14. Wow, Karen, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Comment by Vanessa Rae — September 27, 2011 @ 6:17 am

  15. So sad. Like parent’s need scientists to prove theories instead of let us see and take care of what’s right in front of us. That’s empirical evidence. It’s amazing how different my two boys are -and that’s just two kids. There is no formula for child raising, Dr. Neuroscientist!

    Comment by Nichole — September 27, 2011 @ 6:40 am

  16. Thank you, Maezen, for continuing to have this conversation. If parents stopped relying on so-called experts and listened to their hearts,they would know how ridiculous and fear-based it is to take those yahoos seriously. The real peril, it seems to me, is that children are often the guinea pigs for their parents’ insecurities.

    We have our instincts and “gut-feelings” drummed out of us and as a result feel the need to go outside ourselves for answers. How sad.

    Comment by Robin — September 27, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  17. Thank you Karen and thank you Jane, I might, if I may ass a second word to your comment “scientifically proven”. The only proven things to me are watch and observe, numbers can be made to tell many stories, and history is the greatest experiment ever. History has slowly in it’s own way proven that most scientific results are incorrect mainly IMHO is that all test environments do not in any shape come close to actual life and all it’s many permutations…..

    Much peace
    to all

    Comment by Miro — September 27, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  18. In Norway parents have the choice to send their young children to exceptional pre-school programs. Prior to 1997 typically Norwegian children began school at age 7, two years older than their US counterparts (since 1997 the starting age has dropped to 6.) Norwegian students complete school and do well in the workforce despite going to school later than US kids. (They also do better at Math and Reading). As a US educator I often feel we send 4 and 5 year olds to school merely to help parents with their ‘baby sitting’ needs. So often I have seen children cry for most of each day in their kindergarten year. Not all children are ready for full day Kindergarten at age 5. American parents should trust their own judgement and fight for what they feel is right for their children.

    Comment by Jude Smith — September 27, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

  19. Karen if I may weigh in on this one and I believe I have the chops to do so. I am a Child and Adolescent psychiatrist, retired but still an expert on matters such as this. Also I am not a parent which I know, yes I know, gives me even more objectivity on what benefits children and what does not. You see I am an expert on what not to do, I’ve seen the perils up close.

    I could write forever on this topic but instead let me just say this: In my professional opinion you are dead right. This kind of fear mongering also makes my head explode, coincidentally a phrase that I am quite famous for.

    To parents I say only this, love your children as best you can, the rest takes care of itself. They are small, not stupid and they’ll let you know what works and what doesn’t. All you need to do is pay attention and be kind to yourself as you make your mistakes.

    Karen thank you for this. I wish you and your child, every parent and child wellness, peace and plenty of ice cream.

    Comment by Bobbi — September 29, 2011 @ 3:44 am

  20. Bobbi: thank you for letting your head explode in this general direction. It serves us all.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 29, 2011 @ 5:54 am

  21. I’d move to Norway if it weren’t so cold.
    Today’s US kindergartens are more like the first grades of years past Kinder should be more like what Fulghum described in his famous book.

    Comment by Playcrane — September 30, 2011 @ 5:07 am

  22. If we continue to focus only on academics many kids won’t be ready at age 5. Let’s not forget the importance of socioemotional development. I believe there is research that supports the notion that emotional intelligence is more important to success than the cognitive type. By the way, I have a PhD in counseling and am I play therapist who works with children all the time Dr. Neuroscientist

    Comment by Playcrane — September 30, 2011 @ 5:12 am

  23. I wish I could use an emoticon here – mine would be applauding.

    Comment by Kara — September 30, 2011 @ 9:17 am

  24. Thank you. These days statistics get a frown from me. My Son has a mild disability and is not an average child. This average child I never met is ever present. In every evaluation and in every report showing who my son should be.

    The faces across the table from me are mostly solemn, worried when they tell me something I already know. When my heart is glowing with joy over terrain he has conquered, they pull out the average child. Wonderfull but not good enough.

    We have research to thank for good treatments and better healthcare. I do however not thank them for creating the average child, man, woman. They have to big a place in reality, terrifying everyone with a life less ordinary.

    Comment by A mom less ordinary — October 1, 2011 @ 11:54 am

  25. No subtlety in the world these days. No, of course it wouldn’t make a difference for your child. But it will make a difference for the children of the bottom 20% of the population, but they don’t distinguish do they…

    I keep on telling my children not to compare, that school is a journey not a destination. That your ranking in First grade says nothing about how good you will be at life.

    I’m a lonely voice in their lives – can I be sure they’ll listen to me when all the other voices drown me out?

    Comment by gweipo — October 3, 2011 @ 5:31 am

  26. Each child is a real, whole person – not a statistic. When our educational industry decides to really allow teachers to teach children according to their abilities and interests instead of towards a mean of achievement, education will improve.

    I knew that I had no alternative but to send my oldest child to school a year early, and even with that, they’re trying to put this 7th-grader in high-school credit classes.

    My youngest son started Kindergarten a few weeks before he turned 6, and this arrangement is definitely more suitable for him. He is doing very well in school, but he just does not have the rabid need for ‘more input’ .

    I have loved nearly every one of my children’s teachers. And the kids have learned things in school that I may not have considered. That being said, I do covet the lifestyle of homeschooling. I would love to give my kids the opportunity to learn and grow at their own level – but I know they would miss so dearly the amazing friends that they’ve accumulated over the years in school. Each year I am torn, almost wishing for an issue that would take our days to the parks, museums, ski slopes, or anywhere we choose to hold ‘school’ for the day – but they enjoy their time away from home and I don’t feel 100% confident that taking it from them would be outweighed by the personalized, experience-based education.

    Comment by amy — November 2, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  27. Our childeren go to a Waldorf school. What i have learnt there is two things: 1 childeren know what they need to learn and when, their knowledge will “develop” when their head is ready to contain it so bear with them have faith, protect them in that proces 2 parents have in many ways lost touch with being a child, childeren have different brains, different understanding than we do, in us, things/ reality have “solidified” to a degree, in childeren these still are liquid or even gasses.
    When my eldest daughter was small my husband would say: you are speaking to her as if she is an adult (i didn’t know anything else) my second child is so so smart -but not in a visual way- that she blows my mind. However I am extremely happy that she is in a school where she can play and her day is structured with activities and friendships rather than words and numbers and meaning. Where her mind confidence and imagination get the time and space to expand because her intelligence will need that space to unfold itself into it and become what it needs to be.
    Knowledge is like food, our kids will eat what we feed them, we have to educate ourselves about what is healthy for them and a big part of that is common sense and a kind heart willing to understand their perception of reality.
    I also learnt something else, young childeren can read your mind and they don’t want to disappoint, so they tend to become what we -in our heart of hearts- think of them. Kind of like life.

    Comment by Simone — November 22, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

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