As parents, we get mixed messages about what it means to be a good parent. Starting when our children are infants, we are conditioned to look toward the next milestone. First, our baby smiles, and we can’t wait for them to talk. Then, they crawl, and we look for signs they are ready to walk. Once they walk, we sign them up for the most elite ballet school in the area. Or was that just me?
For the last 13 years I’ve been an early childhood educator. I have been fascinated by child development, the learning process, and the brain for as far back as I can remember. That’s why I became a teacher, and that’s why I have devoted so many of my evenings to reading countless books (after my daughter was born I say “reading” with the quotation marks—enter Audible!), listening to podcasts, watching videos, and constantly researching childhood and what it takes to raise kind, caring, respectful human beings.
As a parent I have found that it’s hard not to buy in to the ideas that time is money and that faster is better. We all want our children to have every advantage we can give them. But when it comes to our kids, is pressuring them to master skills earlier really better? Research by child psychologists—Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D.—answers the question with a resounding no.
In their book Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children REALLY Learn—And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, the authors share a tremendous amount of research dedicated to what they call “The Childhood Hustle.” They describe the hustle this way:
Once these babies are born, the push to move them as quickly as possible towards adult competencies intensifies. They are prodded to pick up reading skills faster, add and subtract sooner, and even master obscure tasks like identifying the faces of long-dead musical composers years before they’ll need this information (if they ever will).
In response, many advertisers and marketers of children’s products have created their own movement, claiming to provide the latest and greatest contraptions, toys, games, and accessories. A number of these items claim to develop intelligence, stimulate minds, and inspire communication skills. They’re tempting.
But, pushing children can be detrimental. That’s right, it can actually backfire and cause damage. For younger children this might look like more tantrums, more meltdowns, and more struggles to get them to perform basic everyday tasks. Older children might begin to distance themselves, become stressed, lose motivation, talk back, or act out aggressively. The damaging effects on children are well-documented in these books/articles—NPR’s “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off;” The Self-Driven Child, by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud, PhD; The Conscious Parent, by Shefali Tsabary; “Think Today, Not Tomorrow” from NPR’s Let’s Talk Kids podcast, and "The High Price of Pushing Kids Too Hard" from Psychology Today.
So, is it bad to teach children more skills and tackle complex ideas with them? Of course not, and from my time in the classroom I can tell you that there are many strategies for challenging children effectively. But, the push to achieve should not be at the expense of time spent with family building the close bonds children require in order to feel safe and loved. It should not be at the expense of a child’s natural learning process. It should not come at the expense of nurturing our children’s self-confidence and intrinsic motivation to explore the world around them. Ultimately, learning is not just about getting into a prestigious college or landing a six-figure salary. Learning is a goal itself.
So, if there’s harm in the hustle, what can we—as parents who want the best for our children—do instead?
Here is where I have landed. I have made it my priority to create a safe and loving environment for my baby to grow up in. I want to cherish her childhood as a sacred time, not to structure it as a time for her to prepare for adulthood. Below are some of the ways I have found to avoid the hustle and make sure my daughter delights in learning and in our time together.
Children are naturally curious from the moment they are born—we have all seen it. One of my favorite parts of parenting has been experiencing life through my daughter’s eyes. When she was 2 ½ years old, we were walking through an empty parking lot after it had just rained. We came to a puddle, and my daughter stood there and looked at it for at least two minutes. I watched her in awe. She dipped one boot quickly in and out. She tried again, this time with her whole foot. Then, came the big splash. Soon, she was splish-splashing around, laughing, and saying, “Mommy do it!” We went from puddle to puddle in that parking lot, and I stopped and said to her, “You know what? You make life so fun!” I know she didn’t quite know what I was saying, but I also know she could feel my love for her and the joy we were sharing.
We counted how many puddles we saw, talked about which was the smallest and largest. We asked questions. Where does rain come from? What kinds of clouds are there? My daughter painted a “rain portrait” at school because she was still thinking about our “puddle party.” Later that week, we sang our own version of the “Rain, Rain, Go Away” song, which went something along the lines of “Rain, Rain, Come and Play…”
The time you spend with your child doesn’t have to be monumental. We didn’t go learn about meteorology at the museum or get into water vapor and the atmosphere, though we certainly could have. In that moment my daughter and I shared genuine curiosity, and I helped extend her thinking by asking questions, trading observations, and keeping it fun.
I have found Amy McCready—author, parenting coach, and the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions—to be a valuable resource. In her book, If I have to Tell You One More Time…, McCready says that spending even 10 minutes with your child twice a day can make a really positive difference. I tried it and was genuinely surprised by how such a small change in our routine could impact my child in such a positive way.
I play with my daughter All. The. Time. Tea parties, school, Candyland, picnics, scooter riding, you name it. And I’m not talking five minutes here or there. We have spent hours at a time playing together. Why would 10 minutes twice a day make a difference?
McCready’s idea is unique because she says that your child should always choose the activity and that the time together should happen consistently. It actually makes perfect sense when I think about it. This is a way of filling your child’s “bucket” before they reach empty, and so we have adopted this practice in our home.
Every day after school and again after dinner we have what we call Special 10. “You can always go over 10 minutes, but that’s the minimum,” says McCready. On the weekends we have our Special 10 in the morning and again after dinner. The reason I think the practice actually works is the routine it has helped us establish. My daughter knows to expect this time every day, and she gets my undivided attention. She calls the shots on what we do (within reason, of course), and we really get to enjoy each other’s company. Routines are so important to young children. “Routines Rock” from Psychology Today is one of many reputable sources that support the importance of creating and sticking to routines. Amy McCready is also a strong proponent of routines. It is listed as one of her “10 Tips for Better Behavior” and in posts like “Morning Routine Survival Guide.”
Move Beyond “How was your day?”
One of my favorite things about my daughter’s school is that the teachers are so communicative and keep us updated on what our kids are working on every week. They
have even added a section to their classroom newsletters with questions we can ask our child. Even if your child’s teacher doesn’t provide this information, it would be worth asking them to send something on a regular basis so you can engage with your child, help solidify their learning and understanding (if they can explain, they have internalized it), support their work from school at home, and make that critical connection between home and school transparent for your child. You can also ask specific questions, such as Did you go to any specials classes today? What was one thing that you did today that was kind to a friend? What did someone do that was kind to you? Asking just one or two questions about your child’s day can go a long way.
Seriously. It’s a new era of technology. When I look around at children and parents today, I see more parents looking at their children through their phones than with their own two eyes. Even worse, I see parents looking at their phones instead of their children. What messages are we sending our kids if we are on our phones all the time? And what about consent? Does your child have a say in whether or not she gets her picture taken? What if your children don’t want to have their pictures taken or a video made of their spontaneous dance party?
I continue to work on my boundaries with technology, so I don’t lose myself to the phone. I am certainly not saying that I haven’t made mistakes; however, I do try to be mindful of these things
- asking my daughter if I can take her picture before just snapping away
- leaving my phone on the charger in my bedroom when we are sitting at the table for a meal
- having our 10 minutes of alone time every day
- turning the ringer off when we are playing together, and
- not taking my phone out of my pocket during our bedtime routine.
The more mindful we can be with our devices, the more connected we will feel with our kids.
We must stop comparing ourselves to other parents and our children to one another. Comparing leads to competition and judgement and is derived from a sense that something is lacking. And if there is one thing that we are not lacking in our culture today, it’s judgement. Once when my daughter was three years-old, we were at the playground and I sparked up a conversation with another mom. We got to talking and found out that our kids were just a few months apart. We had a great conversation and the kids played nicely together. Then, they were headed home. My new park friend walked over to her bike and her child hopped on her own two-wheeler behind her mom. Immediately I had a sinking feeling and the comparing began. “Wow, her child can ride a two-wheeler? Have we not been practicing enough? Have I been putting my child at a disadvantage by not regular family bike rides? Instead of thinking how nice it was to see how competent this three-year-old was on a bicycle, I started doing the math to determine exactly how many months apart our kids were to justify why my child couldn’t ride a two-wheeler on her own yet. Luckily, a moment later, I caught myself in time to put the brakes on those negative and unproductive thoughts.
Our kids know when we are comparing them to others. When we worry and compare, they are hearing, “my child isn’t good enough” or “failure is unacceptable.” Of course, we all do this subconsciously at times, but being aware when we are comparing is key.
And yet, as parents we do feel obliged to pay attention to our children’s development. After all, we are their primary advocates. So, when should we worry? A good rule-of-thumb is to listen to and ask questions of your child’s pediatrician, teachers, and other caregivers. Your child’s doctor and teachers are experts in the field of child development and will be able to advise you and arrange for screening if needed. And if you want to read more, Is It a Big Problem or a Little Problem? When to Worry, When Not to Worry, and What to Do by Amy Egan, Amy Freedman, Judi Greenberg, and Sharon Anderson is a great resource.
Children develop at different rates. Just because one child is proficient in certain skills doesn’t necessarily mean another is behind or in need of extra support. It means that some kids your child’s age are able to do certain things while others are working on different skills.One child’s abilities don’t take away from another child’s aptitude. Let’s celebrate our children for the unique individuals they are. The more accepting of them that we are, the more their lights can truly shine!