Science to Parents: 'Chill Out'

By Erin Anderssen
April 3rd, 2004 - Globe and Mail

When Rose-Mary Holosko says she "home-schooled" her newborn son from his first baby babble, she isn't kidding. At three months, she strapped Stefan into a snuggly and headed off to the grocery store to point out tomato sauces, and how apples come in different colours; at home, she was gluing sparkles into the shapes of letter and tracing his tiny finger along the outline. When they ate breakfast, she would practise counting out 10 Cheerios.

Soon, she was photocopying a letter a day out of a flashcard book, and posting them around the house on the fridge, at the end of his crib, on the back of her seat in the car at every chance, she'd point it out to him and encourage him to make the phonetic sound. "Flashcards were a big, big deal," she says. Always playing in the background were the classics of Mozart, Chopin and Bach.

By three months, Stefan was swimming. At six months, he was enrolled in the parent-child program at the Royal Conservatory of Music. At 10 months, he joined gymnastics. Six month later, he started skating, and at 19 months, he was learning to ski. To get him early into an accelerated preschool the Sidney Ledson Institute, where the motto is "Education is Good but Brains are Better" Ms. Holosko sat with Stefan though a two-hour morning class; only one year old, he wasn't yet toilet-trained, so she had to stay to change his diaper.

"I would often think, 'Am I wasting my time here?'," she said, from her home in Unionville, outside Toronto. But he seemed to be learning so much faster than the other children she knew. Now, one month away from his third birthday, Stefan can count to 20 and read three-letter words. Next weekend, he plays a dinosaur in a skating show.

"A child's mind is an amazing place," his mother says. No scientist would disagree with that. But more and more researchers have begun to question the hyper, if earnest, attempts of parents to cram as much into those brains, early and fast, as they can.

"Parents always want things to read, agendas to follow ..... They'd like to plug it into their Palm Pilot and program those activities," says Sandra Trehub, a University of Toronto researcher who has been studying children and infants for three decades. "When they ask me what I think they should do, I say, 'Well, how about chilling out?'." In fact, when you read the fine print under all the media hype, science seems almost unanimous in its call for parents to relax: All of Rose-Mary Holosko's extra effort may not be doing as much good as the childhood-stimulation marketers would have her believe, especially in homes that would be pretty stimulating and nurturing all on their own. Even without the extra early effort, most kids catch up pretty fast. And even the most enriched environment, Dr. Trehub observes, can only mix with genes and personality, not erase them entirely.

As well, there is now evidence of a cost to pushing too hard, too soon a dampening of creativity and curiosity, the very hallmarks of childhood. "I think it's exhausting to be a kid these days." Dr. Trehub says. Such is the pressure weighing down on the 21st-century parent. Forget the rush-hour scurry to daycare, the race to pop dinner on the table at a reasonable hour, run the bath, read the stories and somehow find time to scrub the toilet: The real threat is that you might miss out, because of neglect or misplaced penny-pinching at the toy store checkout, on your child's one shot at genius.

Science, or the misuse of it, has created a generation of parents consumed with IQ scores; consider the extreme case of the Colorado mom who reportedly drove her eight-year-old to attempt suicide after she helped him fake test scores so high that he was lauded as the smartest child in the world. Even for the less obsessed, the tools are so easily found: the bilingual baby videotapes, the travel flashcards with teethers attached, the baby mobile that counts in five different languages, the black and white cube that "studies" have found will not only boost your baby's weight but raise her IQ 30 points. Today's new moms can buy T-shirts printed with geometric shapes, all to stimulate the baby brain.

It all sounds so scientific and profitable. At last count, sales of educational toys had topped $500-million (U.S.).

But what's the science really saying?

Far from the flashcard flurry on the store shelves, modern research on the subject has gone retro, back to the days of crayons, reading under blanket forts and safaris in the backyard. The geneticist, studying how environment interacts with genes, recommends nurturing. The neuroscientist, examining the growth of brain-cell networks, advises playful new experiences. The language expert urges lots and lots of chatter. Meanwhile, new research is making some unexpected connections between social skills and academic success, between play and conversation and creative thinking.

All of which really translates into an endorsement for parents to rely on their instincts: "For the most part, the kind of experience the human brain needs, the human brain gets," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of Einstein Didn't Use Flashcards. After all, as Canadian researcher Kenneth Rubin at the University of Maryland observes, Wayne Gretzky didn't become Wayne Gretzky at drill practice. He became great finding his own moves on his backyard rink.

In an Ottawa prenatal class, a group of soon-to-be parents (bracing for a birthing video) readily jump into a debate about their upcoming roles. There's the couple with the womb speaker, who have been reading and chatting to their child in utero, just to "get him used to our voices." And the mom, with her baby due in a few weeks, who confesses to having read more than 20 parenting books, and to having received flashcards as a present. As a group, they shift between the instinct that tells them to relax with their future children and the pressure to do and buy whatever might give them an edge in the parenting competition.

"That's the difficulty," says Chris Scott. "Because you want the best for your kid, and the pressure is there, and sometimes it will be hard to back off and just let them be a kid." They feel flooded with information: Your baby should be walking by this month, talking by this month, learning letters by this month. It all begins to feel like one big sales job, they say, and it's hard to know when you're getting taken.

"We're like a marketer's dream," Jim Wightman offers. "Because we know nothing. We're suckers: 'You say this will help? And it costs $30? Let's buy it!'." Yet the science has not always been sold accurately. Such was the case for the "enriched rats" of William Greenough at the University of Illinois (who has since invested considerable effort trying to set the story straight). In the 1970s, he set up an experiment with three groups of rats. The first group lived in a plain cage together, the second group was set loose in a special cage with slides and tunnels and running wheels, and the third was split up to live alone, individually, in tiny cages. His study found that the rats living among the tunnels and wheel had more active brains than the rats living on their own. This research prompted many people to make the leap that enriched early environments for humans could lead to bigger brains. But the truth is, as Dr. Hirsh-Pasek observes, few children spend their days locked alone in a closet. In fact, in all the flurry, one of the key findings in a companion study was completely overlooked: The rats who did the best, better even than the rats in the fancy cages, were the ones who were left in their natural environment.

A similar misinterpretation afflicts the so-called Mozart Effect, a notion that spawned the mass production of classical-music CDs for babies, and prompted one American state to give them out free in maternity wards. The study that started it all had nothing to do with infants: The researchers played a certain piece of Mozart for 10 minutes to a group of college students and found a short-term improvement in their performance on a particular spatial-reasoning test. Somehow, this finding was taken as proof that classical music could boost a baby's IQ a leap that has frustrated and bemused the scientific community, which cannot even reach agreement on how one might measure an infant's IQ.

Later experiments suggested that the finding was related more to mood than the certain piece of music as long as you played something a person liked, they did better, temporarily, on a certain kind of test.

While learning to play an instrument might stimulate certain areas of the brain later on, Dr. Trehub's research suggests that the best music for babies to hear is any song the mother sings, which naturally adjusts to calm an infant's nerves. But of course, she sighs, when she discovered that babies could perceive different subtleties in music, the science was translated into "let's stuff them with music," rather than simply letting infants extract enjoyable sounds from their environment.

Overall, any research that emphasizes the importance of the early years has been exaggerated to imply the pre-eminence of the early years, and a general panic that missing out then means flunking out later. In fact, studies have consistently proved the resiliency of human beings, except in cases of severe neglect. Other research has asked what might be getting squeezed out of early development when parents and educators try to stuff too much in like a baby quail that loses the ability to recognize its parent's song if there is a hole in its egg, distracting it with too much light too soon.

Many researchers argue that today's thinking has made the mistake of equating memorization with intelligence. In the process, it has overlooked the importance of play in generating a future group of innovative thinkers, willing to take the risks that lead to new discoveries. That kind of creativity is learned first in places like sandboxes, where children feel free to be curious and experiment, says Douglas Steane, a Vancouver psychologist writing a book called The Chatterbox Kids. A study of 1,800 children on the remote island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, for example, found that three-year-olds who were gregarious and adventurous scored higher on intelligence tests eight years later than their peers who were better as toddlers at assembling blocks, copying shapes and identifying objects a finding that was true across ethnic groups and income levels.

Other research has explored whether teaching children more letters and numbers early actually gives them a later advantage: A study of 120 children found that four-year-olds in an academic stream did know the alphabet better a year later than those who were in more play-based programs. But by the time they started grade school, it was hard to tell who had started formal learning sooner.

However, they did differ in one key area: The academic group appeared to be less creative and less keen on learning than the play group. "Let's look at the 21st-century child as the creative problem solver that he's going to have to be," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, who was involved in the study. "Because facts are going to be at their finger tips. Purely spending time on facts is not going to give you the bosses of the future. It's going to give you the worker bees."

Possessing good social graces and empathy a lesson learned in play has even been found to be a key predictor in academic achievement, partly because it keeps children in a healthy peer group, builds communications skills and helps them stay focused in class. An Italian longitudinal study in 2000 identified pro-social behaviour in Grade 3 sharing, kindness and co-operation as the most important factor predicting academic success in Grade 8, regardless of how well the students actually performed during that earlier grade.

There is also evidence that the pressure on parents to give every advantage is being offloaded onto the children themselves. An American analysis in 2003 found that upper-income suburban youth reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and related substance abuse than low-income and predominantly minority youth a finding the researchers linked to higher at-home expectations.

At the same time, Dr. Trehub says, much of the new research into child development is building on the natural, everyday activities that parents regularly engage in anyway, like reading and talking: Babies with moms who talk to them a lot are more likely to become children with big vocabularies. Children whose mothers regularly use words such as "think" and "know" when talking to them have been shown to develop a better understanding of emotions and other people's feelings a key foundation for social skills. And there's a practical reason why children like the same stories read to them over and over again research has shown it takes several readings for them to pick up new words.

In fact, the ability for children to tell stories themselves has been linked to both reading comprehension in later elementary school and even early math skills. New research from the University of Waterloo, since duplicated in a second study, found (to the researchers' own surprise) that children with strong narrative skills in preschool performed better on a math test two years later than those less adept with a story.

"Some people see these things as child's play as if it's not a serious enterprise. But we tell stories to ourselves to understand the world," researcher Daniela O'Neill says.

And parents play an important role in developing those skills. Carole Peterson, who studies narrative at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says research shows that children with strong narrative skills are most likely found in families where the parents ask a lot of open-ended questions the whys and hows and encourage their children to elaborate in conversations, talk about past events and stick to topics that interest their kids. "Even if," as Dr. Peterson puts it, "that's dog poop on the road."

But does this mean that parents need to fill their every child's moment with conversation? Certainly not, Dr. Trehub says. And "no one has shown that some serious, intellectual type who is quite reserved is going to have less intelligent children than someone who talks constantly to their children."

A bigger question, she suggests, is why parents put such a value on timelines and test scores, when the smartest people, measured this way, are not always the ones who make the greatest contribution to society. "We should be aiming to create stellar human beings," she says, rather than fussing over which parenting practices will earn our children "an extra IQ point or two."

It's not that the science of early childhood is saying the Holoskos are doing something wrong. In fact, by talking a lot to Stefan and now his three-month-old brother, Joseph, and building conversation on what interests the boys, researchers would say that their parents are doing a lot right even if they didn't exactly need to plaster their house in photocopied alphabet letters. John Holosko recognizes that he and his wife might come across as overzealous parents, but he insists they aren't pushing their sons. "All you can do is expose your child to things and hope they find something they enjoy." After all, he is quick to point out, it was Wayne Gretzky's father, in the now-famous tale, who first "saw the spark" in his son and built that backyard rink.

Ultimately, though, the rush to early learning may just be a pile of work for a shrinking return. Parents who don't have the means or time to provide it can go hang out at the playground with their sons and daughters, and take heart in the story of Joey Mullen, who played for Calgary at the same time that No. 99 was lacing up for Edmonton.

Raised in Hell's Kitchen in New York, Mr. Mullen didn't even step onto an ice rink until early adolescence. But he went on to score more than 500 goals, and get his name in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Erin Anderssen is The Globe and Mail's social-trends reporter