Burkean child-rearing

So I got my middle son a new toy. On the side, the label claims:

Stimulating your child to learn and develop

  • Sound and movement
  • Gripping and release
  • Hand and eye co-ordination
  • Colours and shape
  • Cause and effect
  • Manipulative skills

(I note with interest that my oldest son, a four-and-a-half-year old, who has presumably pretty much got that grasp-and-release skill down pat, absconded with the toy and spent 2 hours playing with it.) Try as you might, it seems you cannot buy a toy that does not tout the cognitive bounty that will accrue to your child from playing with it.

When my oldest was about 10 months old, I signed up for Gymboree classes (or, rather, I signed him up). I assumed that the idea was to let kids roll around for a little bit and for moms to meet one another and chat. Little did I know there was much more at stake. An earnest 21-year-old employee informed me that that very day, we were going to teach him object permanence. Thank God he took that class! Otherwise, he would have grown up thinking that objects winked out of existence when he no longer perceived them. (If only Berkeley had taken Gymboree….).

It is one of the most pleasurable parts of my academic work to be up on certain aspects of the recent development psychology literature and to attend a lot of developmental psychology talks at my university. Two things strike me: 1) just how smart are some of the people who work in that area, and how truly impressive are some of their experiment designs, and 2) the field is, so to speak, in its infancy. There is so much we don’t know about development. We don’t really understand how children learn words, how they learn the rules of grammar, how and when they understand agency, when they can accurately guess other people’s mental states, etc. etc. It’s an exciting field, but the idea that we know enough about developmental psychology to program more successful humans seems like bunk.

Indeed, developmental psychology is so complex that I think a Burkean approach is warranted. We’ve been raising children a certain way and with certain stimuli forever. Maybe it’s not all good, but let’s not muck around with it unless we have excellent evidence that we should. People take one study (a link between Mozart and intelligence, say) and go nuts with it, playing classical music nonstop for their child. When we know so little about how children develop, a counterintuitive position may well not only be a total waste of time and effort on the part of parents, but might even possibly harm the child. It used to be believed by Maria Montessori that we should discourage pretend play. It’s now been shown in study after study that pretend play reaps many benefits. So should we go around directing and actively encouraging pretend play, then? Let’s wait and see. Maybe the fact that pretense is child-inititated is what’s crucial. The point is, we don’t know, and we should be quite careful about mucking around in our kids’ brains.

As Alison Gopnik, no slouch in the developmental psych world, put it:

Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the alphabet. Government programs like No Child Left Behind urge preschools to be more like schools, with instruction in specific skills….

The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even toy cellphones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone. (Imagine how much money we can save on “enriching” toys and DVDs!)

But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.

Jonah Lehrer has a post up arguing that it is reasonably well established that preschool for poorer children is really important. So that’s the kind of evidence that even a Burkean should appreciate. He also says, and I agree entirely,

The first lesson is that upper-class parents worry too much. Although adults tend to fret over the details of parenting — Is it better to play the piano or the violin? Should I be a Tiger Mom or a Parisian mom? What are the long-term effects of sleep training? — these details are mostly insignificant. In the long run, the gift of money is that it gives a child constant access to a world of stimulation and enrichment, thus allowing her to fulfill her genetic potential.

Yes! Children need to be spoken to and loved and attended to and read to. As good parents have done for generations. Beyond that, we don’t know all that much. If something is fun for them, like pretending or running outside, it may well be benefiting them in ways we don’t know about.

We should not conclude, a la Jane Brody, that because talking to your child is good, you need to talk to her constantly. Might not down time also be useful to children? Brody says, approvingly,

Two of my female friends in their 30s who have toddlers talk to them, and with them, incessantly.

Forgive me for wondering how these friends of Brody retain their sanity. And forgive me, too, for wondering if they are spending their 30s in a constant effort that may well be doing no good.

There is likely wisdom in the accumulated traditions and natural inclinations of young children. Let them play what they will and talk to them how we will unless we are given an excellent reason why  not.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


    • To elaborate, just a little bit.

      The pressure that most upper-middle class parents to prepare their children for the super-competitive world they’re headed for is making both parent and child crazy. I have friends that spend their day driving the kid from soccer, to swimming, to Chinese lessons, to tutors; desperately trying to pack in each potential “critical skill” before the child’s head explodes. And from what I’ve seen, these kids don’t turn out appreciably better than regular kids.

      It’s the air of panic and desperation that seems so sad to me. And we really don’t know what kind of parenting makes for smart, adaptive, emotionally whole adults. After all, the first generation that was “consciously” parented a la Dr. Spock turns out to be the generation that fell into nihilistic ideology, engages in culture war, and watches five hours of television every night.

      It’s always been my theory that there’s only one important skill to parenting: making sure that the child knows he’s loved, and that you have his back. Beyond that, I don’t think the ultimate adult that emerges from childhood is much affected by strict or liberal parenting, or by how many after-school programs he could be stuffed into.

  1. Well done, Rose. I’ve found my children just know how to develop in their own way. My wife and I provide guidance, direction and instruction, of course, and do the traditional stuff, but we’ve learned quickly that “development” is not something that can be thrust upon a growing child. You’d be more successful teaching them humility.

    • One of the things that really bothers me about this kind of thinking is it measures success in child-rearing in terms of skills and achievements rather than virtues.

      • Oh, I think plenty of parents freak out about teaching virtues, too.

      • I taught for a few years at a college preparatory school that was modeled on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, i.e., the teaching of virtue. Seemed to work pretty well.

        • The Nicomachean Ethics figured large in my Dad’s thinking and Phronesis was the first Greek word I ever really learned beyond the spelling of Christos. It only appears twice in the New Testament, in Ephesians 1:8 Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; sophia kai phronesei, abstract wisdom and practical wisdom. Straight out of Aristotle, seemingly.

          What’s the point of being good, he mused, if it brings us no pleasure? Doing the right thing brings with it a certain enjoyment. Being not-bad from some fear of punishment isn’t goodness at all. Nor is priggishness any better, that’s just someone afraid to mix it up in the world, thinks he’s too good for regular folks.

  2. A fine bit of writing, that. Perhaps you’ll expand on how Burke applies in this situation.

    I’m always nattering on about how I raised my kids. I never went in for all that External Stimuli stuff as was the fashion back then. I did teach my kids to read very early and as they advanced, I offered a 50 dollar reward if the child could fill in The Grid, a 12 by 12 matrix of the multiplication tables, filled in correctly. My son pestered his older cousin to teach him the multiplication tables and he earned his 50 dollars when he was five years old.

    I never trusted the schools to teach my kids anything but how to get along with other children: the rest I managed on my own with Socratic exercise, teaching them the rules of rhetoric as early as they could master them. They quarreled with me endlessly, demanding explanations for this and that.

    I remember explaining advertising to them, taping some advertisements for toys, showing them how those crafty ad makers weren’t selling toys at all, but happiness. Look at those kids, smiling and carrying on, I’d tell them. You’d smile too if you were being paid to smile. The toy, well, look at it, that’s the very best that toy can do in the ad. Don’t pay attention to those ads, we’ll go up to the toy aisle and you decide if you want it. Don’t let anyone else try to convince you with some fake-o ad with some kid who they picked out of a hundred children at some casting call. Ninety-nine kids went home without getting that gig that day and you can bet they’re looking at that ad very differently.

    Every child starts out as a physicist, working out how to pick up and throw things accurately, learning what floats and what won’t, asking amazingly intricate questions about the world around them. Keep encouraging that sort of thing and you just don’t know what you’ll get with a kid.

    • All I meant by “Burkean” here was having a healthy suspicion of how much we think we know. And being suspicious that any new way of doing things might have unexpected consequences. Traditional ways of doing things may be the way they are for ways we don’t fully understand. So be cautious of abruptly changing the way things are done, unless you are very very sure you should.

      After I posted this it occurred to me that for all I know, Burke had a real child-rearing philosophy that I don’t know about that involves dunking children in ice cold water or something if they ever commit a transgression. If so, that is not what I meant!

      • I’ve always like Burke. He wasn’t above changing his mind: reading Vindication might prove a bit shocking to those who suppose him to be a champion of conservatism. Burke constantly tried to connect things and avoid abstraction. He was the great apostle of curiosity.

        • There’s some debate about that work. Did he change his mind? Or was it a failed satire that people — whoops — took seriously?

          I’m not going to weigh in and threadjack, but I thought I’d mention it.

          On the subject of the original post, I’ve often had similar thoughts though never so well-formed. How did Mozart become Mozart? Sure, he came from an accomplished musical family — his dad’s stuff isn’t too bad either — but I can’t imagine the little guy listening to half as much music as you might find in some toddlers’ environments today.

          • Burke would later write a Just Kidding preface to the second edition but that’s more a function of political necessity.

  3. Ran across test papers from age 5 1/2 that had me getting 100% on reading comprehension. On a third-grade final. [Received a package the other day that my late mother had put away in the family archives.]

    Mom read to me, always, and I reckon she let me see the words while she did. Explained the written words to me, I bet.

    Burkean that I am, I’m not sure it goes any deeper than that, although as a society and a government and an educational establishment, we try our best to replicate by artificial means a mom who read to you.

    Thx, Rose. Great piece.

    • Causality can be hard to trace in cases like that.

      Did you get good at reading because your mother read to you? Perhaps that means reading to children will enhance their development of reading comprehension.

      Or perhaps not. Perhaps you naturally enjoyed reading, and your mother noticed that you especially enjoyed it when she read to you. Or perhaps you inherited a genetic talent for reading from your mother, and she read to you because she always enjoyed (and was good at) reading.

      • Mr/Ms Fnord, I had studies like this in mind…


        Children Better Prepared For School If Their Parents Read Aloud To Them
        ScienceDaily (May 12, 2008) — Young children whose parents read aloud to them have better language and literacy skills when they go to school, according to a review published online ahead of print in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

        Children who have been read aloud to are also more likely to develop a love of reading, which can be even more important than the head start in language and literacy. And the advantages they gain persist, with children who start out as poor readers in their first year of school likely to remain so.

        In addition, describing pictures in the book, explaining the meaning of the story, and encouraging the child to talk about what has been read to them and to ask questions can improve their understanding of the world and their social skills.

        The review brings together a wide range of published research on the benefits of reading aloud to children. It also includes evidence that middle class parents are more likely to read to their children than poorer families.

        The authors explain that the style of reading has more impact on children’s early language and literacy development than the frequency of reading aloud. Middle class parents tend to use a more interactive style, making connections to the child’s own experience or real world, explaining new words and the motivations of the characters, while working class parents tend to focus more on labelling and describing pictures. These differences in reading styles can impact on children’s development of language and literacy-related skills.

  4. My feelings as well. Most of the silliness in child rearing seems to my eyes to be the product of over-anxious status-seeking parents, aided and abetted by a marketplace eager to sell them whatever quackery can be created.

  5. Try as you might, it seems you cannot buy a toy that does not tout the cognitive bounty that will accrue to your child from playing with it.

    Pity our poor ancestors who never had such toys. Imagine how shockingly stunted their development was, and as a consequence, the development of their children. It’s a wonder humans ever developed enough to develop development toys.

    that very day, we were going to teach him object permanence.

    I had the astounding privilege of watching the moment my first child developed object permanence, or at least something closely related to it. I was working on the flowerbed outside our bedroom, which had two windows in the corner, one on each side of the house. My wife brought first daughter into the bedroom and let her peer out the window at me, whereupon she smiled delightedly. I then ducked down and popped up in the other window while she stared blankly out the first one, then looked around and caught site of me and smiled again. I repeated this several times, and each time she looked puzzled at my reappearance at the other window. Until she suddenly caught on, and when I reappeared at the other window I saw her already looking out, having anticipated my reappearance. And each time after that she anticipated my appearance at the other window. It was amazing to observe learning like that.

    Alison Gopnik

    Extra credit for good sources.

  6. Great piece. As a teacher of young children, this mirrors much of my own feelings on education in general and the current state of parenting/educating. Working in an independent school, many of my families hail from the middle- and upper-classes, where the pressure felt/created by parents is a very real issue to combat.

    Humans are unique in the remarkably extended period of “childhood” that we go through. This is an interesting evolutionary trait of our species that I think about quite often. On the one hand, it is a a wonder our species has achieved the heights that it has given that we spend such a great deal of our life entirely or almost entirely defenseless. How many other species would last if their young couldn’t work for the first several months of life? Some animals literally hit the ground running and would be gone if they didn’t. On the other hand, the reason that we are capable of achieving what we have achieved is due in large part to the extended childhood. The brain development that goes on during the years of childhood is essential to our success as a species. Our ability to reason, problem-solve, and engage in the complex thought necessary to build sky scrapers and send men into space is developed during these years. Attempts to rush this process, to have children grow up before they are ready, ignore this. Play IS the work of young children. If not for play, we as a species would not be where we are today. Our ancestors used rocks and sticks. And with the development that came from that work with rocks and sticks, they build pyramids and crossed oceans and developed language and harnessed fire and domesticated other species of less-evolved animals. Pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. And a hell of a lot more impressive than a 2-year-old regurgitating words of a dozen language acquired through rote memorization of a 5-year-old pianist unable to see the potential in a toilet paper tube.
    We are great because of our playful childhood, not in spite of it. Ignore this at your own peril, folks.

  7. I share your suspicion of child-rearing fads. Most of them are based on pseudoscience. They use the trappings of developmental psychology as marketing tools, but at bottom, they’re based more on an entrepreneur’s hunch about what will sell books and toys to anxious parents than actual science.

    The problem with Burkean arguments is that, when it comes to raising children and most other important social practices, it’s not obvious what we’ve always done. What constitutes traditional child-rearing? Should we go by how our parents raised us? How their parents raised them? How the Ancient Greeks raised their kids? By our best guess at paleolithic childrearing practices? Some questionable childrearing fads sell themselves as cutting edge science, but just as many portray themselves as reconstructions of traditional lifeways. Even if it’s true that women have been wearing their babies since time immemorial, it doesn’t necessarily follow that continual baby wearing is the best thing to do today. Baby-wearing might be a universal principle, the full implications of which we do not understand, but it might just be necessary for women who have nowhere clean to put their babies down but optional for contemporary Western women who have clean playpens and cribs to deposit their babies periodically.

    • I agree with you that that is a problem with appeals to Burkeanism. You’re right that we often have no knowledge how children were really raised in times past, and how attachment parenting and folkways parenting is just as much of a fad. (Worth noting, however, the claims of cognitive benefits often made by attachment parents). Also, perhaps part of the reason that there is such a long period in which children do not function independently is precisely so children can be flexible enough to operate in a variety of environments. We have, after all, had a couple of generations of playpenned, formula fed kids who have basically turned out okay, which is something of an indication.

      So I agree totally that a Burkean route is not always obvious, and does not always give you an exact guide for what to do. But in general, I would characterize Burkeanism as being suspicious that some sort of conscious intervention (be it flashcards or baby wearing) will have a drastic and measurable positive outcome. I would also be suspicious of consciously altering ours and our children’s inclinations. So if the baby wants to bang on pots and pans, there may well be benefits we don’t know about. And if we want to cuddle and sing to a baby sometimes, and then put the baby down and get some sleep other times, we should probably respect our own desires, too.

      Most improtant is respect for the fact that kids can learn to read, become successful, learn object permanence with a reasonably wide variety of parenting styles. Love, attention, playfulness yes. Anyone who makes further claims is really just guessing.

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