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.