I was deeply saddened when I read the September 11, 2006, issue of MSNBC.com, in which an article entitled "The New First Grade: Too Much Too Soon?" detailed the pressures facing today's youngest students: incredible expectations, high-stakes testing, after-school tutoring, and on and on... for five-year-olds!
It's been a long time since my children were five. My hair is graying and my first homeschool experiment now stands 6'2" and towers over me. He achieved everything that the yuppie parents in the MSNBC article want for their children: a perfect SAT score, the outstanding National Merit Scholar in the U.S. in science and math, award- winning high school science research, even a trip to the White House to be recognized by President Bush. He is now studying math and physics at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. And yet, as my mind flits back over the years, his five-year-old life looked very different than today's high-pressure childhood.
A Real Childhood
When my son was five we baked lots of cookies together, learning to measure and count. He snuggled in my lap often through the day while we read stories aloud. We chased fireflies in the pasture, explored the canyons behind our house, splashed in the stream, and stretched out on the trampoline as we watched the stars at night. We listened to classical music as we cleaned the house together and told stories as we weeded the garden. We talked. A lot.
The elementary years were filled with home-based activities to help our children develop communication skills (both written and verbal), to instill discipline by playing a musical instrument, to expand their knowledge of the world around them by reading widely and taking appropriate field trips. As we grew into the junior high years we added leadership training to the mix of academics, discussions of current events, and volunteering.
Too Much Pressure, Too Little, or Just Enough?
|Austin Webb Says:
After living for several years in a community of the world's most brilliant minds (Caltech), I have come to the conclusion that you can't produce a functional, successful person by parental pressure or attempts to artificially accelerate education.
The most academically successful people I know who are actually able to function outside of home are the products of supportive families that provided intellectual resources without undue amounts of pressure to succeed.
Whether you start college at 8 or at 20 (I have known profoundly brilliant people in both categories), the important thing is that the drive comes primarily from the student and that the family provides support. Piling on tests and "enrichment activities" can stamp out creativity and work against the acquisition of real knowledge and competence.
We did pursue excellence throughout the years, but it was an excellence where love set the curve. Love knew when to push and when to cancel school for the day. Love knew when it needed to be perfect and when it was good enough. Love made each day a delight to explore and kept the excitement of learning alive. But love was also tough when it needed to be.
Austin has shared in earlier articles that we worked hard to confront each child's weaknesses. In high school, we routinely pushed beyond academic and personal comfort zones. However, I was always attuned to each child's stress level and intervened before they reached the threshold. I would send them outside to jog a few miles or to the lawn chair with a good book to allow them time to re-group. Sometimes I had to eliminate wonderful activities or say no to great opportunities.
Perhaps here is the difference. I'm sure the driven parents mentioned in the article love their children. They want what is best for them. But I have a hunch that when we are separated from our children for hours a day that somehow we lose touch with the essence of each individual child. When we get out of the habit of practicing our parenting (by turning it over to paid professionals) we slowly lose confidence in our ability to make these critical judgment calls. Gradually we become estranged from our maturing children and eventually consider it to be a normal state of affairs when we can no longer connect with their souls. We are fearful of taking a tough stance, of making a counter-cultural decision that will be unpopular with this alien in our midst.
Before homeschooling parents begin to pat themselves on the back, you must know that this same rift happens easily within our realm as well. When we allow too much of our children's lives to be superintended by homeschool co-ops, coaches, tutors, extracurriculars... we can wake up one morning and realize the chasm has grown too wide. We no longer know when to push or when to apply grace.
Be forewarned that we homeschool moms tend to err on the side of grace. We expect too little of our high school students or we get overwhelmed and very little school happens at all. Our children will suffer in adulthood if we set the bar too low.
The Answer is Yes
If your children have had a rich and stimulating elementary/junior high existence, they will have the mental and physical resources to ramp up quickly for the demands of high school.
In truth, we do begin preparation for the SAT in kindergarten, but in a way that would confound those wise in the world. We prepare our children for so much more than the SAT by nurturing curiosity, giving them time to think, reading, talking, building relationships, developing discipline, teaching them to work, modeling how to learn, speaking vision into their lives, and, most importantly, expecting the best that each child has to offer. It is so very simple and yet it will demand all we have to give.