Friday, March 28, 2008

Slow parenting part three: let babies learn to think for themselves

Being force-fed classical music and foreign languages does not make a child genius. In fact, it can lead to anxiety and aggression, says author Carl Honoré in our final extract from his new book

Babies listening to music
Too much, too young: any beneficial effects of listening to classical music as a baby last just 20 minutes

When researchers in the Nineties found that listening to Mozart enhanced university students' spatial reasoning, an entire industry sprang up based on the claim that flooding the nursery with piano concerti could boost a baby's brain.

Today, you can still buy albums and DVDs trumpeting the so-called "Mozart effect". The only problem is that the Mozart effect is nonsense.

In 2007, the German research ministry finally commissioned a crack team of neuroscientists, psychologists, educationalists and philosophers to investigate all the research done on the phenomenon.

Their conclusion: even if listening to Mozart does boost spatial-temporal reasoning (and not all studies have shown this), the effect lasts no more than 20 minutes.

A misreading of science, coupled with soaring expectations, also fuels many doomed attempts to teach foreign languages to infants. Research in the Nineties showing that babies possess a unique ability to learn any tongue sent parents scampering off to buy Berlitz tapes in the hope of turning their newborns into mini-polyglots. It didn't work.

Why? Because babies tune into a language only when it is spoken to them regularly by a real person. In more recent experiments, infants exposed only to foreign language DVDs or audiotapes or bilingual toys absorbed nothing at all - not one word or phrase, not one single sound.

Nor did they arrive at school with more appetite for conjugating French verbs or identifying Mandarin symbols.

Does that mean that foreign language classes with real teachers are the answer? My neighbour takes his two-year-old to Mandarin lessons every Saturday morning. "Chinese is the future," he says. "The sooner she starts, the better." Again, that depends.

Research shows that in order to become bilingual, children need to be exposed to a foreign language for at least 30 per cent of their waking hours.

That means taking proper immersion classes, or spending a big chunk of the day speaking the other language with a parent or nanny, or with other toddlers in a nursery. It does not mean stuffing an hour of Mandarin instruction between gymnastics and the Saturday morning shopping trip.

It also transpires that not learning a second language in the early years does not mean a lifetime of monolingualism. The latest research shows that the brain goes on developing long after the early years, that there is no "critical window" that closes forever on the third birthday.

The bottom line seems to be that infant-cramming is often pointless and may even backfire. Skills gained through forcefeeding often have to be relearnt later. One London music teacher tells of a girl driven by her parents to master the violin from the age of three.

She surged ahead of her peers, yet by the age of six her technique was so distorted that she had to spend months relearning the basics.

"The worst part was that the other children, who had been playing to their ability level, hit their stride and left her behind," says the teacher. "It was a classic case of the tortoise and the hare."

Too much stimulation can interfere with sleep, which babies need in order to process and consolidate what they have learnt during their waking hours. When parents get anxious about milestones, the infant can get stressed, too.

If a baby's brain becomes flooded with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, the chemical change can become permanent over time, making it harder to learn, or to control aggression, in later life and increasing the chance of depression.

So what is the right way to treat an infant? Well, the question itself is flawed. However much we may want science to provide a step-by-step guide to the early years, our patchy knowledge of brain development makes this impossible.

Yet there are some clear guidelines. One is that all infants thrive on one-to-one interaction with plenty of eye contact. A baby scrutinising his parent's face, deciphering the emotions and expressions flickering across it, is doing the neural equivalent of the Jane Fonda workout.

Gazing into his eyes, smiling, nuzzling, adopting exaggerated facial expressions, tickling, pronouncing words v-e-r-y slowly, kissing, and imitating sounds back and forth may not look like much compared to the showier thrills of baby sign language, but it is actually a rich and stimulating conversation - and you don't need a specialist to teach you how to do it because it comes naturally to all of us.

This loving interplay between parent and infant helps to build the latter's pre-frontal cortex, the "social" part of the brain that governs empathy, self-control, and the capacity to read nonverbal signals from other people - the very skills that teachers identify as the most important for thriving in kindergarten and beyond. It can also immunise children against stress.

Around the world, child-development experts are issuing the same advice to anxious, impatient parents: every baby develops at a different speed. The early years are important, but they are not a race.

Spend less time trying to enrich your baby and more time getting to know him. Trust your instincts - instead of mimicking whatever the alpha mother in the playground is doing.

Like world peace, "early education" sounds like a no-brainer - how can anyone quibble with getting children off to a flying start? The problem is that academic hothousing is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

True, it can sometimes yield the sort of results that make teachers gawp and parents crow: but what about the longer term? Does all that early learning pay off later?

No. The latest research suggests that reaching learning milestones early is no guarantee of future academic stardom.

One study in Philadelphia found that, by the age of seven or eight, there was no discernible gap between the performance of children who spent their pre-school years in nurseries that were rigidly academic and those who came from laid-back, play-based ones. The only difference was that the hothoused kids tended to be more anxious and less creative.

While many believe that knowing letters, numbers, shapes and colours is the best preparation for school, teachers take a very different view. They say that the child who arrives at reception socially adept, who knows how to share, empathise and follow instructions, will stand a better chance of mastering the three Rs later on.

The argument that more testing and toil is the best way to shape them for life in the 21st century is starting to fray at the edges. A report by King's College London suggests that the cognitive development of British children is slowed by spending too little time messing around outdoors.

"By stressing only the basics - reading and writing - and testing like crazy you reduce the level of cognitive stimulation," says Philip Adey, professor of education at King's College. "Children have the facts but they are not thinking very well."

In the future, the biggest rewards will go not to the yes-men who know how to serve up an oven-ready answer, but to the nimble-minded innovators who can think across disciplines, delve into a problem for the sheer hell of it and relish the challenge of learning throughout their lives.

These are the people who will come up with the next Google, invent an alternative fuel, or devise a plan to slay poverty in Africa.

One of the central nostrums of modern parenting is that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is winning entry to an elite university. Nothing makes a parent preen more than announcing that Junior will be starting at Oxford or Cambridge in September.

But even if such famous universities deliver pedigree and bragging rights, are they always worth the effort? Surely a degree from a top university is the ticket to a bulging pay packet and a prestigious job?

That may be true in more rigid cultures such as South Korea, but it seems to be increasingly less so elsewhere. At last glance only seven CEOs from the top 50 Fortune 500 companies earned their undergraduate degrees at an Ivy League college.

What seems to count for more is the kind of person you are when you arrive on campus, rather than the campus itself. One well-known study concluded that the chief predictor of higher income in later life was whether a student had applied to a prestigious university, not whether he actually attended one.

"Essentially, what we found was the fact that you apply to those kinds of elite places means that you are ambitious, and you'll do well in life wherever you go," says Stacy Dale, a researcher with the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Think about that for a moment: that means the main purpose of our education system, and our main aim as parents, should not be to manoeuvre children into a chart-topping university. It should be to raise imaginative, disciplined, dynamic children with a lust for learning and life.

Studies in Britain and other countries also suggest that university students who come from the state system go on to earn better degrees. There are various theories for this. One is that because state schools are less prone to hothousing and micro-managing, their pupils learn the self-discipline and self-motivation that are essential in university and, later, in the workplace.

Many of us schedule, push, polish and protect our children to the limit of our budget and ability. But then, when it comes to imposing discipline, we go a bit wobbly. Welcome to the central paradox of modern child-rearing.

Does that mean children's behaviour is worse today than in the past? Hard to say, but there are troubling signs. One major study found that 15-year-old Britons are more than twice as likely to lie, steal or disobey figures of authority than they were in 1974. And in 2006 the charity Kidscape blamed permissive parents for creating a new playground scourge: the middle-class bully.

How did we get here? One factor is the modern habit of putting our children on a pedestal. At nursery schools, children sing Frère Jacques with the lyrics switched to: "I am special. I am special. Look at me.

Look at me." Every doodle ends up on the fridge door, every sports trophy on the mantelpiece, every academic achievement in the Christmas round robin. Many of us have absorbed the idea that high self-esteem is the springboard to success - that if a child grows up believing herself to be a star, then eventually she will be. But is that really true?

A recent review of more than 15,000 studies concluded that high self-esteem does not boost grades or career prospects, nor does it cut alcohol use or curb violent behaviour.

Obviously, self-confidence is an asset, but children who are over-praised can end up more worried about maintaining their image and more inclined to undermine their peers to do so, as well as more likely to look to parents and teachers for approval. Instead of making things happen, they sit around anxiously waiting for the world to fit their vision of how it should be.

When everything you do is praised to the heavens, you may start to believe your own press. Such narcissism may help on The X-Factor - though even there it can backfire - but it doesn't wash in the real world.

Putting a child on a pedestal makes it harder for him to take risks, to experiment, to stick with a difficult task, to make mistakes and learn from them. Anything that smacks of failure would disappoint his parents and therefore tarnish his credentials as an alpha child.

Another downside of putting a child on a pedestal is that it makes it harder to say no. It may not be pleasant when children sulk, slam doors or hiss "I hate you", but let's face it: that's part of the parenting deal.

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