Our culture has an emphasis on early learning, and early reading in particular, which can be unsettling to parents. That’s why I’m letting my son pick up reading at his own pace.
The title of this piece is admittedly not entirely accurate, but there’s only so much explanation to be fit in so few words. I don’t mind if my kids are early readers naturally; if they happen to pick up on reading quickly and without coercion, it’s fine by me. Some children are natural early readers, and if it works for them, that’s great.
But our culture has an emphasis on early learning, and early reading in particular, which is unsettling to me as a parent.
A few months back, I posted this picture of my then six-year-old son stopping to read a street sign, and celebrated his new reading skills in the caption.
We’re homeschoolers, mostly unschoolers, in that we don’t have a set curriculum and my son does most of his learning while freely pursuing his own interests. He’s learned the bulk of what he knows by playing, rather than sitting at a desk and memorizing things. His obsession with dinosaurs has played a large part in learning to read. Once I explained to him that the library contains near-infinite books about dinosaurs, and he can read them endlessly, the switch was turned on and his hunger for the written word grew exponentially.
A lot of his reading skills have been developed while out and about: reading street signs, reading product labels at the grocery store, paging through books at the library, as well as reading books of all varieties at home. His love of reading has been inspired by his curiosity about the world around him. When reading really clicked for him, it was like he suddenly realized that the world is comprised of signs and words everywhere for him to read. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
But because I didn’t push it, he didn’t learn to read early. Nor did he learn to read late; he was pretty much right on track with his peers. When I posted this picture, though, some of the comments struck me. Basically, it was a consistent refrain of “How old is he?”
I could be wrong, but the fact that so many people asked how old he was left the impression that somehow his age should factor into the level of celebration afforded to his achievement. Like, if he was two or three or four, that would be really impressive. But six years old? Isn’t that just… average?
It is average. We have some workbooks that my son enjoys doing during quiet time, and according to those, his math is around a second-grade level while his reading is approximately first-grade level. This is normal for his age. Not right or wrong, but common.
So why was I so excited for him, if it’s just average? Why did I post a picture celebrating his reading skills, when it wasn’t anything particularly impressive, like a toddler learning to read?
Our society has a fascination with kids who read early compared to the rest. Most of us are familiar with the gimmicky product, “Your Baby Can Read,” a now-defunct organization devoted to enchanting parents with the idea that their infant and toddlers can read, if only this specific program is followed.
While it may sound like a fun party trick, it is not common, necessary, or even healthy for babies to be reading at such a young age. Your Baby Can Read was eventually involved in lawsuits with the Federal Trade Commission, who accused them of making false claims not evidenced by any research.
But this fallacious program does not stand alone. Other attempts to push reading onto young children might not start as early or be as much of a ruse, but the idea of early childhood education consisting of much else aside from playtime is sadly misguided.
Play time, not calculated reading, is the most important part of early education, and it happens naturally, not contained within a desk or a classroom or a program you can buy.
While some parents and educational establishments focus on encouraging early reading with the belief that it will somehow enhance a child’s early learning, there is evidence that early education as it is usually implemented often backfires, and the benefits of free play are well established.
The Finnish school system has been getting a lot of attention lately due to its philosophy about play time and reading: unlike American children, preschoolers, kindergartners, even 1st-graders are not expected to read. They are expected to play. To sing and dance and build and use their imaginations, during which they learn social skills and cooperation, among other important attributes. They often go on to excel at reading.
So I’ll celebrate my children learning to read, whether early or average or late. I’ll celebrate because literacy is important; reading is life-changing, and there is an endless amount of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from the texts throughout history. But such value can also be found in the simple act of a child freely playing to their heart’s content.
Consistently, research tends to show that pushing our children to read at earlier and earlier ages may not only be disadvantageous, but harmful to them. Sure, many of our children are rising to the occasion and reading sooner than we as their parents and grandparents were when we were their age.
But at what cost? More middle schoolers are facing depression, cutting, suicide attempts and more, and we have a generation of children who are diagnosed with more ADD/ADHD and personality disorders than ever before. We’re tasking our children to do things neurally they simply were not designed to do this early, and we all know it.
This is why more families are choosing private schools or homeschooling, and one of the big reasons recruiting and retaining quality teachers is getting harder and harder. Teachers don’t get paid squat, and are expected to push expectations on babies who simply aren’t ready for it. Who deals with the repercussions?
We do. The teachers and families and friends of children who are pushed to do things far before they should be tasked to do so.
Children reading in kindergarten used to be an anomaly; a unique ability of possibly gifted children, but definitely motivated and ready to do so.
Now, if our children are not reading on a 1st grade level by the end of kindergarten, we claim they’re behind and offer tutoring, taking away even more of the already restricted unstructured playtime they may have.
Our children are paying significant prices, and if we don’t stop expecting them to perform beyond what is developmentally appropriate (note the difference between capable and appropriate), we will too as the generation they’ll be caring for.