Music in the womb. Swimming lessons at 3 months. Violin at age 3. Phonics and math in preschool, and home-computer learning for tots. What could be wrong with giving your child a jump start in life?
Plenty, say a growing number of educators and pediatricians, who are leading a backlash movement against accelerated academic learning in preschool and kindergarten. What schools need instead, they say, is a "hands-on" curriculum, rooted in children's experience and driven by their stages of mental and physical development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the California State Department of Education School Readiness Task Force, which will issue a report Dec. 15, have zeroed in on the tendency to push academic learning down into kindergarten and preschool.
"There's a body of new research out of developmental psychology and early childhood education that says children learn well from ages 4 through 7 under (certain) conditions--and those conditions are very different from what's going on in kindergartens today," said Carollee Howes, professor of education at UCLA and co-chair of the school readiness task force, appointed by Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction.
For their part, pediatricians warn that stress-linked psychosomatic illnesses and behavioral problems in children are on the rise.
Since the early 1970s, doctors have seen stress symptoms moving down from school-age to preschool-age children, according to Barbara Korsch, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles and chairwoman of the committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"We're seeing kids who . . . are overstimulated and overpressured," Korsch said. "They develop headaches and bellyaches, or may have sleep disturbances. . . . And now we're seeing more and more chest pains. The kids want to comply and don't want to rebel, so they get physical complaints."
In February, Korsch's pediatrics academy committee plans to issue special guidelines to help pediatricians deal with problems of the "hurried" or pressured child. Educators also suspect that too-early reading and computation training produces children who become bored and unmotivated later.
"It's an academic burnout problem," said Lilian G. Katz, professor of early and elementary childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and editor of Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
"By second or third grade, kids become psychological dropouts. They go through the task, but have given up whether it means anything."
Where did this all begin?
One educational historian, Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania, believes the current trend reeks of old wine in new bottles. He cites G. Stanley Hall, a leading American psychologist who in 1885 warned of the "grave danger" posed by late-Victorian parents who "perhaps not without vanity and cupidity, not only allow but sometimes encourage teachers to overpress their children, and sow seeds of suffering and incapacity."
The launching of Sputnik in 1957 gave a major jolt to American education, but the nationwide trend to teach academics in preschool and kindergarten began emerging sharply in the '80s. Factors such as the increasing competitiveness of college--and sometimes kindergarten--admissions, American industrial competition with Japan, and the changing American family have heightened Americans' educational anxieties.
Working, single and often guilt-stricken parents want to believe their children are "learning" in preschool.
"Many parents react by overstructuring the toddler's learning because of their own inadequacy and guilt," Philadelphia educators Jeanette M. Gallagher and Judith Coche wrote in a recent special issue of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly devoted to "hot-housing" of young children.
For baby-boom generation parents, often older and with one or two children, parenting may "become a project" that gratifies parental egos, said June Sale, director of UCLA Child Care Services, which provided staff for the school readiness task force. Bruce Littman, a West San Fernando Valley pediatrician, confirmed a rise in anxiety among patients.
"I definitely see middle-class parents who are unnerved by their child's lack of interest in early calculus and the Encyclopaedia Britannica," he said.
For minority and working-class families as well, promoting academic achievement as early as possible may appear the way to overcome social inequities, Sale said. And some advertisements for toys, computers and baby classes imply that money can buy a youngster early brain development.
'A Bill of Goods'
"Parents have been sold a bill of goods, that if they start pushing earlier, they'll have super babies and super children," Sale said.
Imposing a structured curriculum on young children may be especially inappropriate because their rates of development vary so widely, Howes said.