In our “information age,” parents and authorities alike seem to put ever more emphasis on “early learning.” We have endless educational toys, flash cards, and kindergarten preparatory programs. And parents often feel they must be like the teachers they had in school. But is this really what will create happy, successful, contributing adults?

Recent research, as well as the experience of many parents and families I have worked with, says no. Kids are born learners. Even at birth, a child who has not had blinding silver nitrate drops put in their eyes follows the humans around her or him and recognizes the mother almost immediately. From then on they take in everything, and learn through all their senses, imitating everything they see us do. How could they not learn as they go?

Experiments recently described in the New York Times by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated that even very young children like to experiment with tasks they see us doing as well as to imitate what they see seems to work when we do it.

They also respond differently depending on how we talk to them. If we are instructing, they will tend to do what we say, but if we leave the task open ended they will be quite creative but also surprisingly logical as they figure out how to accomplish the task.

We forget sometimes to give credit to the amazing capacity we have as human beings to learn. Babies often act like little scientists says Gopnik. While schools are a recent invention to teach skills like writing and reading and grasping world affairs, humans have always learned by being around their parents and caring adults, imitating, interacting, and playing.

Headlines today often speak of “different learners,” “early burnout,” even youth suicides from the pressures of today’s educational and media assault on our children’s natural programming. This is one of many reasons a small but growing group of parents choose to home school their children, in order to let the natural progression of development proceed, and also to let the parents be parents instead of mini-teachers.

As Gopnik notes, in a society which is now begging for more creative, adaptive, and open-ended thinking, we would be wise to move to an attitude which trusts the child to learn. Says Gopnik, “We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn.”

To explore further this question of learning and teaching from infancy on, please go to my book You Can Postpone Anything But Love, and for the older child, The Seven Secrets of Successful Parents,

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