I’m sure this has happened to you. You’re hanging out with a group of friends and the conversation turns to your kids. Happens all the time, right? One of these friends then starts to monopolize the conversation. He insists that his child is a prodigy, advanced far beyond what average kids of the same age know and can do. One asks: so, how do you know? Among the – at this point, tedious – details, is that fact that his 4-year old is in a class for 5-6 year olds. Oh, we respond, as if it all makes sense. But does it?
All parents want to help their children achieve the highest possible levels of wellbeing and success. There is no recipe for doing this. And ambitious parents come in all sorts and sizes. Some redshirt their kids. Just like in collegiate athletics. With the hope that their kids will be older, smarter and emotionally more mature than their classmates and thus be ahead of the curve throughout their entire educational trajectory. Others, like this friend, tend towards the other extreme, pushing younger kids to perform at above-age levels, particularly in the academic sense, and preferring that kids “study” – whatever that really means at 4 or 5 or 6 years of age – than play.
Both of these strategies have issues and both are probably best saved for exceptional cases.
Success in school and life demands more than just academic smarts. It requires people-smarts too. A recent report published by the OECD, subject of my next post, finds that socio-emotional skills can activate cognitive skills. Cognitive skills don’t involve just applying knowledge; they require an ability to reflect and engage in more complex thinking patterns.
And here is where I wonder whether pushing young children to learn more or faster makes sense. It appears that a child’s socio-emotional development – like child development more generally – is ordered. Social emotional development within the first few years of life sets a precedent and prepares children to be self-confident, trusting, empathic, intellectually inquisitive, competent in using language to communicate, and capable of relating well to others.
A child’s socio-emotional development largely depends on the quality of her interactions with others. How does she manage stress? Adversity? Losing?
Adults are important in this regard. But so are other children. An array of socio-emotional skills is learned from and with peers. The way a 4-year old expresses her frustration with having to share a toy or wait her turn is likely to be quite different from how a 6-year handles the same situation.
For young children, play offers a good – perhaps one of the best – mediums for experiencing, managing and expressing a full range of negative and positive emotions. The same OECD report finds that children are taught appropriate behaviors when playing with others. Socio-emotional development at a young age can help improve health and social outcomes later on, like obesity, depression, and bullying. For example, moving a kindergartener in the US from the lowest to the highest decile of socio-emotional skills (measured by self-control, approaches to learning and internalizing behaviors) reduces the likelihood of being bullied in grade 8 by 12 percentage points. In Korea, increasing a child’s level of responsibility from the lowest to highest decile reduces the probability of being the victim of aggression by 5 percentage points; raising a Korean child’s cognitive skills has no effect on being bullied.
Bottom line? Four-year olds aren’t applying for college. But they are at a critical stage for acquiring a broad and well-balanced set of skills that will help them achieve success throughout their lives. Parents and peers are important in acquiring these skills. There will always be prodigies and exceptions. But, for most kids, the basics of just being a kid – like play – are likely to be the bet for school, college and whatever comes next, once that time comes.