The Quest For A Superkid

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Tom Marton and Danit Ben-Ari of Brookline, Mass., have a cunning strategy for successful child rearing. Like most other parents, they wouldn't mind if their two daughters turned out to be among the next Mozarts or Martha Grahams or Mia Hamms. But essentially, they just want to help the girls get the most out of their lives. The key, they've decided, is the weekends, when they see to it that their daughters do ... pretty much nothing at all.

Actually, "nothing at all" isn't quite accurate. If the girls, ages 4 and 7, want to sleep late, they do - as do Mom and Dad. After that, there's time for a family breakfast and a lazy morning and an afternoon of outside play or a museum trip or whatever else strikes the family's fancy. Monday, they all know, will come soon enough, and the girls will be going back to the high-stakes race of schoolwork and homework and ballet or chess or soccer practice. But until then, they are going to have a chance to breathe. "My children," Ben-Ari insists, "will have all the time they need simply to hang out and be children."

There was a time when kids being kids wasn't a radical notion. For generations, childhood may have been life's one, true sweetheart deal: go to school six hours a day, take up hobbies or sports to keep your mind and body active, and the rest of the time you play. If along the way you turned out to have some remarkable talent or unexpected gift, fine. But that wasn't one of the job requirements.

In the past few years, however, all that has changed. At the dawn of the 21st century, a curious - and unsettling - transformation has come over American kids. The marvelously anarchic institution of childhood has been slowly turning into little more than an apprentice adulthood. Toddlers who once would have been years away from starting their formal education are being hothoused in nursery schools. Preschoolers who would have spent their time learning simply to play and share are being bombarded with flash cards, educational CD-ROMs and other gadgets designed to teach reading, writing and even second languages. Grade-schoolers are spending longer hours at school, still longer ones sweating over homework and filling what time they have left with a buffet line of outside activities that may or may not build character but definitely build résumés. Kids who once had childhoods now have curriculums; kids who ought to move with the lunatic energy of youth now move with the high purpose of the worker bee.

The engine behind this early striving is, often, the parents, who are increasingly consumed by the idea that if they can't perfect their children, they must at least get them as close to that ideal as possible. And who can blame them? Birth rates, while short of baby-boom levels, are nonetheless robust, tightening the competition for spots in the best schools. At the same time, almost all those schools have democratized their admissions policies, meaning it's no longer just the élite who can attend. With competition getting ever keener, kids have to do ever more to distinguish themselves.

Parents are also driven by something a lot more primal: old-fashioned guilt. Even as men take on more responsibility for rearing children, the lion's share of baby care is still handled by mothers. But in an era in which it often takes two incomes to meet the monthly nut, increasing numbers of moms can't spend nearly as much time with their kids as they'd like. In 1999, 62% of mothers worked outside the home. That figure was 54% in 1985 and just 44% in 1975. "Parents feel tremendous guilt because they feel they're spreading themselves too thin," says Dr. Joshua Sparrow of Children's Hospital in Boston. "When parents have time, they can wait for things to happen," adds Rachelle Tyler, an M.D. and professor of pediatrics at UCLA. "But when they're pressured, they feel they've got to see their children respond now."

Into this anxious mix have stepped hucksters and marketers who see worried parents as the most promising pigeons. Store shelves groan with new products purported to stimulate babies' brains in ways harried parents don't have time for. There are baby Mozart tapes said to enhance spatial reasoning and perhaps musical and artistic abilities too. There are black, white and red picture books, said to sharpen visual acuity. There are bilingual products said to train baby brains so they will be more receptive to multiple languages. The hard sell even follows kids to the one place you'd think they'd be allowed some peace - the womb - with handheld tummy speakers designed to pipe music and voices to the unborn baby, the better to stimulate the growing brain and get it ready for the work it will eventually have to do. Parents who don't avail themselves of these products do so at their children's peril: the brain, they are told, has very limited windows for learning certain skills. Let them close, and kids may be set back forever.

But is any of this true? Is it possible to turn an ordinary kid into an exceptional kid? Even if it is, is it worth it to try? Is it better to steer children gently through childhood, letting them make some mistakes and take some scrapes and accept the fact that some of them may not be marked for excellence? Or is it better to strive for a family of superkids, knowing that they are getting the most out of their potential if not out of their youth? Clearly, many parents are caught up in that quest, even if they quietly harbor doubts about its merits. "Parents have, to a large extent, lost confidence in themselves and in their own good judgment," says Peter Gorski, a committee chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The phenomenon of the driven child has been coming for a while, but it was in 1994 that the new breed was truly born. That was the year the Carnegie Corp. published a 134-page report describing a "quiet crisis" among U.S. children, who it argued were being ill served by their twin-career parents and their often failing school systems. The report's findings were worrisome enough, but buried in its pages were two disturbing paragraphs warning that schoolkids might not be the only ones suffering; babies could be too. Young brains are extremely sensitive to early influences, the report cautioned, and the right - or wrong - stimuli could have a significant impact on later development.

Those paragraphs went off like a grenade in the otherwise unremarkable study. The press ran alarming stories about blameless children being left behind. The White House called a conference on childhood development. Parents snapped up news of both, hoping it wasn't too late to undo whatever damage they had unwittingly done to their kids. "Every parent began to worry," says John Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation and author of the book The Myth of the First Three Years. "They thought, ŒIf I don't have the latest Mozart CD, my child is going to jail rather than Yale?'"

In order to make up for their feared lapses, parents indeed started buying the approved kinds of music - and a whole lot more. A study conducted by Zero to Three, a nonprofit research group, found that almost 80% of parents with a high school education or less were assiduously using flash cards, television and computer games to try to keep their babies' minds engaged.

Child-development experts, however, consider these sterile tools inferior to more social and emotional activities such as talking with or reading to children. These specialists agree that the only thing shown to optimize children's intellectual potential is a secure, trusting relationship with their parents. Time spent cuddling, gazing and playing establishes a bond of security, trust and respect on which the entire child-development pyramid is based. "We have given social and emotional development a back seat," says UCLA's Tyler, "and that's doing a great disservice to kids and to our society."


 
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Trying to pump up children's IQs in artificial ways may also lead to increased stress on the kids, as the parents' anxiety starts to rub off. By four or five years old, the brains of stressed kids can start to look an awful lot like the brains of stressed adults, with increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the twitchy chemicals that fuel the body's fight-or-flight response. Keep the brain on edge long enough, and the changes become long-lasting, making learning harder as kids get older.

But the fact is, the kids don't have to feel so pressured - and neither do their parents. It is true, as the marketers say, that a baby's brain is a fast-changing thing. Far from passively sponging up information, it is busy from birth laying complex webs of neurons that help it grow more sophisticated each day. It takes anywhere from a year to five years, depending on the part of the brain, for this initial explosion of connections to be made, after which many of them shut down and wither away, as the brain decides which it will keep, which new ones it will need and which it can do without. During this period, it's important that babies get the right kinds of stimulation so their brains can make the right decisions. The right kinds of stimulation, however, may not be the ones people think they are.

Asked in a recent study what skills children need in order to be prepared for school, parents of kindergartners routinely cited definable achievements such as knowing numbers, letters, colors and shapes. Teachers, however, disagree. Far more important, they say, are social skills, such as sharing, interacting with others and following instructions. Kids who come to school with a mastery of these less showy abilities stand a better chance of knocking off not only reading and writing when they are eventually presented but everything else that comes along as well. "Intelligence is based on emotional adequacy," says child-development expert T. Berry Brazelton. "The concept of emotional intelligence is at the base of all this."

It may not even be possible to prod children's intellectual growth. As babies' brains weave their neuronal connections, parents may be able to stimulate, say, the visual or musical ones by exposing kids to picture books or CDs, but it is doubtful that these fortify the brain in any meaningful way. "It's a myth that we can accelerate a child's developmental milestones," says Alan Woolf, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital. "Children are kind of preprogrammed to reach those points." Bruer puts it more bluntly: "The idea that you can provide more synapses by stimulating the child more has no basis in science."

One of the greatest sources of misunderstanding surrounds the so-called Mozart effect. For years researchers have found that playing background music can improve the spatial skills of listeners, causing many laymen to conclude that creative skills can be boosted too. Last year Harvard University released a study called Project Zero that analyzed 50 years of research on this idea. The studies showed that college students who had listened to music performed better on paper-and-pencil spatial tests, but the effect lasted no more than 15 minutes and then faded away. There was no evidence that the listening improved brain power or artistic skills, and certainly none that suggested babies could realize any benefit at all.

Many other misconceptions about brain potential can probably be traced to a series of studies in the 1970s showing that young rats raised with access to mazes and toys had more neural connections than those kept in barren cages. Similarly, studies indicate that children raised without sufficient nurturing often suffer from cognitive deficiencies. However, no evidence indicates that a lot of attention, in the form of early and constant stimulation, enhances a child's intellectual growth. According to the current scientific literature, the type and amount of stimulation needed for proper childhood development is already built into the normal life of an average baby. No whizbang tricks are necessary.

Parents might find it easier to believe all this if it weren't for the increasingly fashionable theory of windows of opportunity for learning - the idea that there are comparatively narrow periods when various parts of the brain can be taught various types of skills. What gives the theory special weight is that there is, in fact, a little truth to it - but only very little. When it comes to language - perhaps the most nuanced skill a person can master - the brain does appear to have fertile and less fertile periods. At birth, babies have the potential to learn any language with equal ease, but by six months, they have begun to focus on the one tongue they hear spoken most frequently. Parents can take advantage of this brain plasticity by introducing a second or even third language, but only if they intend to speak them all with equal frequency until the child is fluent. Merely buying the occasional bilingual toy or videotape will teach kids little, and it certainly will not make it easier for children to learn for real when they get to school.

When it comes to other skills, such as math or music, there is virtually no evidence for learning windows at all. Children grasp things at different rates, and parents whose child can read by age 3 may thus conclude that they somehow threaded the teaching needle perfectly, introducing letters and words at just the right time. But the reality is often that they simply got lucky and had a kid who took a shine early on to a particular skill. "People took the notion of a critical period and misunderstood it to apply to all learning," says Dr. Sparrow of Children's Hospital.

So if parents should be putting down the brain toys, what should they be picking up? For one thing, the kids themselves. If interpersonal skills are the true predictors of how well a child will do in school, parents are the best tutors. Experiments reveal that by the time babies are two months old, they are already fluent in the complex language of their parents' faces, and count on them for their sense of well-being. "Think about the human face," says Sparrow, "the wrinkles, the expressions in the eyes - and think about the infant brain being stimulated by that." To believe that even the best video game or toy could replace this kind of learning, Sparrow thinks, misses the point of just what it is babies are truly hungering to know.

Does this mean educational toys are useless? No. Babies are as engaged by pictures as adults are, and exposing them to books or flash cards early - especially black, white and red ones, which are indeed easier for them to perceive - helps them develop their ability to focus and follow, undeniably a form of learning. Babies are as soothed by music as their parents are, and a little Mozart may indeed hold their attention better than something less rich. Beyond that, however, there's a limit to what the products can do - and parents who follow their children's cues quickly learn that. "When our son was little, all he wanted to do was play with us," says Sharon Chantiles, a casting director and the mother of a four-year-old. "I decided to walk away from the fancy toys and invest in him as a child."

What's at stake for parents is far more than simply a child's school transcript or college options; it's a child's spirit. Recently, author David Brooks spent time on the campus of Princeton University getting to know the students, and he published what he learned in a searching article in the Atlantic magazine. The students were thoroughbred products of the American educational system - gifted, disciplined, driven to succeed, with a calm but consuming focus. And, Brooks found, they were curiously flattened too. There was no evidence of the wildfire energy of the college student, no evidence of much moral passion. More troublingly, there was no sign at all of the sweet and fleeting belief that they could try things and fail at them and try other things and discard them until they found something that truly touched and transformed them - and that they could do for the rest of their lives.

It's a high-stakes game letting kids roll the dice with their futures this way, and the risk - indeed the certainty - exists that at least a few of them will fail. But with their parents standing watchfully by, they need to be allowed to try. The more chances kids take, the greater the odds they will come up winners - and the chips they collect if they do can be priceless.

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