Grow Your Own Einstein Parents are naturally keen to make sure there are plenty of brains in their bairns. But do expensive tutors for toddlers and inspirational tapes for tykes really help, asks Sophie McBain
Grow Your Own Einstein
Parents are naturally keen to make sure there are plenty of brains in their bairns. But do expensive tutors for toddlers and inspirational tapes for tykes really help, asks Sophie McBain
PARENTS HAVE LITTLE trouble recognising their child’s genius; convincing other people is the challenge — and it’s getting more expensive. Whether it’s paying for a Mandarin-speaking nanny to prepare Junior for a new world order, or stumping up £13,000 a year nursery fees, or the cumulative cost of furnishing a playroom with edifying yet enjoyable toys, competitive capital expenditure on children is greater than ever before.
It’s easy to sniff at gullible, pushy parents who pour money into faddish educational programmes for their pint-sized progeny. But they may not be entirely misguided, for while money can’t buy love, happiness or taste, it may be able to buy brains.
Consider this statistic, based on a study of 12,644 young children conducted by the Sutton Trust: toddlers as young as two from low-income groups perform less well than their wealthier peers on a variety of tests, and by the age of five children from the lowest income quintile are eleven months behind on vocabulary scores compared to those from the middle-income quintile. There’s a privilege gap, too: five-year-olds from the richest quintile were an average 5.2 months ahead of their middle-income pairs.
There’s certainly plenty to spend your money on if you’re trying to grow your own Einstein, and the very dedicated begin with educating the embryo. BabyPlus Prenatal Education System’s website declares: ‘You’re never too young to learn. (In fact, you don’t even have to be born!)’, and claims its alumni have ‘enhanced intellectual abilities later on in life’.
After birth, babies can graduate to products like Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart and Baby Shakespeare, turning your infant into a highly literate composer-scientist. ‘Your Baby Can Read!’ claims to teach babies from three months on, while baby signing classes can help children communicate in sign language before they can speak. babysign.co.uk says that babies signing at eleven months will have an IQ twelve points higher than non-signing babies at the age of eight. Of course, there are plenty of studies floating on the internet to refute all the above claims.
Teachers at Lloyd Williamson School in Notting Hill say that toddler Kumon (a rigorous system of learning maths) and Baby Beethoven can’t explain the ‘privilege gap’. In fact, they fear the opposite: ‘A number of parents start panicking and wanting tutors for three- or four-year-olds to teach them to read and to do maths. And some of these children are under so much pressure that they end up emotional wrecks, because they keep on getting the feeling, “I’m not good enough.” They go to all these after-school activities when they’re tired and not ready, but their parents take them because that’s what everyone else does,’ says headmistress Lucy Williamson. She adds that this hot-housing is happening when children are ‘younger and younger’.
Williamson can give plenty of anecdotal evidence of how damaging this kind of environment can be: a young boy who showed an early interest in reading but was then pushed so forcefully by his parents to read that he has given up all interest in books; a calm little girl who bursts into hysterical tears whenever she sees her after-school tutor.
Dr Richard House, a senior lecturer at Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, agrees that starting children with formal education too young is harmful. ‘Parents, politicians and policy-makers seem to take the view that if children start learning something earlier, it’s going to be better for them, and that’s a complete logical non sequitur: it’s developmentally and it’s factually wrong.’ In House’s view, when children are forced into academic learning too young, their emotional, social and physical development is skewed — which can lead to psychological disorder later in life.
When asked for the names of prominent academics who do advocate formal learning for pre-schoolers, House’s response is interesting: ‘I can’t say that I’ve come across people in the academic world who believe it’s appropriate for children to be exposed to these sorts of learning this young. The difference would be that I find it harmful, whereas other people may be more relaxed about it.’
I asked Tony Buzan, the author of Brain Child: How Smart Parents Make Smart Kids and the self-proclaimed inventor of the mind-map, if he could explain the ‘privilege gap’. He pointed first to nutrition, saying that maternal nutrition supports healthy brain development, a theory he sums up as ‘GF, GB, JF, JB’. ‘Come on, you know what that means,’ he says when asked to explain the acronym, leaving me to curse my mother for not eating enough fish oil. (It’s ‘good food, good brain, junk food, junk brain’, obviously.) A University of Bristol study last year supported the ‘JB, JK’ theory, by reporting that children who eat more processed, unhealthy foods have a lower IQ at eight.
Like all the child experts I spoke to, Buzan said that devoting time rather than money is crucial to developing a child’s intellectual potential. Helpful brain-building exercises include playing with children, letting them explore nature, talking to them and playing them music.
Illustration by Russ Tudor
THIS ALL MAKES sense, but it prompts the question of whether, in the words of Lucy Williamson, ‘People aren’t going with their instincts any more.’ Parents turning to experts for advice in bringing up children is hardly a new phenomenon, but perhaps the academic commoditisation of early childhood is: pre-school learning has become big business, and parents may mistakenly judge their own support and compare themselves to others by how much they spend.
Fees for three terms at the two nurseries visited (Lloyd Williamson is £11,070, Eaton Square Nursery is £13,110) are comfortably higher than the average for a private day school of £10,570. Williamson says high fees, far from acting as a deterrent for parents, reassure them of the ‘quality’ of the product.
Undoubtedly children can benefit from some of the educational advantages money can buy. Few would deny the common-sense view that love, support, attention and encouragement are the most crucial ingredients for a child’s development — but with early learning so commercialised, it’s easy to ascribe too much power to the price-tag.
Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, have looked at the ‘privilege gap’ in the US and firmly concluded that parents should ‘stop kidding themselves: The Mozart tapes had nothing to do with it.’ But they also found that it was less about ‘what you do as a parent’ and more about ‘who you are’. Factors such as whether a child regularly watches TV at home, the mother works or the child regularly visits museums are less important than parental income, age and educational attainment, because ultimately the less tangible aspects of upbringing are most influential, such as parents passing on their work ethic, intelligence and attitude to learning.
If your cherubic offspring appears unresponsive to Baby Beethoven and completely confused by the Chinese childminder, note that Albert Einstein’s parents sought medical advice for his slowness to speak, and in 1895 his schoolteacher concluded in the young Einstein’s report that ‘he will never amount to anything.’
Sophie McBain is a staff writer at Spear’s