Turning the heat up

Harry Potter star Emma Watson lamented recently that childhood is getting shorter.

She blames social media and the constant uploading of photos to sites like Facebook for making young girls self-conscious about their bodies.

Social media isn’t the only force eroding childhood. Many children of primary school age and even younger have diaries as full as their parents’ — a hyper-scheduling of their lives that may well be making them self-conscious about their aptitudes and abilities.

According to the Growing Up In Ireland study, conducted by ESRI and Trinity College, 84% of boys and 67% of girls are involved in organised sports clubs. While there’s no study documenting the prevalence, range and frequency of after-school activities, there’s a sense anecdotally that children are doing increasingly more activities, says Dr Suzanne Parkinson, a developmental and educational psychologist based at UL’s Mary Immaculate College.

What’s also on the rise is hot-housing — pushing acquisition of knowledge on children at a much earlier age than when it’s typically acquired. “There’s growing interest in the Mozart effect on babies and young children, which claims that listening to Mozart will increase their intelligence levels,” says Parkinson. “Parents are interested in sign language to develop early literacy competencies. If you Google availability of these kinds of interventions, they’re out there. Ten years ago, they mightn’t have been.”

Kumon, the maths and English study programme, which has over 4m students worldwide, came to Ireland in 2000 and now has 1,200 students studying at 25 centres. About 850 are aged under 11 — and 12 of these are aged under four.

Richard Trimmer, regional manager of Kumon Education in Ireland, says there has been an 80% increase in student numbers in the last year and seven new centres are to open shortly. He says parents enrol pre-schoolers in Kumon English and maths to give children the best possible start going into junior infants: “In junior infants, the emphasis is on socialisation — they don’t do a lot of structured learning. A parent might want to extend what their child is doing. Or what the child is doing in junior infants isn’t fulfilling parental expectations.

“Foreign national parents are concerned that, if they return to their own country, the child may not be at the same level as children in schools there.”

Parents do sometimes raise concerns about hot-housing, says Trimmer. “They don’t want their child moving on to a too-advanced level. They can worry that we’ll push the child. We never do that — we work with children at their pace.”

Parkinson says there is nothing wrong with parents wanting the best for their child: “But we should be very mindful about the pace of growing up. Immaturity is a natural stage of a child’s development.

She is against “accelerating” children through childhood, she understands why parents do it: “Many parents want to improve their children’s prospects down the road. They feel a busy CV is a talented CV. We live in a busy world and they want to teach their children how to cope in a busy world. There’s also social pressure — other parents say ‘my little girl is reading and she isn’t at school yet’. And there are marketing ploys — books like Raising Your Child To Be Gifted.”

Dr Richard House, child psychologist at the University of Winchester and editor of Too Much, Too Soon, says the growing market in pre-school tutoring is of great concern. He cautions against turning childhood “into a hot-housing speed-race via the uncritical imposition of ever earlier intellectual learning”. The ‘schoolification’ of early childhood is not a good idea, he says: “The idea that starting certain kinds of cognitive learning at a very young age somehow confers an advantage not only has no evidence base whatsoever, but there is much anecdotal and research evidence suggesting it actually harms young children in many ways, both physically and psychologically.

“Young children’s most central developmental task is one of physical, bodily and socio-emotional development, including language development. Up to the age of at least five, they need to move and to learn through movement, play and unselfconscious engagement with other human beings and the world.”

Irene Gunning, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, says it can be irresistible but not good to get young children learning in line with an adult-motivated agenda. By doing so, she believes we’re moving children away from their own natural ways of learning. “Children learn through play, where their own interests, their own love of exploring are driving the agenda. They need to play with toys, with real materials, with equipment, with each other and with ideas in order to make sense of the world and to have the underpinning knowledge to deal with more formalised school learning.”

Parkinson believes early intervention when a child has literacy and numeracy difficulties is a good idea. “It has to be. Think of the baggage that goes with failing to keep up with your peers, how self-esteem may be compromised.”

Channel 4’s recent Child Genius series featured 21 highly gifted seven to 11-year-olds — including a chess prodigy, whose mum’s plan is to put 10,000 hours into making him a grandmaster by age 13, a girl who loves her books so much she licks them and a boy who read the Iliad at six. Here in Ireland, Parkinson believes the very gifted are extremely neglected in the education system. “Average ability is very well catered for in the classroom but we’re not identifying the gifted child. There’s little evidence that our gifted children have access to enrichment or acceleration. We’re not meeting their needs.”

She also believes that by following developmental norms, we may be constraining children’s capabilities. “The Suzuki method of teaching violin is very different to the traditional one. Children advance very rapidly in the Suzuki method. Sometimes great is possible.”

Parkinson can understand the anxiety motivating parents to accelerate their children’s learning — concern about equipping them with the best possible range of skills and abilities to survive in what’s going to be a very unpredictable world.

But, she asks: “Should we not be slowing down and allowing children’s natural readiness to learn in ways that are just as productive?”


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