Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Childhood, feh, who needs it?

I read a disturbing article in the Atlanta paper yesterday. Apparently, there is a burgeoning market for tutors and academic preparation centers for children who have not yet started school. From the article (note, registration is required, but why aren't you using Firefox and Bugmenot anyway? Huh?):

Kwavi Agbeyegbe intends for her sons to get ahead. Education is a top priority in the Agbeyegbe household. Her husband is a doctor. Agbeyegbe's sons are headed to private school, she said. And maybe Harvard after that.

Agbeyegbe's oldest boy, Weyimi, who still uses a stepladder to climb into his red racing car bed, started preschool tutoring at age 2.

Weyimi, now 3, goes to Kumon for 45-minute sessions twice a week carrying a book bag bigger than he is. He has homework every day. Even holidays.

"When I was looking for a house I wanted to make sure I was close to a Kumon," Agbeyegbe said. "Some children can't sit down for 20 or 30 minutes to be tutored. If your child can, why not?"

Weyimi's 4-month-old brother, Timeyin, who spends his afternoons cooing and watching Baby Einstein DVDs, is also Kumon-bound.

Parents are not only signing up their kids for frequent tutoring at age 2, they're actually taking out loans to do so:

To help make preschool tutoring affordable for a family on a budget, several tutoring companies offer financing, which means some parents are taking out student loans before their children get to elementary school.

SCORE! Educational Centers, which report the pre-k set makes up between 10 percent and 15 percent of its 82,000 students nationally, allows clients to take out a Sallie Mae loan to pay for tutoring expenses.

Last year, some 18,600 parents borrowed for tutoring at SCORE and other companies, according [sic] Hugh Rosen, a spokesman for Sallie Mae.

My first reaction, of course, is, "What in the world are these parents THINKING???" As the parent of a 4-year-old, who clearly is never going to amount to anything because we haven't enrolled her in any super-duper-double-cool tutoring programs, I have some conflicting second reactions. I feel for the parents, who are obviously driven by a desire to give their children the best start possible. I understand that drive. I also feel for other families who are friends of the parents, who have probably found themselves in a competitive circle that will probably be hard to escape without changing social circles. Neurosis loves company.

It might seem strange, but I don't feel sorry for the kids. My guess is that they probably enjoy the sessions, because 3- and 4-year-olds seem to enjoy most things. If they don't, they let you know, and the parents probably wouldn't be taking out loans to finance their kids' misery. (I recognize that this might be naive, but I'm going to hold onto it anyway. It's my version of faith in parental motives.) I have to assume that the extra work is fun on some level.

The part of this that truly makes me sad, though, is the idea that learning at that age must follow certain rules, that there are expectations for what a 4-year-old should know. With our daughter, we have followed a pretty loose philosophy - if she's interested in something, we follow it up. Could be an aquarium trip, often we find cool internet resources, mostly we just talk as a family about the things which pique her interest. We read together a lot, and we encourage her to try things for herself instead of coming to us first. That's about it.

Before she was born, I worried quite a bit about how I would approach my daughter's education. My husband and I are both academically inclined, and I was afraid of how I would react if she was not - I would have guessed that I would be susceptible to these sorts of preschool tutoring schemes. Instead, the opposite has happened (so far). My daughter is curious and creative and happy, and I'm happy. I really don't know how she'll do in school, but I cannot fathom stifling her natural tendencies right now by telling her what I think she should be learning. She only has one chance to be little, and I'll be damned if I'm going to put any pressure on her. Instead, I'm trying to let her teach me how to learn again.

[The more I think about it, the more I think the parents' social circle probably plays a large role in this. We are lucky that our daughter's closest friends come from families with similar approaches, so there is no pressure on us from that sphere. There was one family who was doing flashcards with their son from an early age to try to teach him letters, but we've naturally grown apart.]


Allison said...

That is just freakish. OTOH, I take comfort in believing, on anecdotal evidence, that this "fad" is just an alarmist writer trying to drum up a trend on anecdotal evidence. I may be wrong, but it helps me sleep better at night.

Ruth said...

I hope you're right. I keep reminding myself that, given the sheer number of families raising children, the numbers quoted in the article just aren't that large. You can't write an article about nothing.