Recently, I was flicking TV channels and came across a show where parents were attending a baby class. The parents were perfecting their ‘peekaboos’ (“No, no, Amy’s mummy, that’s too aggressive! Like this … no, more this … or that … now, open your hands just so …”).
The show was obviously a send-up, but there was a scary element of truth, not only because parents were being coached about normally spontaneous and fun interactions, but a chilling example of mummy competitiveness as one mum asked another, “Is she crawling yet?” Clever Mummy then bragged about the crawling class she was attending with her child and said, “But of course, you’re a career mummy so you won’t have as much time for enriching your baby!”
We like to believe that as informed, modern parents we’re aware of the hazards of projecting our own unfulfilled dreams onto our kids. But are we really? The culture we live in values winning, success and being number one. We’re the generation who values ‘having it all’, and part of this is having children who excel. Having children who are advanced also validates our role as parents: we can parade our clever kids as badges of our own competence, and an ‘up yours’ to all the other parents, especially the ones who don’t do it ‘our way’ (whatever that is).
Our expectations for our children are also likely to be influenced by the enormous pressure we put on ourselves as we worry our kids will be left in the dust of higher achieving peers. And as the baby classes in the comedy show demonstrated, clearly there are fortunes to be made from hitting parents in their most vulnerable spot: fear for their children.
Hence, you don’t have to look far to find a plethora of classes and ‘essential’ products to stimulate the tiniest mind. Every time you glance up from gazing into those trusting blue eyes, you’re bombarded with pressure to give your baby a superior educational head-start. Increasingly, parents are being encouraged to see their little ones as ‘product’, manufactured on an assembly line, with Mummy and Daddy in solemn charge of every detail of quality control.
According to Melbourne developmental psychologist Larissa McKay, a lot of parents feel pressure to buy their baby expensive toys or enrol in programs that claim to be ‘educational’ to give their child a good start in life.
“There is nothing wrong with attending a baby swim or music class – in fact, these can stimulate interaction between you and your baby, and provide an opportunity to meet other mums and bubs,” she says.
But one of the problems with the ‘make your baby smarter’ programs, McKay explains, is that many involve screen time on the computer or TV, or ignore vital one-on-one experiences between parent and child.
“Research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills. Providing your child with ‘first-hand’ experiences that engage all their senses will promote deeper understanding – your child will learn far more from going to visit a real farm than having you hold up a flashcard with the word ‘cow’ on it!”
So there’s no need to feel that your baby or toddler is missing out on achieving his potential if you don’t have a fully booked schedule of ‘educational’ activities, or a cupboard – or ipad – full of ‘make your kid smarter’ products. If your toddler resists being rushed off to one more class because he’d rather ‘just play’, you can relax and take heart – he could be learning more than his super scheduled peers! Play, to the toddler, is his work. Your child is ‘at work’ (and learning) all day, every day: the spirit of a child’s work as he constructs a cubby or creates a finger paint masterpiece isn’t that different from the spirit of a scientist’s laboratory or an architect’s office. Through play, your child is learning to get along with others, solve problems and handle stressful situations. He’s developing perceptual motor skills, strength, balance, coordination and concentration, and the ability to listen to others, learn rules, express ideas and cooperate with playmates. Play also encourages creativity and language skills as your child uses his imagination, discovers his feelings and learns how other people feel, a sound base for emotional intelligence.
So where do we draw the line between healthy experiences and pushy parents? Simply, we should take our cues from our own child. Even tiny babies can communicate whether their environment is appropriate or not. As psychologist David Chamberlain, author of The Mind of Your Newborn Baby, advises, “Infants seem to welcome and thrive on stimulation, providing it is not overdone. When it is, your child will send out distress signals, retreat, habituate, or just go to sleep. Take your cue from the preferences your baby shows.”