Sunday, April 14, 2024 Apr 14, 2024
71° F Dallas, TX



Congratulations on your new baby! Now you, too. can dress your infant in designer clothes and flip the nursery lights on and off for “visual stimulation.” And when baby gets a little older, it will be time for flash cards; he’ll learn the alphabet, words, and even Renoir before his first birthday-and just in time for preschool, where he can learn to read as soon as he’s mastered the potty. French at four, phonetics at five, and Faulkner before first grade. By this time, the little one is double-schooling-going to one preschool in the morning and another in the afternoon for the maximum academic stimulation. Double-school ing kids is so “in,” why, Jan Barboglio’s doing it. Twinkle Bayoud’s doing it.

Parents nationwide-and in our very own city-are panicking. There is so much competition, they say. It’s so hard to get your kids into the good colleges. It just can’t hurt to give little Joey or Judy a head start.

Or can it? While parents are waiting in line to educate their infants (sign-up for preschool these days almost has to precede pregnancy), many child development experts are screaming about “intellectual child abuse.”

Educators and psychologists have a new term for this early academic saturation: hothousing. The increasingly popular force-feeding of young intellects may produce emotional root rot, many say, rather than prize-winning specimens of the perfect child.

At the core of the debate is not the value of early childhood intellectual stimulation, but the pressure many parents are exerting on their offspring to learn, Pediatricians warn of increasing incidence of childhood ulcers. Unnatural levels of stress can lead to exhaustion, confusion, and ultimately, burn-out. Says Dr. Ian Rule, director of Green-hill’s preschool and a man who has heard hothousing rhetoric often: “The pressured child usually reacts by quitting. Giving up.”

But despite the outcry from the child development community, the trend continues. And it doesn’t stop with flashcards in the womb. Dallas parents work themselves into a frenzy to give little Suzie a stimulating, enriching childhood, and there is a myriad of experiences to sample from A to Z. There’s souffle baking at cooking school, brachiating lessons (formerly known as climbing the playground catwalk) at the Better Baby Institute. There’s swinging, jumping, tumbling, and coaching by BioModality Systems. There’s swimming, acting, painting, sculpting, and tracing dinosaur tracks.

Susie Ruff, mother of five extraordinary Dallas children, four of whom “double-schooled” in preschool, says she has saturated her children with experiences, lessons, stimulation, and academics from infancy onward.

“I’m not afraid to say no to them.” she says. “There is no question about whether we want music lessons or not. We do it. But the youngest one sometimes gets tired of being carted around to his brother and sister’s lessons all day long. Sometimes he asks me, ’When is Saturday going to come?’”

Why do parents continue to push?

For one, they read the statistics about how much harder it is to get into those private colleges. It’s twice as difficult for a teenager to get into Princeton today as it was twenty years ago. Stanford had 17,500 applications last year, most of them from high school valedictorians with near-perfect board scores. At Rice University, applications jumped by a third in one year. So, to get kids into those schools, parents must first get them into schools that do a better job, that push harder. That means college prep, and in Dallas that means St. Mark’s or Hockaday, The Greenhill School, The Episcopal School of Dallas, or Cistercian Preparatory School.

“Parents need to get their child into the private school system earlier and earlier,” says Bill Fleming, a Dallas education counselor. “You’ve got to get into a good preschool to get into a good elementary school to get into a good high school to get into a good college.”

Parents want results. Harvard and Yale. So (hey start with preschool, push their children to the hilt, keep them pumping.

Defenders of hothousing say it’s about time adults started realizing that little minds are capable of more than saying “goo goo.” Studies have shown that children learn more rapidly in the early years, birth to age five, than at any other time. A child deprived of sensory experiences at an early age may be deprived intellectually. There is proof now that a newborn’s world is not mere confusion. Toddlers perceive, organize, and respond to more than we might think, and their brains grow rapidly at early ages. Besides, small children yearn to learn. They begin life with millions of brain cells. Why not fill those cells with all the knowledge we can? Is it bad to want a kid to be smarter and stronger?

Perhaps more so than at any other point in our history, parents know the value of a good education. More and more of them have college degrees. They are the grown-up baby boomers whose parents, many of whom were from immigrant families, sacrificed so that their children would graduate and prosper.

But there is growing concern that the baby boomers have come to view their children as extensions of their own egos-as the ultimate status symbols. Authorities fear that parents are treating their children as products-new and improved products. It may impress friends and in-laws when nine-month-old Johnny crawls over to the flashcard and says “C-A-T,” but is Johnny a showpiece or a child? The key, according to psychologists, is to have parents clarify their values. Are they doing this for their child or are they working out a hidden agenda through the child?

Met Nathan Crow, son of Barbara and Trammell S. Crow. His mother says Nathan can identify by name the flags of every nation. He doesn’t introduce you to a dinosaur, he introduces you to a TyrannosaurusRex. He knows several of Michelangelo’s paintings, and he knows his manners. At the same time, he can bounce on a sofa just like any normal three-and-a-half-year-old child.

Nathan is a Better Baby. For two years his mother has been faithfully practicing the teachings of Glenn Doman, father of the Better Baby Institute and founder of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. Doman’s teachings are widely used and are currently the ultimate form of hothousing. His institute, which offers five-day video courses to parents, has been stirring controversy since 1981. He is the daddy of stimulation: flicking the nursery lights, flashing the flash cards, trying for that extra edge that will make him or her into a genius.

Here’s a small sampling of Doman’s teachings: every child has the potential of Leonardo da Vinci (Doman’s favorite genius), Shakespeare, Mozart. Michelangelo, Edison, and Einstein. Brain growth is a dynamic and ever-changing process that we can speed up with visual, auditory, and tactile information. It’s easy (and a wonderful idea) to make a baby a genius before six years of age. You can do it by presenting your child with bits of information on flashcards as soon as the infant can focus his eyes. Prior to that, you flash the lights of the nursery to give visual stimulation.

Doman holds no credentials as an educator or a psychologist. He is a physical therapist who had great success in helping braindamaged children lead normal lives by stimulating parts of their brains. He offers no statistics on the success of his Better Baby program, an omission that really irritates mainstream educators. His books (How To Teach Your Baby To Read. How To Teach Your Baby Math) have sold more than a million copies. He believes that mothers are the madonnas who brought us from the Stone Age to the Age of Reason. For Doman, the royal road to Better Babyhood is full-time mothering, with mother as the child’s coach, teacher, mentor. It all sounds very nurturing. So what is wrong with Doman’s game plan?

“No one is saying it’s wrong to teach your kids,” says Dr. Irving Sigel, a distinguished research scientist at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., and one of the nation’s leading child development specialists. “But Doman advocates teaching by rote. See, learn, repeat. I want my kid to be a problem-solver.”

According to Sigel and other early childhood experts, the weakness of the Doman method is this: when mother becomes a governess, life at home becomes a scheduled performance. The mother-child relationship becomes anchored to pleasing mom. And mom doesn’t like it if baby doesn’t get the right answer. So, baby comes to realize that he must always perform correctly. The kids are doing no more than responding to conditioning like dogs who sit up and perform for doggie biscuits. The treat, in the child’s case, is mother’s approval. Baby doesn’t learn to problem-solve or think.

But Mary Ann Engel, founder of The Early Years Organization that promotes the Better Baby course in Dallas, says Doman’s critics have it all wrong. “Tiny children are like explorers. Some have to go it alone, while some are lucky enough to have guides-parents,” she says. “No one really wants to create a superbaby or a genius here. The parents who take the course are really just loving, caring parents who see an incredible amount of curiosity and enthusiasm in their children.”

Many Dallas parents who have taken the course do not follow Doman to the letter. Rather, they flash the cards for awhile and try to give their children a wide variety of experiences to satisfy the child’s curiosity. Most laugh at some Better Baby ideas-like sleeping on the floor with your kids.

“I’ll admit I had some reservations at first,” says Nathan’s mother, Barbara Crow. “But they told us not to push. You start out with five minutes a day. When the child loses interest, you put the cards away. The key is to flip them quickly.”

Mrs. Crow became interested in the Better Baby program in part because her father used Doman’s techniques on her younger brother.

“And he has a very keen memory today.” she says. “He’s a coin collector and he can remember details very well. But I also think our generation has been raised with the idea that education breeds success.”

And if education breeds success, then why not start a child on the road to success as early as possible? Remember “Mother’s Day Out”? These low-key babysitting services can still be found in the Yellow Pages. But they are not for the hothousers. Now. there are schools for babies-yes, schools for babies from nine to twenty-four months old. In Dallas, one such program is run at Westminster Presbyterian Preschool where teachers offer an infant stimulation. Director Kathy Lunde wants to make it clear that the program is not a “mother’s day out.” The babies receive auditory/visual stimulation (bright colors, shapes, lights) and yes, they even learn table manners.

Five-year-old Alex Francis gets up early every morning, stretches, and pads off to the kitchen with Fruit Loops on his mind. Sometimes his mom is there making eggs or pancakes. Sometimes it’s Lydia, the housekeeper. Alex eats breakfast while playing with his dinosaur collection. (They usually kill each other, he says.) One of the adults around him reminds him he has to get dressed in time for the car pool. Down with the food, on with (he clean clothes (preferably his dinosaur sweatshirt) and Nike sneakers. He packs his personalized bookbag with the papers he worked on the night before. He kisses mom goodbye and runs out to get in the waiting car. He’s off to school number one, St. Alcuin Montessori School.

Three hours are passed with circle time (sitting in a circle on the floor doing mostly what the teacher tells him to do), some free play with building blocks and Legos, a few songs, and some art work. Then, exercise on the playground and a snack. At noon his mom is waiting outside the door with a peanut butter sandwich, a pear, and a travel pack of unsweetened apple juice. While she drives him to his next school, he cats in the car. “Any candy?” he asks. She shakes her head. He gulps the sandwich and has just enough time for a kiss before his second school, Meadowbrook, starts at 12:15.

Alex walks into the charming older home-turned-preschool for three more hours of school. But the work here at The Meadowbrook School is less like play, more like real work. He learns to read and write like the bigger kids. After school, he’ll either take a swimming lesson, play soccer, or go to Suzuki where he’s learning violin. Then it’ll be time for dinner and homework before he goes to bed. Alex needs his sleep for another busy day.

He is learning words and fractions and. of course, how to read. He has to know how to read by the time he’s five so he can come here for kindergarten, That’s one of the rules of the kindergarten at Meadowbrook.

“They have to be able to read three-letter words and know the phonics,” says Trisha Fusch. the headmistress, in her clipped British accent. “Like ck-a-tt. Cat. They mast know the sounds that make up the word. Otherwise they’ll just be lost. That’s why we like our children to come in at age three so we can build the phonetic foundation. Unfortunately, our waiting list is full until 1988.”

It’s true. Meadowbrook is (he crème de la crème of the hothous-ing preschools in Dallas. And you can forget about getting your little Suzie in unless she has older siblings who went there. The school stresses the need to build a Meadowbrook tradition in the family. Your child will learn because he will be taught by a lender but firm hand. Meadowbrook, with a nine to one student/teacher ratio, calls itself an “English Montessori” school, but it differs from most English nursery schools where there is no concentrated effort to teach reading and writing.

(Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who worked with disad-vantaged and mentally handicapped youngsters, made great strides with her youngsters by placing them in structured surroundings. Montessori toys, games, and lessons are designed to be self-correcting so that [he child can discover the exercise’s purpose himself. Frequently the games progress from left to right, which gets a child started on the road to reading. The “Montessori” method has been widely interpreted by educators.)

While other children at other Dallas preschools may be dressing up or finger-painting or playing with building blocks, the Meadowbrook child is sitting in that circle, listening to teacher, singing songs, If you’ve ever tried to get a three- or four-year-old child to sit in one place for twenty minutes, you will know thai it takes skill. This exercise comes first in the day to initiate the child into minding the teacher. Later he will sit at his desk and learn letters, words, numbers, phonics. At some point during the day. the children will do a little role playing in the miniature kitchen, cutting carrots and serving the snack. They will frolic outside on the gym set. But they will spend much more of their time in teacher-directed activities. For example, the teacher gives each child a sketch of a house and the precise number of inches for each line. The children reproduce her drawing exactly. And following orders and reproducing assignments is meritorious behavior at Meadowbrook.

“Children are little sponges.” says Fusch. “They absorb everything around them. They need rich environments. At the same time, we don’t have any room for nonsense.”

At Meadowbrook, a child who seriously misbehaves will be sent to Fusch’s office for a reprimand. Contrast this with The Lamplighter School, a for less structured pre- and elementary school, where a child goes to the headmistress’s office for a cookie and punch on his birthday. Some parents like the lack of “nonsense” at Meadowbrook because it produces results. Meadowbrook’s graduates have so impressed rival administrators that they often ask Fusch for advice, At St. Mark’s, where Meadowbrook grads were reading at a third grade level in the first grade, the new administrator called to ask what Meadowbrook was doing with its kids.

Parents of Meadowbrook children adore the school, no matter that it costs about $2,000 a school year and that some psychiatrists worry about the effects of such high-pressure hothousing. Most send brothers and sisters. Some parents keep their children at Meadowbrook even while they’re attending other, less rigorous preschools and kindergartens. A year or two at Meadowbrook all but guarantees your child entrance into St. Mark’s, Hockaday, Greenhill, or The St. Michael’s School.

So what are the critics screaming about? A former Meadowbrook kindergarten teacher says that while the program works splendidly for most youngsters, the child who does not accept the teaching method can suffer a lowered sense of self-esteem. An administrator at another Dallas school that accepts many Meadcwbrook students says he has seen at least four children with image problems caused by the Meadowbrook method. The kids who cannot keep up with the academics early on feel lousy about themselves. They carry that feeling to the next school, fool around in class, or don’t do any work at all. And then, the parents have big problems.

The preschool push doesn’t confine itself to academics. There’s also physical hothousing. Tots barely big enough to swing a bat are rushed into T-ball, soccer, karate, and swimming, The guru for many of these juvenile jocks is Patty Gerard, a twenty-eight-year-old former world-class gymnast whose Fort Worth-based company. BioModality, offers parents a Suzuki-like approach to physical development. The BioModality course teaches parents to become coaches and recognize each child’s physical development. Then, using Gerard’s color-coded movement program, parents can help build their child’s strength by maximizing the developmental peaks. The goal is not Olympic athletes, but strong, sturdy kids who can take care of themselves on the playground. Her research into physical development has captured the interest of NASA researchers. Gerard hopes that by giving children a discipline, they may not turn to drugs in school.

“I remember the kids in high school who turned to drugs because of the intense peer pressure,” says Gerard. “I was a gymnast and all I wanted to do was practice. It was my own world and it was so special, I didn’t need the drug scene.”

But critics warn that the opposite scenario can also play itself out: there is a danger of stressing a child so much with early pressure that he turns to drugs for release.

“’The high school students I see are under an enormous amount of pressure,” says Frances Brooker, a child and family therapist in association with the Pediatrics Association of Dallas. “The home is full of these admonitions. The school is a hothouse of pressure and competition. They are being squeezed and there’s nowhere to escape. A suicide attempt, drugs, or just plain refusal to work are all cries for help.”

Prents must be careful so that the pushing doesn’t break down the parent-child relationship. They should smile as much when a child fails as when he succeeds. And, says Brooker, don’t let your child become a robot programmed to please mom and dad.

JUST ABOUT EVERYONE agrees on the need for preschool education and for some emphasis on sports or music. But the problem with the double-schooling and the card-flashing and loading up a child’s agenda with lessons and enrichment programs surfaces when the child finally has a free hour. Often, he is lost and exhausted.

“We had a child,” says Marion Crume, head of Hockaday’s lower school, “who was having problems getting her homework done because she had so many activities scheduled that she was only doing homework in the car between activities. Some of these children’s lives are so planned out they don’t know what to do with a free afternoon.”

“The kids from the directed preschools cannot make choices. They do not know where to go unless I tell them,” says a teacher from one summer arts camp who sees children from just about every Dallas preschool in the summer months. “The kids from the non-push, self-directed schools can make decisions about what they want to do. There is a big difference.”

A recent study in Ypsilanti, Michigan, gives even more ammunition to the non-push side. The study traced the development of fifty-four children from preschool to high school. It revealed that teenagers who attended non-push preschool programs were better adjusted socially, participated in more extracurricular activities, and enjoyed better relationships with their families. Teens from the push schools reported twice as many incidents of drug abuse and juvenile delinquency, five times as much involvement in violent acts.

Other critics of hothousing go further, charging parents with creating a generation of future neurotics-“psychological cripples,” in Dr. Clifford Kary’s words. Kary, a North Dallas clinical psychologist who testifies in many child custody cases, believes that children who are overdeveloped in their youth tend to die of exhaustion at early ages. This, he believes, was the case with Mozart and Gershwin. John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher, was hothoused by his father from age three and suffered a nervous breakdown at twenty.

Critics of hothousing add a final irony to their condemnation of the push-push approach: almost all educators agree that by third grade, push and non-push students are at similar learning levels.

Sally Kindley, a preschool teacher at Northaven Cooperative Preschool, doubts the wisdom of the hothouse approach and has raised her daughter Nora accordingly. “Nora had books around her when she was bom,” she says. “But I did not teach her to read. She’s in second grade. They tell me she’s reading at a fourth grade level. And I never flashed a card in front of her face. I just read to her till I was blue in the face.”

So what’s a good parent to do? Above all, know thy kid. The trick, it seems, is to match the kid to the school.

“I think it’s abusive to have a child at Meadowbrook who doesn’t belong at Mea-dowbrook but, say, St. Alcuin,” says David Hicks, headmaster at St. Mark’s. “And it’s just as bad to keep the really aggressive learner at St. Alcuin when he should be at Meadowbrook.”

Others go so far as to say that the pressure is good for some kids. Sometimes structured activity and even double-schooling can help a child with special problems.

“People were very critical of me at first,” says Vicky Smith, whose first child attended both Meadowbrook and Bradfield Elementary kindergartens at the same time. “But my son was hyperactive and he had enormous amounts of energy. The schools helped funnel his energy into various challenges. It worked well.”

So, how do you choose a school for your child? First, let’s complicate matters even further. Almost all preschools call themselves “Montessori,” but don’t assume anything from that label. Maria Montessori would probably roll over in her grave if she could see how far her philosophies have been stretched. There are the pushy, teacher-directed schools and the non-pushy, student-directed schools. There are structured preschools (“Today WE WILL read, dear. Sit down.”) and there are readiness preschools (“Whenever you are ready to read, my dear, we’ll read. Just let me know.”). And there are mixtures of the above-all calling themselves Montessori.

Most Dallas preschools go by the readiness principle. That is, don’t push your child. Don’t teach your child to read too early. Let them develop gradually at their own pace and they will come around.

The hothousers may have Glenn Doman’s Better Baby ideas, but the readiness educators have Piaget, Rousseau, and the great majority of American educators and psychologists behind them.

The preschools in Dallas currently espousing the readiness principle are places like Greenhill, Lamplighter, Northaven Coop, Westminster, St. Alcuin, and to a certain extent, St. Michael’s. The educators at these places loathe hothousing. But the Montessori principles are present as mild evidence of structure. The child is free to role-play and discover in a nurturing environment with plenty of toys and materials. But teachers are there to pounce the moment a child shows interest or readiness. Their point is that a child will clue a teacher when he’s ready because, eureka, he understands the principle. But that moment of readiness can’t be hurried, not even for $2,000 a semester.

According to Dr. Ian Rule at Greenhill, the “accelerators” of the child ignore a key fact: the child can learn certain things only when his mind has matured sufficiently. For example, advancement in math requires the child to grasp what he calls the concept of conservation. “Quite simply, if you take a twelve-inch ruler and a twelve-inch string, you have two pieces of identical length. Now scrunch the string. It is in a different shape, but it is still a twelve-inch string. The notion of a constant must be internalized before a child can understand mathematics.”

In other words, we could all be taught to write in Chinese symbols without learning what they represent. But we still wouldn’t understand Chinese. A child cannot understand that D-O-L-L means doll until he’s old enough to understand what a doll represents. But you can still teach a three-year-old to “read” the word DOLL.

“Actually, kids learn to read from birth on. Reading is simply decoding,” says Kathy Delsanter, director of the Northhaven Co-op. “Most kids can break the code at age five, six, or seven because that’s when they understand it.”

As for anyone who thinks a child will perish if he doesn’t attend preschool, consider the case of one mother of a first-grader at St. Mark’s. Compared to the Meadow-brook boys, his reading is not as advanced, but he’s doing okay. Not only did this child not attend a preschool, he didn’t even go to kindergarten. “Believe it or not, kindergarten is still optional in Texas,” says this Garland mother of two. “Neither my husband nor I went, so we figured if it was good enough for us, it was good enough for them.”

What she did do was teach her boys at home, informally, using the A Beka phonetics curriculum and workbooks by Frank Schaeffer in reading and math, programs used by many home-schooling fundamentalists. The program was short and flexible. . .an hour or two a day, four days a week. The boys concentrated on workbooks, letters, and numbers.

“We just feel it is good for our children to be at home for the first five years,” says this mom. “They spend so many years in school. But when our son finally went to school, he was very excited about it. I think we had just one tearful day. He gets along fine with the other boys, and he’s reading on a first grade level. The teachers at St. Mark’s say he’ll catch up with the early readers by third or fourth grade.”

It was Rousseau who said that children ought to experience life first and then go to school, maybe starting at age twelve. Huckleberry Finn received quite an education from his adventures. Watching the current crop of Yubbies (young, upwardly mobile babies) grow up will be very interesting. We’re either going to out-Sputnik the Soviets, the Chinese, and the rest of the world or the readiness kids are going to end up as rich psychoanalysts.. .with a grown crop of hot-housed children on their couches.

Related Articles


Botanical Mix Updates New Downtown Storefront for Spring

Florist Shane Friesenhahn gives a colorful refresh to his shop near Pacific Plaza Park.
Dallas History

D Magazine’s 50 Greatest Stories: The Explosion that Forever Changed West, Texas

Next week marks the 11th anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 in the small town of West. For this week's edition, we revisit our story from June of 2013.

Dude Perfect Receives $100 Million Capital Infusion

Plus: Cariloop raises $20 million, StrikeReady raises $12 million, and more.