My grandson Roland, who just turned one, has taught me more about the development of babies and toddlers than I learned my first sixty-plus years of life. It is not that he is such a fine teacher; it’s just that, now that I’m a grandmother, not responsible for meeting the daily needs of my children, I can seriously focus on what makes him tick: how much he understands, what causes him joy or anxiety or fear, his interests and responses—and, most importantly, what a child is capable of learning at various ages.
When he was just a few months old I began “studying” him in great earnest. I had the feeling that I was quietly listening to him speak before he could actually talk. I learned that either this little guy is a remarkable kid or all of us big folk are missing the budding intellectual life of our small babies.
Are babies frustrated by their baby bodies?
Before Roland could sit up, it was apparent that he was intently studying his siblings in their play. His body language spoke volumes. His muscles tensed when they laughed, and he waved his hands and kicked his feet when they all ran outside. He yelled wildly when the other children came back inside after playing. And—the most resplendent reaction—when his siblings started saying that Daddy was coming home, Roland really got wound up.
As I observed his different responses, I could clearly see that he knew what was happening and wished he could join the parade of feet running here and there. This baby boy was frustrated by his baby body.
What can a baby learn, and would he be more satisfied if we were engaging him in learning?
I have observed him not so much as a grandmother, but more as a researcher with keen interest in how much a baby can know or learn. I have been trying to understand early development for almost 40 years, since my oldest child was a baby. At that time I read everything I could find on the subject—including opposing viewpoints. Better Late than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore is right on. I also read two books by Glen and Janet Doman, How to Teach a Baby How to Read and How to Teach Your Baby Math. The Moores advocated waiting to start any schooling, and the Domans said to start teaching at birth. So which wins, early or late? Dr. and Mrs. Moore’s writings were from the psychological perspective about structure and how it squashes a child’s natural curiosity. The resounding failure of the Head Start program proves that what they wrote was dead-on.
The Domans wrote on how much a child’s mind can pick up if that information is just part of his daily life—with no stress, no structure, and no challenges, just opportunities to learn something. When I read those books, and others, I was galvanized. As a young mother, I was ever ready to experiment, so I followed their instructions by making word cards, softly playing high-quality music to my newborn (24/7), and reading poetry to her as I nursed. Since I didn’t have another child to compare her progress with, I just assumed she was learning on par with other children.
At the time, my measure of success would simply have been academic skills, which are almost meaningless to me now. I have learned that our goals should be creativity, wisdom, curiosity, investigation, and understanding. Facts are meaningless unless they have context. But for my firstborn, the experiment worked. Even at a young age she was a poet, loved music, and was an avid story writer, all of which serve her well in her adult life. She acquired knowledge, but more importantly she came to love the process of learning; she became a student of people and an observer of the world around her.
As I had more children, I taught them the same way, with the same positive results. Though what I had learned about early training had lost its luster, a very important concept had firmly taken root in my mind: the habit of expecting my babies to find pleasure and understanding in my daily activities, whether sweeping the floor or hunting for a rare herb in the woods. My children grew up sharing every good idea that came into my head. They were partners in investigation and creation. Instead of thinking silently, I talked to them about what was going on in my mind, because I wanted them to know and love the wonderful things that I found so stimulating.
At the time that I read the Domans’ books, homeschooling was a new concept, and almost everyone, including my family and friends, thought the very idea of homeschooling was insane and would produce social misfits and morons. To add to that, there were plenty of pessimistic people ready to tell me that it was silly to waste my time showing word cards to my babies, and “it would surely cause them to have emotional issues.” I was told that I should just enjoy my babies and, spoken silently, keep them dumb. (On a side note: Would you believe that in the early 1970s, breastfeeding your baby was frowned upon by doctors and nurses? A registered nurse told me that nursing a baby “with your breast” was vulgar, and no good Christian mama would ever do such a thing.)
Back to homeschooling: Many years have passed, and now my firstborn is a middle-aged lady—very musical, my only child who can spell, an amazing writer, and, forgive me, just brilliant!
Back to Roland: As I was studying my grandbaby, I kept asking myself, “What can a baby learn, and would he be more satisfied if we were engaging him in learning? And if we used that first year to the fullest, would it change the rest of his life, making future learning easier? Would early learning build a strong foundation?” You have to live an entire lifetime to be able to answer these questions—one of the perks of being old. So, based on homeschooling my five children for twenty-plus years and now watching my 21 (and still counting) grandchildren being homeschooled, plus having read hundreds of books on various subjects pertaining to these concepts, I now feel, observing Roland, that I can be definitive:
What can a baby learn?
A lot more than we are capable of understanding.
Would babies be more satisfied if we were engaging them in extensive learning?
It has proved so in my experience.
Would it change the rest of their lives if we did engage them in learning?
Yes. I believe that infant learning creates a foundation that causes children of average intelligence to flourish in life, to become confident leaders and innovators.
How can I do this?
It’s easy…just treat your baby like he or she has brains and can learn. Always assume your cranky baby is sleepy, sick, or bored, and do something to alleviate the problem or meet the need.
Clearly, he had a stored up a database of “must do when able” deeds and was simply awaiting his moment of mobility.
I want to get back to my study of Roland. On the first day that he could walk just a few steps (at age nine months), he made his way to the laundry room. Without a moment’s hesitation, he plopped down and grabbed the broom, nearly knocking his head. The loud bam as the broom hit the floor caused him to jump and pucker up for a cry, but, not feeling harm, he continued his adventure. I must say, Grandma was sweating. The older I get, the more nervous I am about all the little “ouchies.” But I kept myself in check and observed without interruption. Roland never missed a step. He grabbed the head of the broom, stuck it between his legs as a prop, and began to turn the rod around and around. It took a lot of grunting and effort, but he managed to get the handle separated from the broom. When the sweeper came off into his hands he squealed with triumph and held it up for me to see. I was amazed. Three months earlier, infant Roland had sat in his swing chair and observed his three-year-old brother Parker perform the same manipulation with the broom. Becoming ambulatory, he was now able to do what he had been wanting to do since he was six months old. The interesting thing is that Roland has never shown any interest in the broom since then. He was finally able to satisfy his curiosity, and that was enough.
Honor given to Daddy has positive repercussions toward Mama.
I could tell you of a dozen such episodes that I observed during the first week that Roland was walking. Clearly, he had a stored up a database of “must do when able” deeds and was simply awaiting his moment of mobility. His siblings had been “teaching” him what was fun, what was important, and what he could do as soon as he could walk. He had learned from observation that when Daddy came home, it was wonderful: Mama was happy, Gracie was happy, Laila was happy, and Parker Man was REALLY happy, so Roland was happy too.
This is an important piece of information. The oldest child learns from Mama that Daddy is very important to everyone’s welfare and happiness. Once the honoring-Daddy ball is rolling, half the game is won. Honor given to Daddy has positive repercussions toward Mama. Likewise, dishonor breeds dishonor. Nervousness and fear breed nervousness and fear. Unhappiness produces unhappiness. Lost ground is hard to recover.
Training a child is life training. It doesn’t mean just discipline, or education or academics. Training is communication and example pertaining to all of life’s experiences: to count as you go up and down steps, to obey the first time, to read by being read to, to make a peanut butter sandwich by watching or helping, to learn to work on a motorcycle by seeing Daddy do it, and a million other things. Effective training is happening all the time in a properly managed home. But negative training happens constantly too—by observation of anger; by lack of participation; by rejection, indifference, and boredom; by stern, forced school lessons, sitting at the table while Mama scowls; and last, but certainly the most powerful negative training of all, by the TV.
Your baby is bored. Your baby’s toys are boring. Your baby’s mind needs to be challenged, occupied, and stimulated.
There are several lessons from this study of Roland that I hope to pass along to my readers. The first is that books that I read 40 years ago are still helping me be a good teacher/trainer/thrilling person who makes my grandkids’ lives exciting, so I would suggest to you that they are worth the read. Keep in mind that it was not so much the word cards that transformed my thinking; it was the fact that my baby’s brain was on a fast track of learning, as the things I poured into her brain would provide the foundation for a lifetime of satisfying learning.
The next thing to learn from the Roland study is this: Your baby is bored. Your baby’s toys are boring. Your baby’s mind needs to be challenged, occupied, and stimulated. Your baby wants real-life objects, not plastic toys; she wants to see what you are doing, feel what you are stirring, smell it, and taste it. If you are cooking, set your baby in a prop-up chair of some kind where he or she can watch, and then talk through your project. Let your babies be part of real life.
What really got my mind focused on learning from Roland was something that happened during a shopping trip. Shoshanna (our youngest daughter) and I were checking out at Costco. She was holding her 27-month-old baby, Penelope. Unexpectedly the cashier stopped, looked straight at Penelope, and held up a cucumber, “What’s this?” Penelope’s little tongue twisted as she worked to utter the new word, “Cucumber.” We were all surprised and laughed. Then the lady held up an onion, followed by all the different vegetables in the purchase, and asking of each one, “What’s this?” Without mistake, that tiny tot named lettuce, cabbage, carrots, different kinds of melons, garlic, different kinds of peppers, bananas, mango, pineapple, coconut, potatoes, corn, etc. She knew them all, although she had to work hard to pronounce the new words. Everyone nearby had turned their attention to watch this baby call out the correct answers. I later asked Shoshanna when she had taught Penelope these words, and she looked as surprised as I was. She said, “Well, we eat a lot of fresh foods, and I often give her a choice of fruits or veggies, but…I guess she knows it because we just talk to her as if she knows things. We just never stopped to question her, and I am sure this is the first time she has pronounced most of them.”
Does Penelope have an unfair advantage on life? You can bet she does! Did it come from being sent off on a school bus for early Head Start kindergarten? NO! (Just so you will know, it is now on public record that Head Start children have a much poorer grade average than children who start school later. This type of disjointed education is NOT successful at school or at home.)
Perhaps you have seen the famous Harding family on TV. The family’s first six children have all started college by age 12, which makes them rather unusual. Their daughter became the youngest medical doctor ever in the US. As I read their literature and studied their interviews, I tried to wrap my mind around the big questions everyone was asking them: “WHY are your children able to do this? HOW did you homeschool them to be able to do this? Are you as parents brilliant?”
When a baby is observing and participating in what others are doing, that child’s mind is creating building blocks that will set him apart for life.
The thing is, the parents seem pretty normal, and so do their children. What jumped out to me as I read their book and watched the interviews was something that occurred by happenstance. Mr. Harding was studying calculus for a college class when his oldest child was four years old. His wife worked in the evenings, so he babysat. In order to study without constant interruptions and to keep the little one happy, he pretended that she was a fellow student. She sat at the table with him as he read her the questions, discussed the problems, and gave her the answers. For hours every night, their study occupied her and kept her happy, because Daddy was making her the center of his attention. Little Hannah became a serious mathematician before she turned 12 years old. At the time, it never occurred to Daddy that it was setting a precedent for the rest of her life, and the lives of all her siblings.
Parents hold in their hands their children’s future success, not by giving them advanced education as children or teens, but by giving them the opportunity of observation of and participation in a joyful, productive life as soon as they are born.
The crux of everything I learned through my observation of Roland is that when a baby is observing and participating in what others are doing, that child’s mind is creating building blocks that will set him apart for life. A child who sees a daddy and mama laugh and rejoice, pray and show thankfulness, study and learn, teach adults the Bible, etc., will grow up with this ingrained into his soul. A child sitting at your feet while you teach Romans to a room full of adults is becoming a Bible teacher. Our son Nathan, who sat at his daddy’s feet while Daddy taught Romans, says that the logic of that book shapes almost everything he does in life.
Musical families help drive home this concept. It is standard knowledge that musical families usually produce musically gifted children. People who love music play, sing, and listen to music all the time; it is just a part of life. There are several interesting studies showing that children adopted into musically gifted families are also musically gifted, although their biological history would not indicate this.
The question has to be asked in regard to any person’s gift, talent, ability, or even intelligence: Is it biological, or could the greater part of this person’s extraordinary ability come from very early opportunity? I believe that it is both: genetic make-up can bestow gifts, and early opportunities build into a baby’s mind the material to set that child apart for the rest of his life.
Parents hold in their hands their children’s future success, not by giving them advanced education as children or teens, but by giving them the opportunity of observation of and participation in a joyful, productive life as soon as they are born. It is not piles of school workbooks that will make your children the leaders of the pack; it is your holding them on your hip, talking to them like they can understand everything you say and do. From day one, treat them like they are your best buddies with whom you want to share every good thing that comes your way. Treat them like fellow believers, sharing prayer, the Word, concern, victory, and praise, and they will love Christ from their youth and never turn away.