Why rush them?



by Kerry McDonald

My newly-minted one-year-old is learning to walk. Increasingly and more boldly, he will grab a grown-up’s hand and take the lead on where to go. His confidence is building, his hand grips are loosening, his independent half-steps turn into whole ones. He watches those around him: his big brother and sisters as they dance, and jump, and run. He dances with them, imitating their moves and gestures. He takes it all in. He is learning, growing, as children simply do. 

We tend to accept this early natural learning, generally not feeling the need to hurry up our children’s first rolls or first crawls or first steps. Yet, as children age, we often increasingly feel the need to intervene in their learning: to start teaching them instead of allowing them to learn, in their own way, in their own time, when surrounded by the rich resources of their culture. As Dr. Peter Gray writes:

“Through their own efforts, children figure out how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm, and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children reach five or six. But we turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.”

Perhaps nowhere is this trend to intervene and manage a child’s learning more apparent than in reading instruction. At ever earlier ages, we are expecting children to learn to read, interfering with their own distinct reading timelines. The vast majority of children, when surrounded by literacy, will naturally learn to read, all on their own. Some will be early, or “precocious,” readers. Some will be late readers. But most children will learn to read all on their own when surrounded by books, by reading, and by people who value books and reading.

In this must-read article, written by the director of the must-see documentary Schooling The World, Carol Black writes about reading instruction around the world. She notes that in Finland, formal reading instruction doesn’t begin until age 7, similar to the age it begins in most Waldorf schools, when many more children are developmentally ready to learn to read. She writes:

“So one hypothesis is that American schools are not only assuming the normal developmental window for reading to be too narrow, they’re also placing it too early. In other words, it’s not like expecting all children to take their first steps at the average age of twelve months: it’s like expecting them all to take their first steps at the precocious age of ten months. In doing this you create a sub-class of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose natural processes of physical and neurological development and organization are so severely disrupted, that you literally have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.”

Most of us would think it absurd to worry if our child wasn’t a “precocious walker.” We would laugh at the idea of coercing our child to walk at 10 months. We would find it silly to undertake walking interventions if he wasn’t walking at 12 months. We would reject labels of “slow walker,” or “walking challenged,” if he wasn’t walking at 14 months. Yet, we seem to systematically believe that children should read, and read proficiently, on a similarly arbitrary timeline and at ever earlier ages–stretching the limits of childhood adaptability.

Now, it seems, some researchers are taking notice and pushing back on the Common Core standards that require reading instruction for kindergarteners. In their new report, “Reading In Kindergarten: Little To Gain and Much To Lose,” authors Nancy Carlsson-Paige, et al, write: “When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.”

My older daughter didn’t walk until she was 15 months. She learned to read, all on her own without instruction, when she was 4. My older son began walking (running!) at 10 months. At just shy of six, he is beginning to read. Some children don’t read until age 10 or older. This is natural human variation, a bell curve of human difference that we seem to willingly accept for some childhood actions but not for others. 

We can get off this accelerating treadmill of childhood. We can reject efforts to coerce young children, some barely out of diapers, to read and write and excel at rigorous academics at ever earlier ages. We can bring back play, recognizing its natural, evolutionary importance in the lives of highly-thinking mammals, and allow childhood to be filled with endless hours of self-directed, creative, unstructured play. 

We can halt efforts to make childhood a race to some amorphous top, and instead allow childhood to be–simply and slowly–childhood.

Kerry McDonald, M.Ed., lives and learns in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children. She is a contributor to Alternatives To School and writes about natural learning, natural parenting, and natural living on her blog, City Kids Homeschooling.


  1. Fastidious response in return of this difficulty with firm arguments and telling the whole thing regarding that.

  2. Jayesh Shah says:

    Kerry you must be a beautiful person – your choice of words – newly minted touched the glow spot. “But we turn it off with our coercive way of schooling”. I would rather say with our coercive way as well meaning parents and adults, sans the few who take the bold step of doing it themselves.

    We too home schooled but unless everyone in the family is onboard the idea, the younger person (I detest the world “child”) tends to get confused. Confidence can take a beating by constant peer group comparison out of school, especially in a place like Pune or India for that matter. The younger person questions the validity and is split by the split vote in the house itself. Nevertheless this confusion is a lesser evil than sending the person to school, this is crystal clear to me.

  3. This is a great post and I certainly have huge respect for home schooling in any form. As a reading specialist, I must comment on the comparison between reading and walking. We are simply not hard wired for reading as we are for walking. It makes more sense to compare walking with talking. So yes, most kids will learn to read easily, 80% to be exact. And there is no need to rush them. However, that leaves the 20% who will need intervention in order to become fluent, expert readers. You really need to spend time with dyslexic kids to know how courageous they are and how incredibly difficult it is for them to read. Although we have years and mountains of evidence proving the efficacy of phonics based, multi-sensory reading remediation, the schools won’t provide this for kids. It is even more troubling in urban or rural schools where parents in poverty don’t have the resources to pay for or fight for a 1:1 reading tutor. To me, this is the social justice issue of our time and another example of schools failing our children. (My web site is under construction.)

  4. Peter A. Bergson says:

    Kerry, your message is, as usual, spot on, and the inclusion of Carol Black’s comparison between reading and walking, and Nancy Carlson-Paige’s observations were equally wise, in my opinion–so much so that I should like to expand upon them in a follow-up posting of my own soon.
    The headline is this: Making the Distinction Between “Learning” and “Development”. My sense is that the former term is often inappropriately used in place of the latter, and as a result, both the structure of forced schooling (“What every fifth grader should know…”, etc.) and the conversations about its failures are stuck in the old paradigms. Understanding the relationship between learning and development, beginning with noting their differences, will, I believe, help free us up to make the fundamental changes in the lives of young people that will lead to the improvements that we all seek.

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