Thursday, August 12, 2010

Training Babies to Sit Up

From The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker:

The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand, and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don't teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway, on their own schedule.

From a recent comment on StopHomework, written by a teacher:

When you ask the questions of, “What do you think will happen next?” and “How do you think (character) feels?” it teaches the child to develop an inner dialogue while they are reading. You may not agree with that but it works. When you can interact with what you are reading and feel the characters’ feelings, that is when the real love of reading takes place and it becomes pleasurable. If you do not know how to interact with a book, you will not learn to fully enjoy the experience.

Just like the !Kung San, who believe their babies cannot learn to sit upright without their special rituals, reading teachers today believe that children cannot learn to enjoy reading without being asked to predict what will happen next and what the characters feel. The difference is that the !Kung San babies really do learn to sit up.


  1. They are still around and people still use them despite all the devastating injuries to babies, but baby walkers were all the rage in the 60's. People would sing the praises of these devices to hasten a baby's walking ability. Trouble was, the babies learned often to walk on their tippy toes because their feet didn't touch the ground flat footed. Aside from all the head injuries incurred from tipping over stairs, many kids had great difficulty learning to walk properly after spending lots of time in a walker.

    Just another example of trying to hasten a natural process and coming out with a result that's detrimental.

  2. ooops..the previous comment was from PsychMom.

  3. PsychMom has more to say...(big surprise)...
    I read the posting that went along with that excerpt, FedUpMom. I wonder how many people have contemplated what would happen to their children if the children never went to school at all. Just because I see my child as separate from being a "student" belonging to some institution, I'm perceived as some sort of loser mom, and my child will hopelessly never fit into any job because she hasn't done what she's told by teachers for 12 years.

    I do not have a student living with me. I have a wonderful 9 year old little girl who amazes me every day with what she can do and what she knows. She never goes along with anything initially, which makes parenting a challenge, because I have to make my case, time and again about everything. Sure life would be EASIER if she did everything she was told, but it would also be dreadfully dull. Should she be courteous? Absolutely. Should she question everything? It would be nice if she didn't but given the alternative, yes, absolutely.

    It's taken all summer, but she's finally got her nose in the books again, proudly announcing every so often that she's finished a certain number of chapters. Her interest in reading was lost in February when she was required to read a book she didn't like and answer questions about characters feelings. So I wonder, was it worth it to lose 6 months of reading for pleasure. I don't think so. If she had been left alone to read, I think her ability to understand characters and develop that inner dialogue may have been farther along by now.

  4. My homeschoolers are autistic, and when they are reading aloud sometimes I will ask them questions about why something happened because they DO NOT GET some of these things on their own. The characters do things seemingly out of the blue (to them), and *sometimes* my children need a little extra help with character motivation and the like. I doubt a worksheet with, "What do you think will happen next?" is gonna cut it, though.

  5. PsychMom:
    Right Mrs. child had the same experience when asked to extrapolate about the events in the book she was reading. She just didn't understand what was going on. In her case, I think the number of words on the page also threw her off. She was beaten from the very beginning because she felt overwhelmed. All the cajoling after that was just forcing the square peg through the round hole.

    But in contrast, this summer, I've been reading aloud to her a lot, and every so often I'll throw a question in when we reach cliff hangers. The tone of my voice and the expression I put into it are cues, but I think, of everything, listening to another fluent (adult)reader, is a more influential way for kids to develop the internal dialogue. Hearing a parent's voice in their head, is replaced eventually by their own. It's gotten to the point now where my daughter has to take the book from me to be "allowed" to read some of it aloud herself. As with most things, not letting them do something is a sure fire way to get them to want to do it desperately.

  6. There's a strange echo here of the phonics vs. whole language battle. Proponents of whole language saw that verbally gifted kids learned to read without ever explicitly learning phonics, and concluded that all kids could be taught to read that way. It didn't work; it turned out that many (most?) kids need to learn phonics explicitly to be successful at reading.

    Now we have reading teachers claiming that kids must be explicitly taught to "interact" with their books, and that it seems unnecessary to us because we have "internalized" this work.

    And then the strangest thing of all, they think the kids have to be taught how to take pleasure in a story! Hmm ... this is turning into another post ...

  7. PsychMom says..
    Kind of like they need to be taught what's funny?
    "Class, this is what is called humour. Laugh now!"

    And comebacks I've heard when I've talked to the teachers about my daughter not liking the book that is required reading are, "Oh, but I loved this book when I was a kid" and "but she seemed so enthusiastic about it when she picked it out."

    Haven't they ever bought a book because the cover looked interesting? Or picked it up because someone else said they loved it? Sometimes when you start reading, you find the book sucks for you and I, at least, don't continue with it. But the kids are supposed to override that and "love" the book?

  8. Now we have reading teachers claiming that kids must be explicitly taught to "interact" with their books

    Isn't that called reading? I'm confused.

  9. Eh, it's (all the inner questions) just a guise, a ruse upon children to get the kid to read, even if they don't want to, and then prove they not only understand but can produce a socially acceptable view of the material read. So much of reading curriculum are integrated character ed. (for younger readers that is) and are little more than morality plays.

    And for fun reading-
    Boston University School of Education First Grade Character Education book list includes Pied Piper of Hamelin (Truth) and Hansel and Gretel (persistence)

  10. Hmmm....sounds like interrogation to me, not reading. The thing is we usual make kids tow a much harder line then we do ourselves. It's almost like they have to hold the moral high ground for us... As adults we get to fudge...but boy they don't.

    There are logs to check up on them. Where are the logs the kids get to keep on our performace? Is it a wonder when they realize what adults are like ( human) they get pissed off and feel had?

  11. Great post. And I agree with PsychMom that people would benefit from asking what would happen if their children never went to school at all. There seems to be a universal assumption that any kid who isn't being instructed all day will sit catatonic in front of the television 24/7 and remain forever at the mental age of five. Yet kids learn as much or more during the uninstructed years from 0-5 than at any other time.

    This vision of kids as uncurious, incapable airheads functions to support the most coercive, authoritarian approaches to education. Of course we have to interrogate the kids about the books we make them read; otherwise they'd be illiterate layabouts. Forget about developing a love of reading; the only choices are forcing them to grudgingly read against their will or leaving them to their illiterate fate. It's a miracle these lazy, vapid kids ever learn to speak English -- and when they're toddlers, no less! How do they do it without an AP course?

  12. PsychMom rejoins with: I'll even take it a step further. What if the reason our kids are so sucked in by television/video games/computers is because they are too stressed to begin with? What if we have created a world so far beyond their ability to mentally cope that they desperately seek out "zone-out" periods of time in whatever shape they appear. Metal boxes don't expect anything of them. Metal boxes don't demand indoor voices, sharing, neatness, A's, or for children to pick up anything. Don't we adults also use TV/video games/ as an escape from our stressful lives?

    I like this blog because it gets to the heart of my big issue with kids today. Kids are not valued for who they are and they are not treated or valued as children, only as what they might eventually become. Childhood has just become a holding area for not yet money earning adults. And as long as we only focus on the adult phase of life, our children will suffer.

    Ironically, if we were to be a society oriented to the nurturing and protection of childhood, so many of our adult ills would vanish.

  13. I agree, PsychMom. I also wonder how much of the teenage alienation that everyone takes for granted as an intrinsic part of adolescence is actually a response to the particular conditions high school kids find themselves in during those years.

  14. PsychMom says:
    They just published research that says teenagers today lose 30 percent of their hearing from listening to loud music. If that isn't a message, I don't know what is. The kids would rather damage their hearing than listen to what's going on around them. There isn't anything they want to hear.

    This is not a sign of bad kids and their gizmos..(god my age is showing).....this is a message to our society. Give the kids something worth listening to, and listen to them. A lot goes on in the teenage brain.