Parents: Don't Be Boring, Relentless Teachers

No need to follow the stultifying advice from Parents magazine on how to "Supercharge Every Storytime."


It's snuggly time with your little one, who is not even in kindergarten yet. His little head rests against your shoulder as you open up a picture book. "See?" you say, pointing not to the furry bunny or diabolical cat or tree that keeps amputating herself. "These are the words on the page. This sentence has seven words. This dot is called a period, and it shows the end of a sentence."

At least, that's what you'd do if you followed the stultifying advice in a recent Parents magazine piece on how to "Supercharge Every Storytime." And that's what we're here to talk about today: parents who believe they must supercharge every story time, and all the rest of the time they spend with their kids as well.

These parents seem to believe that home must be just like school. And I'm not talking about homeschooling or COVID-19 remote learning. I'm talking about the way parents have started to think of themselves as actual teachers and their kids as students.

Haven't parents always taught their kids? Yes, of course, says anthropologist David Lancy, author of Raising Children: Surprising Insights From Other Cultures (Cambridge University Press). What's different today is that interactions at home are modeled on what goes on in the classroom, where an adult instructs and a student sits and (with any luck) soaks it up.

That is actually a pretty new teaching method, historically speaking. Until public schools became popular in the 19th century and then ubiquitous in the 20th, kids mostly learned what they needed to know by watching and imitating others. Their teachers were everywhere and everyone, including their friends and siblings. But once school-based education became the norm, we forgot that kids learn from other kids, from helping out, and from playing.

Even in the 1950s, when Lancy was growing up, school didn't play such a huge role in childrens' lives. Once the bell rang at 3 p.m., pupils could go off and not think about school until the next day. There wasn't much homework. And unless a kid was failing, parents weren't involved with it.

But in the last generation or two, Lancy observes, school has started seeping into the rest of kids' experiences. Instead of playing pickup games, they enroll in organized leagues coached—"taught"—by adults. Saturdays, too, are for professionalized activities. Most disturbingly, the new conventional wisdom holds that the parent-child relationship itself can be "optimized" if only the parent acts more like a teacher.

That's why Parents could publish a two-page piece on how to read to your kid—something most of us could probably have muddled through without instructions. "I'm a mom and a literacy specialist," the subtitle says, "and I'm here to share my secrets." That's the part parents don't know: how to read to their kids like a teacher. Thanks to articles like this one, and a million educational toys, and a mound of homework that parents are supposed to oversee from kindergarten through college, adults are getting the message that it's not enough to be a plain old parent.

"There's a cultural idea that that is how you should treat kids, and it's reinforced everywhere," says Dorsa Amir, a postdoc in evolutionary anthropology at Boston College. "It is really hard to make changes at the household level when there's an entire cultural apparatus suggesting something else."

Peter Gray, author of 2013's Free to Learn, calls this "a schoolish view of child development":  the notion that children learn and develop best when they are carefully taught by adults, and that whatever children do on their own—playing, watching, thinking, dreaming—is a waste of time because there's no one there to guide and perfect it.

Lancy, who has traveled the world studying how kids learn on their own, is now a granddad. His daughter, like everyone else, is buying brain-boosting toys for her toddler. She sits on the floor with the girl, says Lancy, "and she's telling her what the shapes are and demonstrating how they go in…"

This is not evil or cruel. It is simply what today's parents believe they must do: make every second into school. What's lost is the faith that our kids' innate curiosity is the greatest education engine ever.