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'Baby Einstein' takes a legislative spanking

by Alan Markow, published

"Where all the children are above average…" - Garrison Keillor

A California legislator may just be doing something right.  About education.  And our children.  A Sacramento Bee story this week noted that state Senator Joe Simitian, (D-Palo Alto) has introduced legislation to move the eligibility birth month for kindergartners back from December to September.

To understand the importance of this move, check out Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers. This extraordinary best-seller (more than 80 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list) starts out with the proposition that timing is everything.  To prove his point, Gladwell analyzes all-star high school hockey players and discovers that the vast majority of the top kids were a few months older than less successful players.  This anomaly was based entirely on the date of eligibility for hockey league sign-up.  And birth date was the core factor.

Kids born earlier in the 12 month eligibility cycle were bigger and more mature than those born at the end of the cycle, hence they did better.  Teachers have assured me for years that the same developmental issue is just as true for scholastics and socialization as it is for sports, and that the kids who are born the latest for kindergarten eligibility have the hardest time.

But the parental imperative is often quite different.  The "Baby Einstein" syndrome says that any kid can develop his or her intellectual skills faster by early exposure to educational concepts.  This may well be true on an individual basis, and for specific sets of skills.  But the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget taught us otherwise some 75 years ago when he recognized that cognitive development cannot advance beyond a certain level at a certain age.

Piaget's findings were hardly ivory tower theories.  He developed his understanding by observing his own two children.  When he realized that there were certain questions the children could not answer before they reached a certain age, he generalized this belief into a theory of cognitive development.  Piaget's theories are often denigrated because of the size of his study group (n=2).  But his findings have been upheld over and over again by behaviorists, teachers and parents.

The bottom line of Gladwell's analysis and Piaget's findings is simple:  timing makes a difference.  If children go to school too early, they are more likely to fail.  And that failure may well last a lifetime.  The opportunity for success is far greater if you give a child the boost that comes with age.

Hence the wisdom of Senator Simitian's bill, which goes against the inclination of overanxious parents.  A few extra months of natural development of the brain and body can make an enormous difference for a child.  The 90 days between September and December may not be the entire answer, but it will help.  It should also remind parents that children are not automatons there to achieve your dreams and wishes, but little people trying to grow into successful adults.

Patience is a virtue.

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