HG’s November Reading

~ Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It  by Dr. Jane Healy

In high school I read, and loved, Healy’s Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence. Now that I’ve actually got children I figured another Healy book might not be amiss. It took me a whole month to read, because there’s a lot of information to process; it takes even longer when you’re reading in short snippets of nursing sessions, bath times, and outdoor play time. Healy is *wonderful* reading, though, for any layperson interested in knowing how learning works for children. This book is a bit dated (any book that discusses at length electronics and brain studies is bound to be dated within 3-5 years; Healy’s is much older than that), but still has so much to give!

One of the key topics discussed is the way children learn about and handle language. There’s a lot of fascinating data that resonates encouragingly with the way most parents naturally interact with their children. For instance:

“…a large study in Great Britain following children from preschool into elementary school…found that the most powerful predictor of their school achievement was the amount of time spent listening to interesting stories. Wells believes that such experiences teach children first about the way stories…. are structured, as well as the types of language that may be expected in a variety of types of written texts. Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with ‘the symbolic potential of language.'”

It turns out that bedtime stories, then, aren’t simply a way to entertain children and give mommy or daddy some peace, but are also a key way for children to learn thought processes that will last them their whole life long. And interestingly enough, listening to these stories instead of seeing them acted out on TV, is hugely important. Another study Healy references had children listen to an audio recording of a story’s beginning and watching a video production of the story’s beginning; they were then asked to make up an end to the story. The children who listened to the audio version gave richer and more detailed conclusions than those who watched a recording. Isn’t that a cool something to know?!

The scientific data, then, is interesting and useful, but so are the philosophical points drawn from the data. One of the quotes that has been most constantly on my mind since finishing the book is this one:

“The person who teaches your child to talk also teaches a way of thinking.”

This may be because I’ve got talking on the brain (the Striderling does have weekly speech therapy sessions, after all), but this idea is such an important one. What do our children hear from our talk? Do we view language as simply a tool to get what we want (“I love ice cream!” “Stop making that noise!”)? Do we use it as a way to explore abstract concepts in life (“I have faith that God knows what is best for us”)? Do we use it to explore beauty (“look at the shades of blue in this painting!”)? What about words and the connotations they have; when we use words like help, work, share, obey, pray, read, and dozens of others, do our small children hear us saying them positively or negatively?

As Healy also says, “For children, habits of the mind soon become structures of their brain – and they absorb their habits, either directly or indirectly – from the adult culture that surrounds them.” 

And that’s where the book also got discouraging and depressing. Science knows SO much about how children best learn… one on one time with adults who care about them, being free to ask questions and engage in *conversations* rather than lectures. We know that learning strong “inner speech” and “problem solving skills” happen most effectively  “in natural contexts, with real problems that have meaning to both adult and child – such as helping in the kitchen, the workshop, the garden, the store, or other forms of mutual activity.”

We know all of this… and, yet,  Healy says, “at this writing, the majority of babies born in the United States are placed in full-time day care within a year, commonly within two or three months, so their mothers can return to work…”

I’ve spent some time trying to track down whether the majority of babies are still placed in full time care within a year, since I suspect the data she’s using there is out of date. I haven’t been able to pin it down precisely, although in 2005 more than half of the “babies, toddlers, and preschoolers” were in daycare (from this excellent article). Data from an interesting study in 2008 mentioned 55% of babies being cared for by someone other than a parent, and half of *those* babies were in full time child care. In 2010, 55% of mothers who had recently given birth were back in the labor force (according to the census bureau). So, no matter how you look at it, a huge percentage of infants and small children are in day care. And here is what happens, language wise, for children in day cares:

In many day care centers and classrooms, teachers have too many children to see to and may even lack the interest or the skills to participate with them. Neglect of verbal interaction during the apex of the brain’s sensitive period for language acquisition is a serious issue, but many so-called ‘reliable’ programs overlook the priority of interactive talk. In one typical study, researchers observed the everyday interactions of children and their teachers in two well regarded child care centers in the United States. They found:

– the children spent most of their time in teacher-directed large-group activities and…most of their language behavior was receptive, such as listening to and following teachers’ directions. Although teachers provided adequate oral language models, they were not active listeners, did not encourage curiosity about language, and did not spontaneously expand on children’s vocabulary or concepts.”

This Should Not Be. Our children are the future, and we keep relegating them to environments that ignore the thriving potential of their minds and hearts. For what? So mommy and daddy can each have a job? Please understand me… I am completely and fully aware of cases where things are tight enough that extra income is desperately needed… but I have also watched, repeatedly, moms go back to work for things not needed.  I know this is a grossly unpopular thing to say, but: our society needs more stay at home moms… moms who are willing to take their children to the grocery stores, to cook with their children, to garden with them, to do everything that helps them truly learn how to be deep thinkers and problem solvers. Too many moms succumb to society’s pressure to “have it all,” and instead leave their children with paltry nothings.

As Healy says,

“While the adult community sanctimonisouly bewails erosion of academic rigor and achievement… it perpetuates the practices that are shortening children’s attention spans and rendering their brains unfit to engage in sustained verbal inquiry.”  

Day cares are included in these practices. Large classrooms where children are expected to learn in a one size fits all scenario are included in these practices. Aaaand (this one is a tough one for me): our individual habits as moms also perpetuate practices that can shorten our children’s attention spans. Does my behavior help my children learn the importance of sustained attention and mental effort? Do they see me reading books? Tackling a cleaning project and sticking with it? Do they see me checking Facebook updates frequently, ever wanting the newest bit of data? Do I take the time to engage in activities *with* them so they can learn the art of application, too? Or do I brush them off and charge around doing everything on my own?

Yeah. Tough for me. Just physically being home isn’t enough; I’ve got to mentally and emotionally be there for them too. Some days I’m better at this, some days we’re in a rut… and books like Healy’s help us climb out of it. 🙂


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  1. Posted December 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    You will never be perfect, but, if your statistics are true – and I suspect they are – then your children are SO far ahead of the norm that you should go just a bit easier on yourself. I agree with everything you say. I have one child, a daughter, now 28 years old. My then-husband wanted me to go right back to work after having her and put her in day care. This was back in 1984. I refused – and spent the next 5 years at home with her. When she entered first grade, I went back to work full time. When she was 8
    (in third grade) – my husband left and I was the major wage earner (he paid child support). I SO wanted to home school, or even send her to a private school, but there was no way. At least she got the benefit of being home with me during her most vulnerable years.

  2. Carol
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    *applause* for saying the hard things that need to be said.

  3. Hannah
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this information. I am at stay at home home educator and I gave up my full time job to educate my children who are still young and I find that I am still insecure at times about providing the best education for my children. Posts like this encourage me to stay the course, our children need us.

  4. Donna
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I read Endangered Minds years ago. I picked up Healy’s _Different Learners_ and it covers similar things but with a holistic view. So far so good. It does scare me concerning our society as a whole, though.

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