As a noted child development researcher and, even more relevant, a father of seven children, Stephen Camarata says parents are increasingly anxious over whether they're giving their children every advantage to excel in school.
Parents are bombarded with what Camarata considers misinformation on so-called critical learning windows and brain development. Much of the misleading claims, he says, come from the make-your-baby-smarter industry that capitalizes on parent fears with “science-based” videos, books and toys promising to “to boost your children’s learning potential."
“I feel like the joy and all the wonderful things that go along with parenting are being stolen from these parents by all the pressure and all the products,” said Camarata in a telephone interview from Nashville where he is a professor at Vanderbilt University. “Parents are so busy teaching their kids letters and numbers to get them ready for preschool they are missing out on all the awesome stuff.”
Camarata's work with children with delayed speech and learning disabilities brings him in contact with hundreds of parents, and most, he says, “seem worried, if not downright petrified by the short- and long-term consequences of their everyday parenting choices.”
In his new book, “The Intuitive Parent,” Camarata attempts to ease parent angst with a message that echoes Benjamin’s Spock’s famous reassurance to new parents, “You know more than you think you do.”
Camarata’s updated message: Parents have all the state-of-the-art knowledge required to wire their children’s brains for success. They don’t have to worry about amplifying every exchange into a teachable moment. Parents have to pay attention to their children and respond to them intuitively and naturally. Babies learn best and most through simple, relational interactions, said Camarata.
In 10 minutes cooing with her baby in a rocking chair, a mother demonstrates multiple lessons through the back and forth communication. She does not have to pull out flashcards or a black and white play mat. Her face, voice and expressions teach the baby all he needs to know in that instance.
“The magic of those moments and the millions of times they occur in a child’s life, from birth until he enters school, is crucial not only for a baby’s emotional development but for ensuring his developing brain is properly wired for a lifetime of thinking, learning and social interactions,” said Camarata, a worldwide expert on speech delays in children and author of “Late-Talking Children.”
His new book details why the push for acceleration and hours spent in front of screens may be leading to a rise in learning challenges, including hyperlexia where children can read words, but can't comprehend meaning. Camarata worries excessive computer and video usage can compound the challenges of children on the autism spectrum, feeding their reduced motivation for social interaction, rigid adherence to routine and language disorders.
He also discusses in the book whether the rise in children identified with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder could be linked to excessive use of DVDs, videos and computers. Children learn from screens in a passive, two-dimensional, mechanistic way and thus may arrive at school without the social skills to function in a classroom that requires listening and interacting with others in a three-dimensional space, he said.
On the other hand, wiggly kids -- Camarata says he was one and was saved by an understanding teacher who let him walk around during reading -- are often mislabeled ADHD.
His own son faced that situation. It turns out the boy had a reading disability that he overcame with his parents' help and now works in a field that requires immense concentration; he's an air traffic controller, said Camarata.
He advises parents to seek an individualized evaluation when told their young child is hyperactive or inattentive; it may be the structure of the classroom or the teaching of material beyond the child's skill level.
Camarata finds little value in very early reading and academic kindergartens. “You could sit down with 2-year-olds and teach them to read ‘War and Peace’ through rote recall. But they don’t have the language for understanding that. Showing them letters when they are babies will wire their brains for seeing and recognizing letters, it will not teach them to read or comprehend what they read,” he said.
He urges parents to stop worrying about maximizing their child's potential and accelerating their development. Children come ready to learn; they do it on their own schedule and in their own way. If parents follow their instincts and their child's lead, Camarata says everyone will be happier and healthier.