Big messes are never easy to fix. But they are possible when we have the big picture in mind–and when that picture is accurate. Dr. Susan Engel does a marvelous job of refocusing the big picture in the NY Times today; click here. Take a few minutes to read it; she defines the issues just so, making it well worth the read.

We’ve known for over fifty years, through research and experience, what children need to learn. In many ways most children don’t need much; human beings are designed to learn. It’s like feeding them; basic nutrition is not rocket science or we never would have survived as a species. Learning is the same. Yet slowly and incrementally we have eroded that starting point. We have replaced what truly works with “stuff” that grows out of our attitudes. We, as adults, want to feel good and look good and we’ve used children as our props.

Our educational system is busted. It’s a mess and it needs fixing. Some honesty is needed, though, before any changes will matter. And most of this honesty involves attitudes:

More is not better. A malnourished child and a well nourished child do not need the same things. Neither does a “educationally” nourished child need the same things as the “educationally” malnourished child. Middle and upper class parents need to turn loose of this attitude. It strains resources and it harms children who do not need all that “extra” nourishment.

Earlier is not better. There is no research that supports that the earlier a child does something, the better they are at it later. Is your child better at using the toilet at age ten because he potty-trained 9 months before his cousin? Of course, not, how silly.  The same principle applies to learning to walk, talk, read, or count. Doing it “early,” first off, does not last, and second, does not bear out later in “being better.” And when we push for earlier, we stress children, burn them out, kill the love of learning that’s built into them, and take away time from the learning “stuff” they would be doing–if they weren’t working flashcards, beginning readers, or worksheets. Earlier is better has been the mantra in the schools for over forty years–but in the same space of time, results have fallen and fallen. We need to make the connection. It makes us feel like we are “doing more” for children and that makes us look and feel good, but it is counter-productive.

Giving your child every “educational” advantage does not make you a better parent, give you status, or change how you feel about working full-time–or staying home full-time. We as parents need to separate what we claim we do for our kids “for their good” and what we are really doing because it makes us feel better. This is hard, separating our needs from those of our child, but it is essential to good parenting (and to any good relationship). When these get muddled, we sign up for everything “they” (marketers) tell us is needed and we pressure child cares and schools to “do more.”

I hope more people like Dr. Engel get involved in the conversation as NCLB gets revamped. But parents need to be involved also. Schools and legislators need to hear that this is “all right” with parents, that we will support them as they make these desperately needed changes. If you want further reading on this subject, I highly recommend Dr. David Elkind’s book Miseducation.

Read, think, watch your kids–and be honest! We can do what’s best for kids!