nature vs nurture: what explains early learning success stories?

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October 15, 2013

in Brillkids, Child prodigies, Early Learning, flash cards, glenn doman, nature vs nurture, Raising children

I recently finished reading “We Can Do” by Moshe Kai Cavalin who entered Community College aged 8 and graduated from UCLA with a degree in maths aged 14 last year. I really enjoyed the book because Moshe is a very humble boy who insists he is not a child prodigy and instead explains in detail the early learning program his parents practiced with him, and anyone who follows the Brillkids forum and has read Glenn Doman‘s books, such as How Smart is Your Baby, or anyone who knows about enhancing early learning via flashcards will recognise their approach to early learning instantly. But Moshe also raises a point which I have been thinking about a lot for many years: his parents were not planning this whole program in advance, they simply started by using flash cards and focusing on early language development, and his rapid progress and quick results motivated them to keep going and intensify their efforts. So on the one hand, you see a very successful “child prodigy” whose parents engaged in a very serious early learning program, suggesting the main influence came from nurture, but on the other hand, maybe the parents simply responded to Moshe’s interest and would never have been able to do this if he had not shown a strong drive to learn as a toddler?

The idea of responsive parenting as a prerequisite for the development of giftedness is also hinted at in the brilliant book Gifted Children – Myths and Realities by Ellen Winner that I discussed previously in my post Why Child Prodigies Fail. Ellen Winner discusses her research results that what successful gifted children have in common is responsive parents – parents who give up jobs or move cities to make sure their talented children receive adequate schooling, attention and coaching. So you will often see success stories go hand in hand with intensive parental efforts, which might suggest to you that the main influence was nurture, but it is not that simple. It is often a child’s disposition that elicits this involved parenting style in the first place.

For example, imagine you are a loving and responsive parent and you read about the intellectual benefits of early learning and get your infant started on flash cards. But what if you show your infant flash cards and they show no interest? What if you try it on your toddler and he prefers to crawl off and chew on a tennis ball or tear books out of the shelf? How long will you continue when clearly your baby isn’t having fun (especially given that Glenn Doman himself states learning has to be fun and should not be forced?). Let’s assume you try once in a while, don’t really get a response, don’t see results and eventually give up and decide to enjoy your time with your baby instead by singing songs, playing peekaboo or cuddling and reading books together? You are probably a loving responsive parent and you let your little child communicate to you what he enjoys and follow his lead. On the other hand, you may have a parent who does the same and finds his toddler is extremely interested in the flash cards. She might play with them and look for them. She might laugh whenever you start showing them or even bring them to you when she is a little older. She will notice your delight when she guesses the meaning of the cards correctly and enjoy early learning time. This will motivate you to buy more learning materials and spend even more time on early learning. Later on, when they are 4 years old, you might find that the girl who spent a lot of time doing flash cards and early learning games is more advanced than the boy who’d rather play, but is this the result of early learning (nurture) only? or do you simply usually find that those who actually pursued with early learning activities were those parents who had a child eager to learn in the first place? I think it is very hard to disentangle these effects because most parents love their children and are responsive, so you seldom find a case where the child has no interest but the parents keep insisting (these are probably what you could call “Tiger Parents” and studies show that tiger parenting against a child’s will doesn’t tend to work – even Tiger Goddess Amy Chua threw in the towel with her daughter Lulu who resisted efforts to turn her into a professional violinist or tennis player).

This is not to say that I don’t believe in the influence of nurture. I have run my Genius Experiment for too long now and have already concluded that early learning does work. My now 9 month old daughter wouldn’t be walking confidently now after taking her first steps at 7 1/2 months if I hadn’t read the book “Fit Baby, Smart Baby” by Glenn Doman when she was a couple of months old. She already does many other things that are way ahead of her time. For example, she is already trying to feed herself with a spoon, aged 9 months! She clearly understands the concept, and she has tried taking a passion fruit or an avocado in one hand and using a spoon in the other hand to feed herself, with some success (this is supposed to happen only between 15-18months, according to most experts).  I have shared my very positive results with Elimination Communication on our early learning facebook group but won’t go into further detail here (one day I will need to write a separate post on it). But it is clear that at least in the short term, early learning (i.e. nurture) can accelerate learning significantly. And this will have strong effects on motivation and self-confidence that can last a life-time.

So, does early learning work? Yes. I have no doubts about that. Is nature irrelevant? Absolutely not. I still believe children, from the very early days, respond differently to the stimulation parents provide, and their reaction guides parents in terms of what type of activities they will engage in. A child’s curiosity, energy level, temperament and ability to focus will determine the nurture parents will provide. What do you think?

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