I'm always astounded by the number of myths and misguided philosophies out there about child development. That includes everything from iPad apps with false promises of turning your kid into a genius, to people rushing to diagnose a preschooler who can't sit still in class.
As a specialist in child development for more than 25 years — and a father of seven — I find these myths appalling. Parents should be empowered with the knowledge they need to quit worrying about these common scare tactics, and enjoy time with their children instead.
And so I wrote my new book The Intuitive Parent to debunk the myths and explain what's really most important when it comes to raising a healthy, happy child: you.
With that in mind, here are five popular myths about parenting that you don't need to worry about:
Myth #1: You need to focus on wiring your baby's brain early on.
Perhaps the most damaging myth parents face is that brain development has a fixed “critical period” that requires specialized input. So-called experts warn parents that if they don't focus on wiring their child’s brain before their third birthday, their brain will be stalled, never reaching its full potential.
The truth is that although the brain does indeed need input to develop, this input doesn't have to be specialized. A baby's natural environment — the signs, sounds, tastes, touches and smells that we all experience on a daily basis — provides ample stimulus to trigger brain plasticity.
For example, when a mother speaks to her baby while feeding or dressing him, she naturally performs a powerful brain-wiring activity. The “intuitive parent" — the parent who follows their instincts — nurtures brain development without setting out to do so.
Myth #2: Your child needs to be placed in a special class because he's a late talker.
Be wary of clinicians who label every late-talking child as “on the autism spectrum,” and teachers who immediately assign late-talking children to segregated classrooms. Research suggests that 60% or more of late talkers catch up with their peers in two or three years.
I’m a prime example: my parents tell me I hardly said a word before the age of three and a half. So yes, have a pediatrician and a developmental specialist evaluate your child if their speech is noticeably lagging behind. But don’t accept a devastating diagnosis without getting a second opinion, and definitely don’t self-diagnose your child.
Myth #3: Your kid needs Ritalin because he can’t sit still during story hour.
Have you gotten reports that your child is wiggling during storytime or “struggling” in a sit-still-and-listen classroom? Well, neither of those “symptoms” should be the sole basis of an ADHD diagnosis.
Preschools and elementary schools often emphasize learning by listening or worksheets. But the fact is, many capable children simply don’t do well in classrooms that use these strategies.
It’s sad to see parents and teachers take drastic steps — often with medication — to force a square peg into a round hole. There’s another learning style, and it’s entirely legitimate: learning by doing, or activity-based learning.
Myth #4: If you want your child to get into Harvard, start with the vocabulary flashcards now.
Actually, you’d better start teaching your child to think if you want them to get into Harvard. You don't create a world-class chef by making them memorize all of Julia Child’s recipes, do you?
Expensive memorization software, apps, and DVDs frequently peddled to parents don’t teach the range of linguistic and cultural contexts that actually form the basis for authentic vocabulary learning.
By contrast, intuitive parenting encourages problem solving, reasoning and thinking ability while also nurturing curiosity. How? The foundation of intuitive parenting is simply paying more attention to your child. Interacting with them naturally far away from flashcards has been proven to increase vocabulary in numerous scientific studies.
Myth #5: Reading early is a sign of genius and should be encouraged.
Sure, reading is a very good thing — but only if the child actually comprehends what she's reading. Simply naming letters or “reading” words from flashcards doesn't mean a child actually understands them.
Instead, parents should snuggle up in a chair with their child and read together. Be sure to name the pictures when your child points and allow them to make up their own endings. Early reading should be fun, interactive and dialogic, as in having a back and forth dialogue.