Shortly after Rachel turned five, I felt I “had to” begin doing formal homeschool curriculum with her. It wasn’t required by the law, which didn’t mandate compulsory “schooling” for any child under the age of six. I simply felt pressured to get going with “real” academics – particularly learning to read – because that’s what “everyone else” did.
As a not-quite-recovered perfectionist who wanted to “prove” the validity of home education and “keep up” with homeschool families I admired, I never considered any other path. And I don’t blame myself for trying; some kids are developmentally ready for such endeavors at five or even earlier.
However, it soon became clear that Rachel wasn’t yet ready for phonics, and I should have put away my fancy materials for a while instead of forcing her through the lessons. She tried so hard to figure it out in order to please me even though her brain simply needed more time to make the connection between letters and sounds. To my shame, I often became visibly tense and regularly scolded her, as if the struggle were a behavioral issue. I saw her wilt at my words every time it happened, and I vowed never to berate her again. But the same thing happened again and again as I continued to push.
I definitely wanted my child to learn to read. After all, the ability to read well is the key to all other learning. But my pushing – because I feared what “people” would think of me if Rachel couldn’t read Shakespeare by age seven – came with a price. Rachel is actually very word-smart and did eventually get past her struggles – but not until she was nearly eight, when her brain was sufficiently ready to process all that goes into decoding. And now she loves to read and is quite capable. In addition, she possesses a rich vocabulary and, though spelling doesn’t come naturally, she writes impressive compositions.
However, research shows that many pushed kids simply stop pursuing their strengths, and, thus, their smarts become paralyzed. We can work to reverse such paralysis, which happened with Rachel when I finally learned to back off and meet her real needs. But, though she was a very easy-going and confident preschooler, she now wrestles with significant anxiety about lots of things. And, since the shift in her temperament coincides with when I tried to force her to learn to read before she was ready, I don’t doubt a connection.
I’m grateful Rachel still trusts me and that her word-smart was not ultimately paralyzed. I’m also glad I’m here to help correct the emotional damage I caused. But how much better had I not pushed but had, instead, simply honored the unique, individual developmental pace God gave her in terms of her word-smart abilities? I’d have the same – or better – academic results we see in her now without the regrets.