Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Sivan 5759, May 19, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Born to Learn
Prepared for Yated by R. Gil

Is there any point in cramming into a few-month-old child such concepts as numbers, shapes, colors, or is it enough to cushion his way in life with warmth, love and stability, which are considered critical in his development? Annette Krimloff-Smith, a researcher who studied the habits and development of hundreds of babies, presents a different approach in her book: "Your Child: Experience and Intelligence." In her opinion, a mother must not lightly dismiss the learning power of babies, but supply them with mental stimulation in order to promote their intellectual development and the molding of their personality.

Every new mother knows that nothing can compare to warmth and affection in raising a normal, well integrated child. The current opinion holding sway in parenting courses maintains that if one wants to produce a mentally healthy, balanced child, one must envelop him with infinite love, moral support and warmth, since any lack of these emotional factors can impair the normal development of the child and undermine his solid base.

The more affection parents shower upon their children, the less they are apt to feel guilty about their role as effective parents. While a child certainly needs much love -- and no one denies this -- still, it is not clear whether love can also develop a child in other areas, such as speech and communication and other phases of intellectual development.

"Did you ever see a child who does not talk, or learn to count and read, eventually, even if his parents do not hover about him solicitously 24 hours a day?" asks a mother in a self-convincing tone. Her friend avidly buys the latest books on child development as soon as they hit the bookstores. She sings educational songs to her child and plays didactic games with her involving shapes and colors. "I want to be sure that I am doing the maximum towards her development. Sure, all children eventually develop, but there's a difference between a skimpy, poor development and an enriched one. It all depends on the willpower and drive of the parents."

As soon as her baby was old enough, she enrolled him in a cheder nursery and at the age of three, not satisfied with the standard education he was receiving, she sent him to a private reading group which she, herself, organized and manned with a talented melamed who was willing to undertake the project. At the age of five she enrolled him in a music course. "I don't intend him to make a career of music, G-d forbid, but at this age music can definitely enrich him from many aspects." While she may have taken his mental and scholastic development far too seriously, researchers feel that she was most instrumental in upgrading his social, personal and scholastic growth.

Is there a valid point to all this effort? The question can be asked in a more extreme manner: what is more important: to shower a child with oodles of love or to provide intellectual stimulation?

The latest theory maintains that the one complements the other. If, in the past, we thought that love could develop a child and compensate for lack of intellectual stimulation, today it is clear that mental stimulation initiated by the parents are not any less decisive in developing a child's mind and molding his personality.

Annette Krimlof-Smith, a scientific researcher who has monitored the development of hundreds of babies, leaves no room for doubt. She insists that without intellectual stimulation initiated by the parents, the normal emotional and social development of a child can be lacking. A child is most likely to be missing the necessary tools to handle oneself in one's environment.

In her book, which immediately became a best-seller, she brings the results of a unique study of the first three years of a child, which assist not only in enabling us to see through the child's looking glass but also to understand his demands, capabilities and potential and the conclusions which his parents must necessarily arrive at regarding their handling of his development.

Children Are Born to Learn

The two primary conclusions are:

1. A baby is not as helpless as we think.

One must not lightly regard the intellectual capacity of an infant and his ability to learn, absorb and progress. "We always tend to think that infancy is a period of helplessness and play," she notes. "But what appears to the adult as an innocent gesture or a game is serious work and initiative on the part of the baby, since it is motivated by a strong internal urge to beome a creature that is mobile and can manipulate tools, talk and think and interact in the full sense of the word."

2. Whoever sows - shall reap.

The development of an infant is a constant interaction between the child's brain, which is constantly taking shape, and his attempts to handle himself in the world. At birth, the brain contains all of the tens of billions of brain cells which he will require in the course of his entire lifetime. Millions upon millions of connections will be made, all as a result of his grappling with the daily problems he faces.

Babies are not passive creatures, she stresses. They take a very active part in their own development, and are born with the innate power to learn -- straight from birth. They are constantly absorbing information, and the more one takes pains to enrich and stimulate their senses in a variety of ways, the more results are apparent. The effort pays, she sums up. One must summon all of one's resources for the massive input, in order to reap the output.

Experience is the Architect of the Mind

Dr. Erica Landau, the scientific consultant of the book, is a psychotherapist and the director of an institute for the creative advancement of youth. She vests the parents with the bulk of the responsibility for the successful development of their children.

"I once asked a brilliant girl of six how she came to know all that she knows," Dr. Landau tells in the beginning of her book. "In all seriousness, she replied. `It began when my father used to pick me up, hold me tight in his arms, and point to something and ask me, `What's that?' And he would provide the answer himself, `That's a light fixture.' And he would continue on, `And what's that?' `That's a window.' He showed me the things he wanted me to see, and when I grew a little and saw something, I asked him and he would answer. This is how I learned about all the things I know.'"

What was this little girl trying to tell us? First of all, that she was being held in her father's arms, that is, she felt the security of his love. Second, that he used to point to things, and in this way she became aware of all the things around her. Third, that he posed questions. He roused her curiosity before pumping her full of information. When she grew, she felt free to ask questions about all kinds of things in her environment. Her curiosity had been developed to a keen edge.

This, says Dr. Landau, is the ideal combination for the development of intelligence: stability, confidence and realization of a child's potential from age zero by broadening his horizons.

A parent directly influences his child's development and behavior. He must be aware of this. Today it is clear to researchers that an infant is not born as a genetically programmed automaton, but neither is it a blank sheet which is completely exposed to every imprint in its environment.

The ancient controversy of heredity versus environment has long ago been resolved. It is clear to scientists that a child's development is affected by an interactive relationship which takes place between the genes and the environment. Heredity has a dominant role, but one cannot ignore the stimulation and environmental support that can turn the picture upside down.

The sum of a baby's experiences she calls "the architect of the brain," since action is able to change the brain in a phenomenal way and create neural interaction between the cells. In other words, brain activity serves to continue to develop the brain.

One scientist compared this to a telephone exchange with many wire hookups. Parents and educators have the main job of providing the stimulation and the quality input, which is not necessarily quantitative, since each stimulation creates tens of thousands of linkups and interchanges.

Music and Reading

After we have understood the importance of warmth coupled with intellectual stimulation and input, we are advised to know a child's potential capacity and what he can achieve at what stage.

When an infant is born, he is already familiar with many types of sounds. His auditory system is almost as well developed as that of an adult. It takes no more than 3-4 days for him to recognize his mother's voice and to distinguish its tone and timber from the voices of other people.

As far as communication, infants are not at a loss, even before they have developed language skills. They are capable of distinguishing music before they understand speech.

At four days, they can already differentiate between their mother tongue (literally) and other languages spoken around them. A baby born in England may not be able to tell the difference between French and Spanish, but he can definitely distinguish between English and French, English and Hebrew. An infant, say the scientists, can distinguish the 150 different types of sound that appear in all of human speech. In other words, he is actually born `multilingual'.

Up till the end of his first year, this marvelous capacity tends to disappear; the synapses in the brain which control the distinction of sounds of speech slowly atrophy, since he is only exposed to his mother's tongue.

To the degree that a child's development is promoted and molded, in such proportion are the synapses in his brain expanded and the processes of cerebral maturity will affect all of his motor abilities, his attention span, memory and grasp. Parents must become active partners in these stages. One must naturally not go to extremes in overtaxing the brain with stimulation while ignoring the basic aspect of attention- giving and warmth, since this will defeat the purpose on a double account. Erica Landau succinctly expresses this pitfall, "It is important to stress that the primary thing remains, as always, love. But here, too, it is quality that counts more than quantity." It is parental love that must guide parents in developing their children and drawing the most out of them, not only through intellectual stimulation but through emotional stimulation.


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