Japan Today



Overzealous mothers prep their infants too early for school


What was the young mother to do? There was her little boy, barely three years old, staring vacantly at the wall and distractedly mumbling advanced kanji combinations. She called him; he seemed not to hear, and went right on mumbling, “Ikki ichiyu, ikki ichiyu…” (The expression means to be glad and sad by turns; it surely meant nothing at all to the child.)

The mother abruptly made a decision -- her boy was quite learned enough, for now. She withdrew him from “ultra-early education.”

Well-intentioned though they may be, parents who start prepping children in infancy for the competitive education that lies ahead are “damaging the children’s brains,” says Shukan Bunshun (Sept 18).

The magazine cites an even more extreme case, that of a 2-year-old girl who night after night would howl in a weird voice that echoed all over the neighborhood. “People thought we were abusing her; we had the police here checking up,” says the girl’s mother. Not abuse but infant education proved the culprit. The parents took her out of school, and she soon calmed down.

In an education system whose keystone is a series of entrance exams that lead the successful candidate into the best schools and the best jobs, an early leg-up is seen as a gift a caring parent confers on his or her offspring. A 1971 bestseller didn’t start the trend but pulled out all the stops in it. The book’s author was Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka. The title says it all: “Nursery School Is Too Late.”

The book’s thesis, as Shukan Bunshun summarizes it, is that the cells in the brain’s cerebrum are 80% formed by the time a child reaches the age of three; therefore, “there is no such thing as teaching a child too much before age three.”

The class that the boy mentioned above began attending before he was a year old was centered around drill with flash cards. “The flash cards had pictures or kanji characters on them. The teacher would hold each one up for 0.5 seconds, and the children would shout out what was written or drawn on it. It was explained to us that this stimulates the right side of the brain.”

Maybe it does, but at what cost? “Children who are exposed daily to flash cards at a mechanical pace will often lose their appetite, or their eyes will glaze over, or they’ll shriek in strange voices or be prone to violent outbursts,” says Keio University pediatrics lecturer Hisako Watanabe. “Early education appears to be very stressful for children.”

On the face of it, this seems so self-evidently true that it’s hard to imagine parents en masse failing to perceive it on their own. That they do fail, says Shukan Bunshun, is a symptom of the growing isolation of the shrinking nuclear family. Grandparents and other relatives are generally out of the picture, neighbors are strangers, and parents -- often the mother on her own, since the father tends to be focused on his job -- must make all the difficult decisions on their own, with no prior experience as a guide. Books that urge parents to quick action, implicitly threatening their children will be left behind otherwise, can be very persuasive under those circumstances.

“Children have the ability to communicate almost immediately after birth,” says Shukan Bunshun. “Early education is okay if it complements the infant’s natural development. But early education as we have it in Japan is in many cases a purely commercial undertaking that totally ignores what we know of human development, brain development and neuroscience.”

“For the sake of the children’s future,” it adds, “parents must not be led astray into overdoing early education.”

© Japan Today

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children should be helped to explore their world - not forced into early "education."

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this is one of the big problems in Japan. As an English teacher, I have had 2 year olds in classes with 4 and 5 year olds because mom, "wants him in an English speaking environment." The child just walks around with no ability to understand what is going on.

This ultra-early education is doing more harm than good and needs to stop.

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Just take the child to the library. Read books to him/her. Let the kid play with toys. Watch Seasame Street!!!!!

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Kanji flashcards stimulate the right side of the brain!? Completely ridiculous. A child will more easily develop creativity and confidence by playing with blocks... preferably wooden blocks or Lego bricks. The successful adult of the future will be the man or woman who can summon creativity, think critically, and relate with people on a sympathetic human level. Leave the left-brain number crunching for computers. People aren't robots!

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I think those of us from the Western world have always known this. This particular article reinforces the stereotype Western societies have of Japanese families. Let the children be children, let them play as children. Believe it or not, that is how they actually learn!! Have them play with the dirt, in it and with it, read to them, let them run, jump and play in the park. Let them enjoy life before the rigours of education and schooling begin. Those in the field of education do actually know what is best for children at each age and at each child's ability level. Leave the teaching to them, that is what they are trained for. None of us try and take out a cancerous growth -- we leave that to those trained in that field!!

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I heard of a English School which had a 6-month old student. How much English can a 6-month old learn?

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My 3 and a half year old boy is happy that I was teaching numbers from 1 to 10 (and higher) to him. Now he can build his Lego cars by himself following the instruction sheet. Actually these cars are for children from 6 years on, but he likes them so much. And he understands what he is doing and is just asking me, if there is something too difficult for him. He understands, he needs to understand the numbers and from then on it is fun for him.

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I swear this is true - my friend from a famous English school chain recently told me that a teacher there was employed as....I kid you not....a teacher to a fetus! The father was a scientist who had heard/studied all about fetal brain development and once a week there was the teacher with a doppler pressed up against the poor womans belly speaking into a microphone!

My own youngest student so far is 9 months old but we sing songs and play with her toys together - flashcards? Gimme a break??!

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My eikaiwa former employer started classes aimed at 6 month year olds.

I only had to do one test lesson - and it was insane.

I think when parents are of the mindset that their children should be being educated and learning like high school kids - that's totally stupid.

But if they are aware that it's more sponge like, and that fun and skill development should be emphasised over raw knowledge acquisition, then it can't be that bad.

I had 3 year olds who showed better learning ability than some of my 9 year olds.

Re: kirakira - I just remembered we did have prenatal classes too. You weren't really teaching the foetus - we just gave the mum some training in basic lullabyes and vocab they can go through with their newborns. It's basically initiating teh parent into the eikaiwa cult. BWAHAHAHAHA...

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I swear this is true - my friend from a famous English school chain recently told me that a teacher there was employed as....I kid you not....a teacher to a fetus!

That fetus won't be viable until it graduates from Todai.

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Im not an educator or a scientist, but in my humble non-expert opinion, one thing is playing educative games with very young kids and another very diferent is try to teach them like animals learnign tricks for a circus.

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Education can't start too early. The key is age-appropriate education. (Where have we heard that term before?)

Toddlers don't need or want flash-cards. They need stimulation - different textures, colours, shapes, sounds, sizes, things they can manipulate with their hands, tunes they can clap or sway to and later sing along with, water and mud to splash about in.

Dumping the child in a classroom with flashcards or in an 'English speaking environment' is a waste of time and money, and potentially harmful to the child. Time spent playing appropriately with Mum & Dad and other little friends, at the child's own pace, is what children need; instead of cramming their tiny little brains full of stuff they don't understand and won't need for years yet, expand those little brain cells so that they're able to take in and understand that much more later.

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Hooray for common sense. Formal education that early is an absolute waste of time and probably does more harm than good.

Even in formal schooling, children acquire kanji at a fairly slow pace for a good reason - their brains are not able to cope with them at that age. An adult is actually much better equipped, in my opinion, and can learn in a week what the ichi-nen-sei learns in a year.

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all this focus on early education is created by, big surprise, companies that have education products to sell. Its all worthless.

Great example is baby mozart videos. Big trend in the US based on the premise that kids can get a jump start on learning by being exposed to images and music. Studies show them to be totally worthless. But parents buy them up afraid that their kids will fall behind if they dont have the DVDs. Basically its a scam. Dont have a TV in your house when your kids are young, then they wont become stupid.

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It is about time I saw something that mentioned how bad it was to follow these early eduction things and how bad the current teaching methods are. The early teaching methods need to be interactive, informative, and done by the parents.

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Penn and Teller did a good episode of their cable show that dealt with this,if anything this kind of stuff makes the kids stupider.

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Hear, hear, Zurcronium. ZERO TV for kids till the age of two, storybooks, storybooks and more storybooks. Nursery rhymes and songs together. Hell, just TALK to your kids.

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in Japan, I would be more worried about the social skills of my kids that their academic ability.

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Timeon -

Great point. It never stops to amaze me at how most Japanese people lack even the most basic of social skills.

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Wish this page referenced the Japanese article. There are a ton of Japanese people who should read it.

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I still believe men & women intending to have a baby should have to undergo tests such as humane behaviour, common sense, logic, diplomacy etc. And if they can prove themselves decent human beings not intent on ruining their childs life, then allow them to have a baby.

These parents ignorantly blinded by elitism need educating themselves.

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Young kids can learn a lot but it has toe be in a fun way and interesting way. So i would suggest the pocket monster/kamen rider/dekaranger method.

Kameleon, it seems that Common sense is the first thing that is de-learned in the japanese school-system

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What?! The police came when reports of domestic/child abuse were reported!!! The fact that people actually called the police is shocking enough!

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We first came across this when our neigbours 2yo could not come out to play because he was "studying" for his Keio University pre-School entrance exam!

Japanese children never seem to get a childhood and it is very sad. By playing with other children they do not get to develop their social skills and the rest, as they say, is history.

Still at least they are more polite to adults than American and Russian teenagers!

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Our son is 4 1/2, we never had him watch TV until he was two or so. Even now he's only allowed to watch very few programmes and DVDs and we're always watching together, to help him understand the things he sees there.

We have never tried to make him learn anything. Rather we've been trying to listen very closely to what he's interested in, what he wants to know and give him as much support, input and stimulation as possible according to his very own needs.

Now he can read Hiragana and starts learning Katakana, without either me or my wife ever having tought him how to (OK with the Katakana he's now using practice books, but he wanted us to buy them for him). He says he just picked it up, same with the Latin alphabet, I showed him the table with the letters a few times, but then he just somehow picked it up and he can read an write the German alphabet just as well (he still doesn't get how to form words out of the single letters yet, though, for that matter Japanese syllabaries are much more straight forward, I guess).

Self motivated learning is the best way to learn stuff. The point is how to keep the motivation going, because children are like a sponges soaking up information, when they're ready to do so. There's no point in trying to squeeze anything into a sponge...

I've learned 70% of what I know outside of school, because I wanted to know. Same with the kids.

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sending very young kids to school is cruel but it doesnt mean one should brush off the resposibility of educating. A kid between 3-5 have incredible learning ability and any parent who neglect to harness this ability for at 10-15 mins a day are irreponsible parents. Mixing up games flash cards, story telling and songs is fun and also promotes bonding. Leaving your kids to his/her devices is not the way. Im also concerned at how the author seems to view flash cards negatively. Why consider the extremes. A lot of study have proven its effectiveness. The comment by the University lecturer apply in extremes cases and I dont think a person can have enough attention fron this young kids for such a long period to cost it to look glazed. sounds like someone is exxagerating.

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Early education? No way! I think it's harmful rather than stimulating, because you force the child to focus on learning something (kanjis, letters, etc) IMHO, I think it's better to have the child play with different toys, explore anything, listen music and go to zoos, museums and entertainment parks, it is the neural conections that make the child intelligent, and you don't have to forget the development of social skills...

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I teach some kids classes at home. My older son (5) has no interest in joining the classes. He keeps busy with his toys and art projects with my wife. My younger son (3) wakes up in the morning and says, "Today we're having an English lesson, right?" He joins in with the nine-year-old wild boys. Today, he was teaching them to count to nine so they could say their ages. He loves "Bingo" and "Concentration".

Both boys grew up in more or less the same environment, but are turning out a bit differently. It's their genetic makeup and there's nothing we can do about it except encourage them in their interests.

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Some of the Eikaiwas I've taught in have started having cklasses with children who were 1-1/2 to 3 years old. With the really yung nes, the mother is there, but, really, my view is that this is waaaaaay to early for an education like that in a school of any kind. The best "early education" is done by Mom and Dad at home...

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