Why I'm Not Teaching My Four-Year-Old to Read

by ParentCo. November 29, 2023

boy playing with his dinosaur plastic toys

A guy I know, the father of two small children, taught his son to read when he was two years old. I found this out from a mutual friend.

"Wow," I said. "That's young."

"Yes," said my friend. "But I think it was a party trick."

It turns out, the dad himself didn't go to college, so it's a huge priority for him to raise a child who will be considered smart by any metric. The little boy is now in a gifted program...in kindergarten. Mission accomplished for the father, I suppose. But will this early start with book learning really have long-term benefits for the little boy?

Much has been made of the relationship between the age Scandinavian children begin formal schooling and their test scores in high school. In Norway and Finland, for example, it's common for children to begin school at age seven, a full two (and sometimes three) years later than their American counterparts. Both countries have consistently ranked higher than the US in reading, math, and science test scores at age 15, as evidenced by the 2010 and 2015 OECD PISA scores.

It's not just academic performance that's so strong in those late-start kids. Researchers at Stanford concluded in 2015 that children in Danish schools who started kindergarten a year later than their peers reaped long-term benefits.

“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11,” according to Thomas Dee, a professor of Education at the university and co-author of the study.

A Quartz article cited the Stanford study and related the benefits to extra play-time in a child's early years: "Developmental psychology research emphasizes the importance of imaginative play in aiding children’s emotional and intellectual self-regulation. 'Children who delay their school starting age may have an extended (and appropriately timed) exposure to such playful environments,' the study noted."

Imaginative play can seem mysterious to grown ups (why do all those stuffed animals need to be lined up on an upside-down laundry basket right now?), but it's a way for children to control their own environments, master critical thinking skills, and (obviously) have fun.

Good academic performance later in life, as well as the ability to better self-regulate, are both major benefits to playing longer and reading later, but even more significant to me as a parent is a desire to instill in my child a love of learning. That phrase can sound trite, but think about how you feel when you tackle something new, are you exhilarated, or anxious, or a little of both? Learning how to be up for a challenge is what pushes people, even as adults, to try new things and continue improving themselves.

According to an article in New Scientist (coincidentally published the day my daughter was born), the widespread start of formal schooling at age four or five is detrimental. The authors cite several studies from New Zealand comparing "children who started formal literacy lessons at age five with those who started age seven. They showed that early formal learning doesn’t improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who started aged five developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension than those who had started later."

This is my biggest fear when it comes to my daughter's own path, that if I push learning and emphasize it over play, she'll see it as a chore. This is a sure-fire way to create a procrastinator and someone who drags her heels out the door to school every morning.

I'm actually not of the mind that play is the only valuable currency in childhood. As a child, I loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, as well as the "All of a Kind Family" series about a family of Jewish girls growing up in Manhattan in the early 1900s. What strikes me now is how much work the girls did. Sure, it was a different time. These girls were not only expected to grow up with the capacity to run their households, they also didn't have the option to fall back on washing machines or pre-sliced bread. It was necessity that had their mothers baking, canning, churning butter, and the like. While I don't spend my Wednesdays mending or my Thursdays churning, I do think that little people can learn a lot of valuable skills at the feet of their parents.

In "Little House in the Big Woods," Wilder wrote, "On Saturdays, when Ma made the bread, they each had a little piece of dough to make into a little loaf. They might have a bit of cookie dough, too, to make little cookies, and once Laura even made a pie in her patty-pan."

This would sound very familiar to my daughter, who makes bread, cookies, pies, scones, muffins, and cakes with me. She has learned about measuring (math), leavening (that counts as science, right?), and, not incidentally, the joy of sharing with your friends the food you've made (I’ll file that under the humanities).

She doesn't have the intense sweet tooth some four-year-olds have, and I sometimes wonder if all our baking might account for that. I've had people tell me they couldn't bake as often as I do because they'd eat it all, but I've found the opposite to be true: when you have to work to make something, you appreciate it, but you tend not to go overboard. This is an unintended lesson, but in a culture of overindulgence, it's a valuable one.

Back in the time of hunters and gatherers, before formal schooling, children learned how to be contributing members of society in two ways: by helping their parents, and by pretending to be their parents. We still see this playing out now as small children water the garden or rock their dolls to sleep. The trap we must avoid is shortening the amount of time our little ones have to engage in these activities and to be treated like children. School, and adulthood, will come soon enough. In the meantime, let them choose their favorite books and curl up in our laps to be read to.



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