Interview with Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D.
BECK: Good Morning Dr. Golinkoff. I recently read your book titled, Einstein Never Used Flashcards and I really loved it. I wish you had written it when my kids were younger! Not only did I instantly love the title, but the content is wonderful too. Please tell me, who were your co-authors?
GOLINKOFF: Thanks Dr. Beck. I had two co-authors. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Diane Dyer. Both are from Temple and all three of us have doctorates in Developmental Psychology. Kathy and I are professors at our separate universities and we each run laboratories that examine how kids learn language.
BECK: How long have you been doing this type of work?
GOLINKOFF: I got my PhD in 1973 so Ive been at it just over 30 years.
BECK: Where did the title come from, Einstein Never Used Flashcards?
GOLINKOFF: Well its a bit of a joke, but it was based on reality. Everybody wants to create a baby Einstein, so were trying to say this is not how Einstein got started! He didnt get smart by having parents who structured his every activity. In fact, his parents gave him a lot of freedom to try out his own interests.
BECK: Over the last 10-20 years, parents and caregivers have worked hard to make children into little brain factories, and by the time the child gets into preschool, the parents are thinking about SATs, GREs and college.
GOLINKOFF: Exactly. It places a lot of stress on kids. The goal of this book is to rescue the child from the grips of a hurried society, and the pressure and stress we place on the children is not good for the kids or for us!.
BECK: Is there evidence supporting that children in highly structured homes, academically oriented pre-schools, moms and dads doing flash card drills, and educational TV,. do these kids do better in the long term?
GOLINKOFF: There are two pieces of data Id like to share. Kids who go to academically-based preschools have more anxiety than kids who went to play-based preschools. And even more interesting is that the children who attend academically-based programs do no better in school than play-based children.
The New York Times ran a story Sunday, April 10, 2004. The story revealed what happens to kids who are pushed to achieve in unhealthy ways. Steven Hyman, provost at Harvard and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said, By the time we get these young people, speaking of Harvard admits, what they bring with them are often very high levels of perfectionism and a kind of fear. Its not the joyful intellectual exploration that college ought to be about. So putting kids on the treadmill creates kids less likely to be creative or take risks, or to have a good time with learning. They just dont feel like they can be playful and joyful with material theyre learning. Colleges are recognizing this now and recognizing that kids are coming to them with burnout!
BECK: So the kids who are pushed along actually enter college with pre-college burn-out?
GOLINKOFF: Absolutely. There are parents who spend hours daily with the pregaphone on their belly so their kids can hear language! We know that from the time babies can first hear, they hear every conversation their mom has. We know that soon after birth, babies can recognize their own language as compared to foreign languages and thats without a Pregaphone! There was a study which exposed American kids to a video of a person speaking in Chinese, versus a real person interacting with them and speaking Chinese, and this occurred when the children were 9 months of age. Importantly, the time of exposure to Chinese was the same. The kids who watched and listened to the video did not gain any increased sensitivity to Chinese. The kids who interacted with a human being did! So, passively listening is very different from human interaction and I think it makes sense to conclude that watching educational TV passively will never be the same as participating in an educational activity.
BECK: This is fascinating. I remember thinking that when my kids were really young, that we needed to constantly enrich and stimulate their brains and be on the lookout for new tools and new toys that were smarter and better. So I guess I bought into that same cerebral-mass-marketing-create-your-Einstein mentality too!
GOLINKOFF: We wrote Einstein Never Used Flashcards to help parents realize that they are doing enough for their children without buying every toy or video that comes down the pike. Ive had parents with new babies come up to me in a panic asking, When should I start the flashcards?
BECK: One of the things you addressed in the book was the issue of quality versus quantity time. Can you please discuss that for me?
GOLINKOFF: We know that 62% of parents with kids under 3 years of age are in the workforce. Parents feel enormous pressure to spend meaningful time with their kids, and of course, everybody wants to do whats best for their kids. But play has become a four-letter word. And so often, parents take quality play time to mean teaching time. They trade play in for structured activities, educational TV and flash cards. But what I believe makes more sense, and what research indicates, is that children learn through play, and play with parents is the best. In fact, as we said in the book, our society is taking childhood away from children and treating them like miniature adults, and thats not the best thing to do.
BECK: What do you think is the most important thing you can do to nurture your children appropriately and effectively?
GOLINKOFF: The first thing is love them wildly, and no one has to instruct parents to do that! The second thing is to interact with them. Thats how you show them theyre loved and thats how they learn. In other words, try to avoid constantly plopping your kids in front of TV, movies or video games. Just interact with them and play with them -- youll be doing a tremendous service for them. When you sit on the floor and play with your child youre modeling language, social behaviors, turn taking and teaching them all sorts of things, even without realizing it. Talk to them and explain things at the level that they understand and bring your imagination to it -- they respond to that.
BECK: And you can actually count toes and fingers and point to colors and shapes without having to count molecular weights or review the periodic table of the elements!
GOLINKOFF: Absolutely right. All you have to do is interact with your child, give your kids the time and chance to talk and take turns in the conversation, and build on what your child says. Follow your childs interests- that''s key. Kids learn more when you follow and talk about what theyre interested in, rather than if you try to introduce your own agenda.
BECK: Please tell me about the Mozart Effect?
GOLINKOFF: There was one small study that looked at adults who listened to Mozart. In fact, the researchers examined only a small portion of the IQ test (spatial reasoning) and found that adults who had listened to Mozart scored a little better than adults who hadnt. The effect lasted for only 10 minutes. Professor Hetland at Harvard summarized other studies that tried to replicate these findings with a totally of 4500 other people. The study could not be replicated and importantly, there was never a study of these issues conducted with children. So from this one extremely flimsy finding, the marketplace went crazy! Some people saw an opportunity to jump in and offer Mozart to babies based on the assumption that parents who dearly loved their children would want to own this stuff because it might make their kids smarter. But as I said, theres no credible evidence that that is the case. So in summary, if you want to play music for your child, great! But it doesnt matter if its Beatles or classical. It just doesnt make any difference at all.
Kids love music, we love music, music is wonderful. However, purchasing Mozart to play to kids has no impact on their intelligence. Thats just one example of the marketplace capitalizing on parents anxiety and concern.
BECK: One thing Id like to point out is that Mozarts mom and dad didnt play Mozart for baby Wolfgang! Nor was he listening to recorded music in-utero. Can you discuss IQ tests in general, as they relate to babies and developing young minds?
GOLINKOFF: Everybody wants to live in Lake Woebegon. But every child really isnt above average, and whats most interesting is - people with the highest IQs are not always the ones to make the biggest contribution to our society. IQ is only about 50% of what matters regarding success in life. If one defines success as getting along with people, having a good marriage, learning how to work in the context of an organization, these are important attributes too. Emotional IQ is just as important as IQ for success in school and in life. You have to learn how to get along with other kids. Developmental research has found that unless kids know how to make their way fairly early in school with peers and teachers, theyre not going to do well in school. The social part is just as important as the academic part. Parents need to work with kids helping them understand how the world works from a social perspective too, and this happens just by interacting and talking with your kids.
BECK: Do you have any thoughts and observations on home-schooling?
GOLINKOFF: Home-schooling can be okay. I think its important for kids to learn how to work with other children and how to succeed in an organization. Sometimes home-schooling takes place in a context of small groups and not just a single child. When parents make sure children get interaction and playtime with other kids, thats a positive thing too. Home-schooling is only as good as the person providing the schooling.
BECK: And finally, what about soccer moms and baseball dads taking their kids to 2 or 3 or 4 activities per week, shuttling around town in minivans?
GOLINKOFF: The issue becomes Is this activity something that the kid really wants to do or something that you want the kid to do? Are you trying to have your child keep up with the neighbors? An example came to me last night. I had dinner with a person who worked near a karate studio and she heard kids telling their parents, I dont want to go. I want to go home. Im tired and I dont want to go. But the parents insisted their kid go to karate. Why? Maybe because they think its in the childs best interest. But if the child isnt really motivated or interested, its probably not worth the struggle. Another issue is were spending a lot of time in schlep mode in the minivan - and thats not the best quality time! So, I recommend parents ask themselves why theyre doing this activity? Are they doing it because the kid really wants to do it, or because the parent wants the child to do it? There are times when too many structured activities are not beneficial. So instead of the karate class or ballet, music or whatever, maybe some free time would be better to roll around on the floor or play on the swings! What parents have to recognize is that kids are different. While Johnny might want to play the violin, Cynthia might want to play football. So the key is to try and figure out what the child likes and follow the childs interest. Parents often describe their lives as spending time in the car going between activities, and thats just not a good thing for anyone. Its not good for parents and its not good for kids.
BECK: Im really glad you wrote this book and I have totally enjoyed speaking with you. I encourage all the young parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles to get a copy of the book* (see below).
GOLINKOFF: Thanks so much for your interest, Dr. Beck. Its been fun for me too.
*Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, ISBN 1-57954-695 published by Rodale and Rodale in 2003, 1-800-848-4725.
Interview with Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D.