Don’t Shame Me For Teaching My 3-Year-Old to Read: Why Education is Important to Me as a Black Mother


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Here on Baby and Blog, our section on education is one of the most popular. Whether it’s articles about supplemental homeschooling, or teaching 3-year-olds to read, moms are seeking this information out and incorporating it into their parenting routines.

Recently I went out for coffee with a mommy acquaintance who I wanted to get to know better. She is not a black mommy but she is a fan of Baby and Blog, and seemed concerned about our education section.

“I don’t know that teaching a 3-year-old to read is helpful or even important right now. It’s so much pressure.”

I listened, then explained that for many black moms like myself, education and learning are serious business. Here’s why.

I am one generation removed from poverty.

My father was raised in a village in rural Haiti, my mother in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit. The common thread in both their lives is that they used education to escape generational poverty.

My mom spent her elementary school afternoons in the library and was accepted to Cass Technical — Detroit’s top magnet school. After my father’s teachers identified his potential, they arranged for him to complete high school in Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince. His mother sold almost all of her very few possessions to finance the move. He eventually gained a scholarship to a college in Detroit — where he later met my mother.

I can’t imagine what my life would look like today had my parents (and their parents) not made those choices. I certainly wouldn’t be on this blog, right now, speaking to you.

College was expected of all my siblings. Luckily we didn’t have the burden of escaping poverty on our shoulders. Still my parents wanted us to be high achievers and fulfill our potential. They didn’t do this to pressure us, they did it because they knew what we were capable of. They also wanted us to develop a passion for learning.

My parents got to work on my literacy very early. By age 3 I could read flashcards. I was accepted to top prep and high schools in Kingston, Jamaica, where I was raised, and went on to graduate college with honors and as student body vice president. After college I became a reporter and, when the economy tanked, taught myself the basics of blogging and managed to make a career of it. I attribute all of this to my parents. My love of learning and education is directly from them. It is part of my heritage.

It’s no coincidence that so many historical black figures are thinkers; James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Chinua Achebe. All intelligent men and women who, whether formally educated or not, used their minds to fight discrimination and define the black experience. Barack and Michelle Obama have publicly attributed much of their success to education — and credited their parents with instilling a love of learning (and the discipline to study) in them. Through her book club Oprah Winfrey has been a huge proponent of literacy in America.

When my son was born, the only gifts I ever got from my mother were books.

“You have to start reading to him early, ” she would remind every time she called.

Today Noah is 17 months old and he loves books. We go to the library twice a month to turn in old books and check out new ones. He is teaching himself the alphabet song and loves playing with the Fisher Price ABC app on my tablet. He recognizes what a number is, and is fascinated to see the digits count down on the microwave or stove.

The goal isn’t for him to be the smartest kid in his class, or to parade his achievements around. The goal is for him to develop a lifelong love of learning, the building blocks of which — a love of books, a sense of curiosity and play, and an introduction to letters and numbers — I am trying to instill now.

And it’s encouraging for me to hear your stories. The stories of how your children love learning, love books, love to read.

There are many ‘mommy wars’ that rage online. But me wanting to introduce my son to letters and numbers at this young age has nothing to do with the popular literature on young children and achievement.

It goes way, way deeper than that. It goes back to Noah’s great-grandparents, who identified a love of learning in their children and did what they could — with very limited resources and in a very segregated world — to encourage it. It goes back to his grandparents, who excelled in school to give me — his mother — a fair shot at life.

That is his legacy. That is why I teach him.

Leila Noelliste is the founder and editor of Baby and Blog and Black Girl with Long Hair.


  • Angele

    When I think about how our history and how our ancestors were not even allowed to read…

    Regarding there being “pressure” I think that point of view comes from the assumption that children do not like to read. There are many kids and teenagers who hate reading, and I feel that comes from their experience learning to read. Schools put a lot of pressure and competition on children, but that is another story. I NEVER pressured my child to read. She WANTED to learn how to read, just like she wanted to learn how to walk and talk. It is difficult to learn anything when there is stress and pressure involved. Babies and toddlers will model what they see around them. If they see adults enjoying books and making them fun, they will want to join in on that fun and there will be no pressure.

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    • Baby and Blog

      I agree with you totally Angele. Another thing I forgot to mention in this piece is that school systems around the world are different. What Americans might consider ‘early’ for reading and learning is totally normal in other places.

      In Jamaica kindergarden starts at 3 years old and grade 1 starts at 5. Early childhood education is really big over there, but it’s not considered an elite or pressure thing. It’s just the way things are.

      By the time I finished high school in Jamaica I was 15 and most of my peers were 16. I decided against doing “Sixth Form” — 2 optional grades at the end of high school, and instead went straight to college. So I started college at 16. Again, this was not at all abnormal. It’s just the way the Jamaican school system worked!

      I agree, too, that learning should not be associated with unpleasantness or pressure. I’ve been following Noah’s lead and he continues to express a clear interest in the alphabet. Of course he has interests in many other non-academic things too, but he does love his letters. So I’m definitely going to do what I can to encourage that in him.

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      • Angele

        I am glad you mentioned how things are different outside the US, that is really important to think about.

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  • elise

    Hi Leila,

    Love this site and truly appreciate the content and interesting range of topics you cover. It’s one of my favorite weekly reads (I’ve recently put myself on a blog diet to cut back on some of my aimless timesucking web surfing, lol) but I always make time for Baby&blog!

    I wanted to comment on this article for two reasons:

    1. I totally get your perspective and believe a lot of other mommies out there are in total agreement with you re: the struggle their parents made it through and how education is what ultimately delivered them. Well intentioned parents that understand the power of education feel an enormous responsibility to impart the gift of learning very early on our children. We want the best for them.

    2. I can tell that everything you do for Noah is rooted in love and abundance — he’s lucky to have found you as a mommy.

    But, Leila, with no shade and definitely no SHAME — I have to respectfully disagree with the premise that “teaching” (i.e. flashcards or structured learning activities) is appropriate for pre-school aged kids.

    I want to be respectful of your journey and decisions as a mother, as I too just embarked on this path, but I think this blog and your reach within the black mommy community is too important and relevant to allow this topic to go unchallenged. You’ve mentioned that you follow your son’s lead and I think that is amazing — but I’m concerned that other moms reading this and the original article in question may not be as aware or attuned to their own child’s learning appetite and instead take the blanket advice that early learning = better.

    These are a few quick facts that we know are true of children (that years of neuroscience and early childhood development research support):

    – Children are born whole, competent and sentient individuals and they feel and express more than we ever knew possible.

    – Children are 100% self motivated learners. Their curriculum is innate and their work is PLAY. While play might not look like “learning” or “education” to us, play is actually the cultivation of the rich soil that our children will sow their eventual seeds of formally taught knowledge. I can’t emphasize enough that play for children 0-3 is enough — play is an excellent education custom tailored to your child! Sometimes its hard for parents to trust the process and allow it to unfold naturally but this is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.

    – Parents are like big magical beings to our little ones — we can reach where they can’t, see what they don’t and give them what they want. They hold us in absolute reverence and in they can very keenly sense when they are being asked to perform. In the event they can’t deliver (i.e. you may ask them to read a word you’ve pointed to and they don’t know it) they can develop a response known as ‘learned helplessness”. This potential response to teaching at such a young age is why many people and probably your friend from the coffee date are concerned.

    Finally, I saw that you mentioned in the comments of another article that you were interested in the Montessori approach and I wanted to let you know that all of the aforementioned points are at the heart of what Maria Montessori believed about early learning.

    For an even better resource for a child of Noah’s age, I can’t recommend learning about a approach called RIE enough — it is an elegant and simple method for navigating the landmines of early childhood parenting advice. The basic tenets are respect and trust.

    This is what the Founder of RIE Magda Gerber had to say about formal teaching “Does it ever come up later in one’s life whether a person learned to read at four, five, or six? Learning academic skills should be saved for school-age children. Before that, let your child learn and follow his own rhythm. If you push, he loses his appetite for learning. And it’s that appetite that makes him interested and want to learn.”

    A great blog to check out and learn more about RIE (pronounced wry) is Janet Lansbury: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/09/experts-agree-really-babies-dont-need-to-read/

    Hoping this message finds you and your family well,

    elise

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    • Baby and Blog

      I appreciate your feedback and this reflection. And I guess I would refer to one point you made:

      “You’ve mentioned that you follow your son’s lead and I think that is amazing — but I’m concerned that other moms reading this and the original article in question may not be as aware or attuned to their own child’s learning appetite and instead take the blanket advice that early learning = better.”

      There is no way for me to ensure that the women reading this blog are attuned to their child’s learning appetites. It would be impossible for me and I think it’s kind of a slippery slope. All I can do is present information and experience, and trust that mothers will take from it what they will. The same applies for the wide range of topics we cover, including home birth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and cloth diapering.

      I took a risk in sharing my personal experience here, because I kind of anticipated getting a response like this. But I would point out that we also have great pieces on unschooling and encouraging STEM skills through play.

      I also want to repeat what I mentioned in my comment above — a lot of our approach to learning is cultural.

      I grew up in Jamaica, where early literacy is a very, very cultural thing. Children begin kindergarten at the age of 3 (sometimes as early as 2), and many are reading by ages 3 and 4. One of Baby and Blog’s contributors, Didan, who also grew up in Jamaica shared in a recent piece that she learned the alphabet at age 2.5. Again I must stress that, in Jamaica, this is not that unusual.

      If you are interested, you are welcome to write a piece for us on the importance of play in early childhood. But I don’t think we’re necessarily saying different things.

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    • Baby and Blog

      I just wanted to include this article that gives a brief overview of the Jamaican school system, including the emphasis on early education. http://www.my-island-jamaica.com/education_in_jamaica.html

      I know starting kids in school at age 2 sounds crazy to some — and I get that. But again, ideas and ideals regarding education vary wildly from culture to culture 🙂

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    • Angele

      Elise, thank you for taking the time to comment and present a different point of view. I appreciate your response, because I do believe in taking multiple perspectives into consideration.

      You posed this question: “Does it ever come up later in one’s life whether a person learned to read at four, five, or six? Learning academic skills should be saved for school-age children.” I disagree. I strongly believe that reading is best learned at home, with family and in a fun, relaxed non pressure environment. Most public schools are not successful in teaching our children how to read. If you are lucky enough to send your child to a private school that’s great, but most of our children are being educated by the public school system and it is not working out. I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing what happens when our kids do not learn how to read well. When they enter kindergarden not knowing the alphabet and do not catch up to grade level by middle school. It leaves them very little options. Yes, I encourage any black mother who has the chance to teach their child to read as a toddler, please do. There are not enough black kids out there reading. We need more. Now I NEVER encourage pressure. Every child will learn at a different pace, so it is important to be patient with your child. But I would say that fining fun ways to introduce literacy to young children is a blessing and can be combined with play, it does not have to be one or the other. I am not convinced that learning to read before age 6 will cause learning disabilities.

      Also, Leila pointed out that “school aged” differs among cultures. But I would add that the only reason people are calling me a homeschool mother, is because the norm, at least in Southern California, is to start children in pre-school at 2 years old.

      I read the Janet Lansbury piece you linked to. I see it as primarily focused on a particular reading program, “Your Baby Can Read.” I am not a fan of that program for a number of reasons, and I agree with some of her critiques of the program. I do believe that you can teach your child to read without spending a lot of money on a program. Good books are the beginning, and discussing those books, not just reading them is a great start. Also a good reading program will combine phonics and sight words.

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  • reflection

    I read this piece, the piece that sparked it (teaching a 3 year old to read) as well as all the comments and I have a few thoughts:

    1. I do not get from the article above that early literacy is being forced. The sense I get from the author is that she sees learning and education as a heritage. As with all things related to what we view as our heritage — whether it’s food, dress, music or language — we incorporate those things into our children’s lives from birth. Not to pressure them, but to create a cultural experience for them that will define them for decades to come.

    2. I think the reasons many parents balk at early literacy is that they automatically see it as an issue of “pressure” and “competition”. And, in America, we don’t know any other way to think of it. That, in my opinion, can lead to an equally drastic attitude of ‘I want my young children as far away from the alphabet and numbers as possible so I don’t mess them up.’ We have to create some cultural middle ground. Fact: Children are sponges and absorb what they see around them. To take advantage of this to develop early literacy is not pressuring, forcing or abusing them. Fact: Children develop at different paces and for some, reading early is just what they will do

    3. I don’t believe that early literacy is fully inconsequential to later development. Because if early literacy is a part of a generally rich atmosphere, it can be something that spurs curiosity and discovery. There’s a difference between teaching children to read for reading’s sake, and teaching/encouraging them as part of a lifelong journey of knowledge development.

    4. In Elise’s comment she mentioned the importance of play. Well, any parent knows that a huge part of children’s play is copying what they see their parents doing. I read the literature about children and screen time and vowed never to let my little one watch TV or play with an app until age 2. So when at 12 months she developed an interest (more like a passion) for fiddling with my tablet, I didn’t know what to do. But she *was* ‘playing’ and she was mirroring what she saw me and my husband doing. So I decided — as middle ground — to incorporate educational apps into her overall ‘play regimen’, and it’s worked for me. Sometimes children’s play does involve developing a curiosity around books, computers, TVs and the things they see us as adults doing.

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  • Khalia

    I see no shame whatsoever in teaching someone of any age how to read. The other mommy (in the article) who commented on the pressure on the child apparently has no concept of the importance of literacy tied to greatness that the author has clearly realized. I am a bibliophile and t gives me great joy when someone passes on this gift to a young person. Go on, Leila, teach your son the best and dismiss any criticism. If they cannot see it, then they are blind to many truths.

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  • Kaila P

    I learned to read at three, nto at pre school but from my mother who’s an education freak lol. But she was an orphan and back in her day the only way an individual could elevate themselves was through education and she made a pact that her children would have access to everything to be the best they could be, she can get reallyyyyyy annoying sometimes because she goes overboard but she means well. BTW I went to preschool at 2 learned to read at 3 went to kindgergarten at 4 (the regular age is 5) skipped grade 2, so now I’m 17 and in my last year of Sixth Form. The pressure isn’t fun though, I’m a tad burned out since the education thing has been forced down my throat for so long. I would encourage all parents to teach their children but go to the child’s pace and not where you want them to be, it’s very stressful.

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  • Lou

    *Slow Clap*

    I truly appreciate this post. My husband and I are planning to start a family within the next 2-3 years and this issue really speaks to me. He rose from impoverishment in JA and I worked my way out a tiny, low-income Rust Belt city. We both climbed the socio-economic ladder because of our academic success. I, like you in creating BGLH and this blog, am auto-didactic. I crave information and knowledge- and this trait started early. I am determined to raise our child(ren) in a loving, supportive and intellectually stimulating environment. It is never too young to for parents to set the path for their children to be life-long learners.

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