The Academic Panic: Are you part of it?

Do you constantly organise activities for your children?  Do you complete your children’s homework, so they can get a good grade? Did you teach your child to read, or solve maths equations before they got to school, because you wanted them to ‘get ahead’? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may part of the Academic Panic, and it might be helpful to consider the following:

1. Just because kids are doing OK academically when they’re young doesn’t mean they won’t sleep around, do drugs or drive their car into a ditch at age 18. 

2. When you’re 25 no-one cares what age you learned to read or compute.

3. There is a group of people we might call the illiterate-literate: the person who can read but chooses not to. The prime candidates are children who have learned to read too EARLY. These children begin fine, then get to age nine or 10 ( for some it’s as teenagers) and suddenly they stop reading. They only ever read, after that point, because they have to. In contrast, there are the children who become perfectionists – who won’t try new things because they can’t get ‘it’ just right first time; or who won’t ask for help: again often children who are academically successful at a young age.

4. For others Reading and academics become the crutch: so they don’t have to interact with others. It’s socially acceptable to read/study, it’s encouraged – and when reading/studying a lot you don’t learn how to get on with people. Same with attending lots of extra lessons.

5. Early academic achievement has a lot to do with genetics. If the parents are smart-enough, and the children are wired properly (Reading Problems? Try this.) and understand they are expected to read/compute/achieve – they will learn to read and compute. Adult achievement is often due to good choices, SELF-motivation and EFFORT, not how well you did at school when you were five or nine or 13.

5. Many children who achieve at a high level in one activity before the age of 12 and continue to succeed throughout their teens become anorexic, depressed, and/or have major injuries before they are 30. Piano and violin are classics for this, as are most competitive sports.

7. Experiences and lessons are not necessarily the same thing. Take experiences with water, we can: drink it; blow bubbles in it; float things on it; float on it ourselves; sit in it; bounce in it; swim on or under it; tip it from one container to another etc. All these are experiences. Then do all of these in different types of water:   kitchen sink; bath; shallow puddle; deep puddle; lake; stream; river; river with rapids; small waves; big waves; swimming pool; from the hose and so on. You could provide all of these great brain stimulants without paying for a single lesson.

8. There is always going to be someone smarter and faster than your children: if not now, one day.

9. Employers these days often have to choose from many people with similar qualifications to fill one position. Often, the people they are choosing to employ have high emotional intelligence, and they are not necessarily the people who have the highest ‘scores’ or greatest number of letters after their name.  

10. Emotional Intelligence means maturity. You catch it naturally from: extreme nurturing; thousands of hours of non-electronic play; hearing and Reading hundreds of stories and experiencing regular meaningful rituals; eating mostly healthy food and drinking lots of water; having parents who are mostly calm and firmly enforce some basic rules; and by having many conversations with real people.

I’m not saying that extra lessons are bad. If children are struggling at school, of course you’d consider them. Our children have swimming lessons from the age of three (safety and brain wiring). When they are two, they have a year of pre-instrumental music. Now the Hare is nine he has started learning to play the piano, and he will play a team sport this year.  But he’s nine. That’s three activities a week. Until now, he’s had one.

So, I ask you to please consider these three things:

Is it important your children learn to read, or is it urgent?

Is it essential your young children attend loads of activity type classes, or are they extras, they can wait for?

Are you truly supporting your children in their quest to learn, or are you part of the Academic Panic?

If you want to look at some further information on the effects of early academics check out this post:

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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35 Responses to The Academic Panic: Are you part of it?

  1. Excellent topics all and tempted though I be, I’m staying out of those deep waters for no other reason than they’re dissertation if not book material. I do hope that parents raising youngsters will take pause to consider the validity of your points.

  2. Thank you for your post on this matter! We live in a community where the parents are notorious for “over-booking” their kids. Piano lessons, tutoring, soccer, baseball, gymnastics, foreign language, you name it. It’s ridiculous, and the children end up emotionally detached due to lack of time to just “observe” the world and have experiences that are natural. When do they have time to build relationships, connect with others? The emotional intelligence is severely lacking in the recent generations. Parents are so focused on the academics and competitive learning that these kids go to college and have break downs due to the stress of now having to deal with people and situations on their own. I want my kids to have the after-school activity of playing in the dirt. If they have something they are passionate about, of course we will encourage them to learn about it, or take a class. It is up to the parents to keep balance in their children’s lives.
    Emotional- relationship building, experiencing and understanding love, friendship, bonding, coping, understanding emotion.
    Spiritual- finding meaning in one’s life, their deeper values.
    Physical- play, exercise, touch, boundaries, expression, health, awareness of their senses and life experience.
    Intellectual- their understanding of the world, “tools”, facts, all should be age appropriate.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I think we’re absolutely on the same page. Our kids are actually ahead of their peers physically and I expect they will be academically in a few years too – once they actually have Reading lessons etc, because their oral language base is so strong. Yet, we too have so many people around us who have even very small children in many, many activities, and yes it’s like watching a train-crash in slow motion. I’m already seeing perfectly lovely children with perfectly lovely parents blank out their eyes and become sullen and sulky – and they’re only nine, what are they going to be like at 13??!! Parents are almost trying “too hard” and it’s just not working. Thanks for your comment 🙂 Pop back: that pesky Aussie is going to have something to say, for sure! 😉

  3. hakea says:

    Nope, no academic panic here. My kids do two to three activities per week depending on the season. I think sometimes it’s a lot of running around, but they also have quite substantial periods of time where they have to fill in the blanks. I think it’s a good balance. I hope so.

    I’m quite negative about homework. Time spent at home doing stuff they should be doing at school? I’d rather have them playing in the backyard with the dogs.

    I know a family whose son was reading at the age of 2. Fair dinkum! He is what they call a precocious reader. Now he’s just precocious! At 9, many of the other kids have caught up to him in reading, but the child himself thinks he is so darn clever. He just makes up stuff to sound clever. And he’s obese because he is indulged with tv games.

    I have a 5 year old who is a reluctant reader. This is new for me, because my other two were crazy for reading and still LOVE it. Unchartered waters. It will be interesting to see how he develops. But he does love numbers, they make sense to him, and he has taught himself to do simple addition. We’ll see.

    This post should generate a bit of debate.

    • hakea says:

      Sorry, should have announced my arrival…

      Pesky Aussie here!!!!!

      • kloppenmum says:

        Always welcome, love your input. You can’t help where you live! tee hee 😉

      • hakea says:

        I was just doing some reflection…

        Soccer isn’t an activity, it’s a lifestyle! I can take it or leave it, but my kids love it. Every Saturday from March to September, it’s all about the soccer. It links us to other families and community. My husband coaches. And I don’t know about other countries, but here the emphasis is on health and fun.

        • kloppenmum says:

          Yes, I’ve seen that in some sports circles. I just always question children starting too young – they all just hang about like a mob of sheep most of the time and more often than not there’s kids doing cartwheels on the field. Wouldn’t those kids’ time be better spent riding their bikes or climbing tress? I can’t comment on what the focus is here, but there are a lot of upset parents that weekend sport isn’t competitive enough: so probably the same.

          • hakea says:

            We have smaller fields for the little ones, and smaller sides too. They are more like kelpies chasing sheep, always on the go. And they do the cartwheels when they kick a goal. Lots of good sportsmanship, with all parents clapping and cheering for good effort regardless of the team. The federation is very focused on the sport rather than the competition. It’s all good fun.

            • kloppenmum says:

              That sounds healthy. I believe we still have some parents who think screaming at their children, the ref and anyone else is OK. They’re in the minority, but still there. It will be interesting when we venture forth this year into the whole weekend sport scene.
              I think we have smaller fields, too – and even a smaller ball, but don’t quote me. I have tried not to take too much notice up until now.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I hope it does get a bit of debate going.
      I can’t stand homework. Utter waste of everyone’s time. Teaches the children nothing, destroys relationships in families and just adds to an already stressed teacher’s work load.
      Because I taught for so long, and in a range of schools, I was really concerned about the side-effects of early academics. I look at the Owl in particular, who is your classic melancholic who could so easily become a perfectionist, and I am so pleased that he isn’t Reading etc yet. Our kids know that learning is important, and that we take it very seriously, and they also know that learning doesn’t just happen when there’s an adult in charge. I wouldn’t stress too much about the five year old, as long as he’s got great oral language and good wiring, it’ll all happen. Many children aren’t ready until they’re 12 even.

  4. Jane says:

    I agree with all those reasons for not pushing kids. In addition, it’s essential that kids have time to explore and to discover what they are passionate about doing–if they don’t have lots of time for that, they are in danger of learning to perform tasks that they don’t care about with adequate skill rather than finding work they love and want to pursue! My kids are grown and one is in health care policy and is spending the weekend learning to be a doulah and the other is an actress and is spending the weekend working on her own start-up business. I believe their ability to find work they love is directly related to the amount of time they spent playing and exploring when they were young.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for that, Jane, and I completely agree. I think the importance of play is hugely underestimated at the moment. It’s great that your kids have found careers they are passionate about: it’s so important to love what you do.

  5. Laura Weldon says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Sadly the whole “academic panic” works against higher level learning. Some experts contend that only a tiny fraction what we learn is acquired through instruction and of we’re least likely to retain that information as compared to primary or acquired learning.
    Our species is geared to learn. Unless the learning situation is disconnected from the child’s interests and artificially designed with specific outcomes for no purpose other than education/evaluation. Then we tend to resist. We’re designed to avoid coercion and seek out what is meaningful, useful, and interesting. Children learn eagerly as they explore, discover, watch and imitate active behavior, collaborate, ask questions, and participate in meaningful ways. Research shows that these natural ways of learning sustain motivation and foster the highest levels of mastery. They also help our children mature into self-directed lifelong learners. When education goes beyond today’s focus on one hemisphere of the brain to embrace wider ways of learning we can more fully accentuate the strengths of all children. That’s why I advocate Free Range Learning!

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for commenting Laura, I agree that there are far more effective ways to learn than what is provided by many state education systems around the world. And yes, many schools (and extra classes) manage to prevent children to develop any higher order thinking skills at all.

  6. QueenArtLady says:


    I have read 3 posts and I am leaving a comment 😉
    I followed your link from the Parenting Passageway. I have enjoyed what I have been reading on your blog tonight and was delighted to find out that you are from NZ too.
    I have 2 children one 4-years old and one 2.5. I have decided to follow a more Waldorf approach with the kids and boy have I met with some resistance from our friends. People just can’t believe that I enjoy having my children with me everyday, that my 4-year old will not be attending kindy (yes I know the government pasy for 20 hours) and that I parent in a more connected way.
    I will be visiting your blog when I have time – we don’t watch tv anymore and I don’t use the computer while the kids are awake or around.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Hello! And a big welcome. The Parenting Passageway is a fabulous Steiner site. My stuff is more science based. I did a ton of research and then went looking for an education philosohpy that matched. Luckily we have Taikura in Hastings so it’s just a bus ride away, and we were impressed with the atmosphere and the quality of ‘whole’ young adult they are turning out. Good for you enjoying your children. Funnily enough we like ours too! It is considered a very hippy-strange approach here, isn’t it? We were accused of experimenting with our children’s lives from two sets of very close friends…Where in NZ are you?

      • QueenArtLady says:

        I like the science base of your site – amazingly much of it does sound Steinerish 😉
        We are in Paraparaumu and we have the wonderful Te Ra Waldorf school here, a place I only discovered last year but it has been so good to find a physical community where we are not viewed as strange. I have been feeling very isolated until I have found the wonderful online community.
        I would rather experiment with my children’s lives in a mindful and connected way than stick to the traditional approach ( it does seem to work that well after all).

        • kloppenmum says:

          It was amazing to me too – how a Victorian man managed to know more about *real* child development than pretty well anyone majorly influencial since then, and only now people are coming around to similar findings with all the brain research that is being done. I think the esoteric side of things freaks people out sometimes, and they don’t look any further. Or you get Steiner schools not delivering.
          I too, really enjoyed it when I found the Taikura community: it was like going out to coffee with a whole lot of versions of myself, and very reassuring. I’m pleased you’re close to Te Ra, any chance of the children going there for school? We were lucky in that our eldest got into one of the feeder kindergartens straight away, (after a dreadful time in a state one); but now it’s really popular/trendy/something and we had to put the names of the other two down practically the day they were born.
          I agree on the experimentation side of things, too. I could see our eldest son turning into a sad and angry little boy and wanted to change that…despite being told is was all normal….hmmmm. A bit of experimentation seemed less of a chance, especially when we did get to meet other children raised in a similar way. 😉

  7. This is really helpful, thank you. There is more I’d like to say but it’s midnight and I’m so tired…. I’m putting your blog in my google reader and I’ll be back to visit again too.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Please get some sleep – Mums need as much as they can steal. And I look forward to ‘seeing’ you again. I’m heading back to your blog, too. 🙂

  8. Elena says:

    I observed a lot of this panic when I was homeschooling (unschooling!) and hanging out with other homeschooling moms. One lady in particular would hear lots of criticism about her child’s progress (or lack thereof) from the grandparents and this would get her in a tizzy. She would lose her mind trying to figure out how she could accelerate the whole process and it just made everyone miserable. I think a parent has to have a lot of trust in their child’s abilities and intelligence, and often this is near impossible when they have someone right beside them nagging and cajoling. Breaks my heart.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Oh that’s awful, and I agree. I know lots of parents who have taken the Waldorf/ Steiner route and it’s the grandparents who often struggle with the pacing. Parents would do well to trust their children’s abilities, but often they struggle to trust in themselves first. Also, it can be really hard to know if there is a real learning difficulty. I guess in the end it’s up to parents to educate themselves and then quietly make a stand.

  9. lilzbear says:

    We are not yet at the reading stage (but I know it will be here before we know it!). I am just amazed at the amount of time and effort I see friends and family around me putting into school for their 1st grade to 5th grade kids. Honestly, when we were growing up we spent less than an hour a day doing homework, special tutors were never involved, and the only intervention we got from our parents was: “Did you finish your homework? Yes. Ok, you can go out and play now.” And any projects were complete using whatever was lying around the house, no special trips to hardware stores and project stores required. I am really interested in finding out how that will change once our kids are in school.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I think it’s great that you’re aware of it all now. At least you can decide whether you’re going to buy into the panic, or just let it all ‘take care of itself’. As long as lil Z is wired properly, has lots of stories, and clever-enough parents ;), academic achievement will happen.
      I would love parents to pause, like you have, and realise that when the children are ready and keen, academic learning is a much easier and more pleasant experience for everyone.

  10. Jen in CO says:

    I saw a link to your site on another parenting message board and found your post interesting. I agree with most (if not all) of the points you made about pushing academics. My kids go to public school, but I’m constantly evaluating and considering home schooling and other options for them as needed. My kids’ school is a pretty academic elementary school, but the HW load is minimal; parent’s are as interested in emotional development as educational progress and the teachers work heard to meet each student where he or she is.

    I guess my main reason for posting was to present a viewpoint of someone who has had one child who took her time reading and one child who learned to read on his own well before K. In the case of my daughter, she has done great and is now in 3rd grade and performing near the top of her class….she didn’t read coming into K (was probably in the bottom 1/3 academically) and has truly blossomed. On the other hand, my son was largely a self taught reader by age 4 and enter K reading at end of 2nd grade level and is now at a 4th grade level 1/2 way through K (decoding and comprehension). We didn’t do flashcards, push him or anything else. We read to him constantly and helped him when he asked for help with his own reading. Now, I could have prevented his reading, but it was his interest that drove him to figure it out. He’s a well adjusted, social kid who plays outside, does hip hop dance and has a good group of friends. We’re not sure if he’s just a precocious reader (most likely) or if he’s unusually bright, but, in either case, we want to do what we need to do to meet his needs as they are now. Reading is obviously developmental and some kids get it at 4 and for some kids it doesn’t click until 8 or older.

    I think people think that all kids who are ahead have been pushed, but that’s not always the case. If your kid is ready and interested in reading (and is teaching themselves), should you hold them back? In our case, the teachers have worked with him to make sure he gets to read at his level, but continues to get instruction in writing, math, etc. at the K level. We’re taking future years as they come (i.e subject acceleration could be more difficult schedule wise if he continues to progress).

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thank-you so much for your comment. My post is about the panic that many parents are experiencing when they see other children, like your son, who are naturally precocious readers. I have taught one child in 15 years who was like this, and indeed he was reading competently before school with no pressure from his parents. I think it is a very difficult line for parents to draw, and while many of us are excited when our pre-school children show an interest in reading it often it’s not a request to be taught as such, but an interest in what the big people around are doing. like sweeping the floor or using a battery drill! It is those times where I would suggest that parents err on the side of caution: provide lots of story reading and story telling, and lots of time for free imaginative (non-electronic) play, but leave the actual reading to later. There is no harm in waiting, there can be harm in starting too early.
      As for your son, I can’t say what his journey is. I think it’s great that he stays with his age mates and continues with them. Personally, I would steer his interests in other directions – simply because I want our children to be as ‘whole’ as possible (not saying your son isn’t), but he is not my son, I don’t know him and you are the best advocate for his interests overall.
      Thanks for putting an alternative position, it makes things interesting! 🙂

      • hakea says:

        Jen in CO…

        My middle son was reading before school as well. He just taught himself. There was no holding him back. I have studied education, and I just let him learn at his own pace, and when he got to school, the teachers let him learn at his own pace as well.

        I didn’t know it (because I just don’t focus on academics at home) but my middle son turned out to be good at maths as well. Now, in this instance, I asked the teachers to give him harder work, because he was so bored at school his behaviour at home was atrocious. They acknowledged that he was advanced in maths and put him up a year. He is doing as well as the other kids in that maths group, but more importantly he is happy! I now know, that for this particular kid, if the maths is right in his life, everything else is alright too. That’s just him – a maths geek. He has landed in an academically lower class this year because he wanted to be with his friends, but he is still doing the advanced maths. He is happy. My husband is concerned he’ll fall behind, and I keep saying “the maths is alright, he’s alright”. He’ll let me know, usually through his behaviour (although we’re working on the communicating your needs before you have a nuclear explosion thing) when his learning needs are not being met.

        The precocious reading kid I mentioned earlier, who really was reading at 2 (very precocious) – his mum is constantly hassling the school to give him harder work because she has this belief that he is so gifted. Thing is, he isn’t, he just learned to read extremely early, and as I said the other kids have caught up with him. Precocious reading is not a sign of overall giftedness. The teachers aren’t giving him harder work because he’s not capable of doing it.

        It’s horses for courses. You have to make sure your kids are happy and are learning at the right level for them. I’m not holding my son back, but I’m not pushing him either. I could have him doing all sorts of maths competitions or tutoring, but what for? We have some social skills issues that we need to iron out with him, and he also needs to play. If he says to me that he’d like to do the maths competitions, I’ll pay the ten bucks for him to do them, but otherwise I’m not pushing it. I don’t need to say that he came top of the state in maths, I just need to make sure his needs are being met.

        Good luck with your child. I suggest that you follow his lead regarding his learning. He’ll let you know through discussion and/or behaviour what he needs.

        • kloppenmum says:

          I think that’s a great reply, hakea.
          It’s all in the parents understanding who is driving the academic achievement – if it’s truly the children – fabulous, but very, very few children will drive it to the extent that they are reading (for example) before they get to school and then maintain that same momentum throughout their schooling. Make no mistake, academic avhievement is very important – but there is no hurry.

  11. Hello all,

    Lovely, lively discussion going on… I have agreed with much that has been shared throughout. (And found myself cheering out loud at the post itself.)

    I just wanted to jump in on this last bit, because I happen to think that early reader or not, rote education (as so many state schools and nearly all U.S. public schools still employ) itself undermines the natural drive children have for learning, and saps the creative energy they have for interacting with information. Coercive, reward- and punishment-driven, repetitive methods grind the love of learning right out of a huge swath of the students being churned through the public education system. The intrinsic motivation is killed. The child then either: a) plays along swimmingly, regardless of emotional distress, for a time, and/or b) loses all interest in the game and may “crash and burn”, and/or c) goes through the system, only getting the median amount of education possible.

    It is a losing proposition for all. And when parents tack on hours of activities in addition to the hours of pointless, mind-numbing, wheel-spinning homework the child must endure, the situation becomes further complicated.

    I wonder if these parents genuinely feel that they are affording their children rich opportunities, or if there are more personal reasons why they would choose the hyper-activity route?

    For me the bottom line is that when my kid is in school aaaalllll day, we DESERVE to get to be together with the rest of the time we have available in the day. If our girls have interest in a particular activity, we seek to accommodate, but I even tag along to “be with them” at dance class… I WANT to be with them until they’re done needing that (I feel like that’s no sooner than age 7, for most kids), and that’s for them and for me. We are each being rewarded by our close, nurturing, connected relationship.

    On reading, and early learning, I say follow the kid, for certain. One of ours was interested in letters from age 2.5 onward — tracing them, spelling words, writing dictated notes (with each word spelled out). She read naturally at 5. The middle one couldn’t be bothered. She liked hearing books, and liked the idea of keeping up with her elder sister, but wasn’t going to put forth the effort, until 7. Then it happened literally over night. Now, the three year old is sounding out words on her own that she sees randomly. She talked early and eloquently. They’ve all gone their own ways, and we’ve handled each of them uniquely. I did make the mistake of assuming we were blowing it with the second one for a little while, but I got over it… They are all brilliant in their own ways — and in different ways and degrees as they mature. Kinda like the rest of us.

    Be well, conscious parents.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for commenting, Nathan.
      I totally agree with you about what you say about mainstream educational practises, in most classrooms, and about the three possible outcomes. There are some magic teachers who do things differently, but they do seem to be rare. I also like tagging along to our kids other activities, partly because they don’t do many, and partly because I want to maintain a connection with them and keep an eye on what’s going on. This is really important when something has upset them, that they might not be able to remember later on.

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