Should I teach my children to read as soon as possible?

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague of mine: She was appalled at an ad she saw on TV about a system to teach “babies” to learn to read (something like LeapFrog or Vtech). She said: “Why would anybody want to teach their baby to read?” As this statement was brought up in passing, and I was busy at the time doing something else, I just agreed and moved on with my life. But as the day went on, the statement kept bothering me and stuck with me.

First of all, I have to mention that this colleague of mine is childless. I am very wary of any opinions of my childless friends on things to do with children. I was once childless, and I remember how opinionated I was about my friends and their children (of course as I am a very polite person, I never expressed my thoughts). But when I started to have children of my own, my opinions of “how to raise a child right” or “how a child should behave” etc. went right out the window. A child will act out in public when it suites them. They will have tantrums. They won’t want to take a nap every time without a fight, etc. It is impossible to control children like a machine. They develop their own thoughts, their own decisions, etc. I still have some general principles that I follow, but I realize that this is only a guide, and I need to be flexible depending on the particular case and which child I’m dealing with. Also I realize that my childless friends probably have opinions of my children (bad or good) but I don’t get phased by them and I understand that they don’t have a clue.

This aside, I wanted to deal with the particular statement about teaching babies to read.

Some years back I taught at school for gifted students. As you can imagine, the parents of these kids were very involved in the school activities, in school trips, etc. I had no trouble finding volunteers for any of my school field trips or even in class. So I did get to know a lot of these parents on a personal level. Some of them were “out there”, overprotective of their kid, checking everything I did as a teacher was correct and making sure I was teaching them up to par. But most of these parents were really great. I remember and cherish our conversations. Some of them had me over after I had my first baby to their homes and gave me their baby stuff.

Anyway, the point is that a common trait among the kids (as I found out from their parents) is that they learned to read very early on. Most of them said their children started to read at age 3 or 4. CRAZY!

Now I wonder what this really means, i.e. reading. My oldest son (six and a half years old) is just starting to read now. Of course he knew his letters when he was young (probably around 3), he started reading little words (like “the” “and” “go”) at around 4, and now he can read a small picture book by himself. But I don’t know if I can call this “reading” quite yet. For instance, he likes to read everything everywhere, but he wouldn’t pick up a novel and start reading it, even if it was a novel for small kids. He could probably get through a few paragraphs before getting bored, but he would probably have a tough time understanding a lot of it. But I can say he is definitely on his way…

Reading is a very important step in a child’s development. Pretty much everything is encoded in written text. It is a way to open the world to a young child. So the sooner they’re exposed the better.

However, is it really worth or fair it to take time away from a baby’s play time to teach them to read? That, I suppose, is the concern of my friend. My answer is ABSOLUTELY YES! But of course it depends on how you present it. If my child sees reading as fun or play time, then it’s fine. On the other hand, if you make your child sit at the table suffer through endless reading of random words that have no meaning to the child, then the child will rebel and hate reading forever. Making the learning as appealing as possible will make the child learn things earlier than expected and will open the world to the child, without sacrificing the children’s “play time” because the learning will be their “play time”.

A baby doesn’t know that they are “learning” when they are actually playing. A child can learn to recognize letters very early on, which is the first step to reading. So I definitely don’t see anything wrong with any educational program that is a fun toy, but at the same time teaches kids to read (such as LeapFrog or Vtech). Why not kill two birds with one stone? The two birds: Learning and Playing; The stone: The Toy / Baby’s Play Time.