Optional classes for children – necessary or not? Notes on parenting & sensitive periods

Many times during my – still relatively short – motherhood I was surprised to find that my knowledge of parenting is broader than that of my mother (amazing mom of three daughters!). And I do mean broader, not deeper or better.

It seems like the world got bigger and there’s so much more that today’s mothers have to know about raising a child. Are dummies good or not? Should we choose a pushchair or a sling? A baby bath tub or a tummy tub? Vaccinate our kids or not? And what about foreign language or music classes for kids? Is it too early/too late/pointless/waste of money? And if you do choose to sign your kid up for classes – at which school, at what age, what method is the best? Today’s moms are not only feeding, changing diapers, playing, putting to sleep, but also constantly doing research.

Our parents were brought up by intuition, by Guiding Instincts, as we would say today, and this formula was valid in its moment, though today we might consider it risky.

(Bringing Up Children Today, F. Corominas, p. 17)

Fernando Corominas claims in his book Bringing Up Children Today that nowadays children are brought up in a different way. And it’s hard to disagree with that. A friend of mine recommended this book to me and I’m glad she did – because it presents some interesting thoughts on parenting and child development.

Optional classes – are they necessary?

I’m alarmed to see little children whose weekly schedules are overloaded with optional classes. So overloaded that if a grown-up was doing that much over that amount of time, we’d probably call him a workaholic. Foreign language courses, dance classes, sports training, art and music classes for kids…  But how can we even know that investing in that particular activity in that particular moment in our child’s development will ever pay off?

As Corominas says, parenting and bringing up a child is at the same time art (meaning there are no strict rules and every single person is unique) and science (meaning some guidelines and techniques do exist and need to be studied, which often requires some effort). That’s where studies on sensitive periods come in handy.

What is a sensitive period?

As we learn in Corominas’ book, during a sensitive period a child is extremely prone to react to stimuli crucial for development of a given ability or function. Simply put, sensitive period is a time window when it’s very easy and very natural to learn a certain ability. For example: a sensitive period for walking comes at 10-15 months of age. During that time children learn basically by themselves how to walk. No one has to tell them or show them exactly what to do, because their bodies simply want to start walking, as if they were designed to do that. The only thing that’s crucial is having a model to watch. Children need to see someone else walking – a mother, a father, siblings – so they can instinctively copy their behaviour and set learning process in motion.

Unlike animals, humans have free will. And that allows us – if we want to – to control our learning process. It’s not like we can move the sensitive periods in time. But we can try to learn a certain ability also later in life, even after its corresponding sensitive period is already over. It’s not as easy as during the right time window when human brain simply acquires a given ability. It takes much more effort. More time. And despite all this intentionality and hard work we put in a learning process there’s a chance we’ll never get results as good as we could have during the sensitive period.

A child between one and four can learn his mother tongue and any other languages effortlessly and in a natural way, because he is in the Sensitive Period corresponding to speech. When all his senses are prepared to carry this function, he will learn without trying, like a game, and as well as a native.

(Bringing Up Children Today, F. Corominas, p. 43)

Since the sense of hearing is what develops first, long before speech, sensitive period for music is one of the first to appear. It’s the time when child’s whole body virtually yearns to listen to and make music.

This Sensitive Period [for music] begins when the child is still in the mother’s womb, some four months before he is born, and it remains powerful until the child is two or three years of age; but the first twelve months after birth are particularly important.

(Bringing Up Children Today, F. Corominas, p. 65)

I think it’s worth to learn when the specific sensitive periods take place, so you can easily and effectively choose activities for your child to engage in. So, I’ve put together a little graph that hopefully can help you understand when the sensitive periods for specific abilities occur.

Music classes for kids – when to start?

With a lot of inconsistent information on the subject of sensitive periods on the internet, this simple infographic above seems to be a perfect suggestion on how to choose activities that we engage our children in.

There’s no point in signing the kid to a class too early, when the sensitive period for that particular activity is still way ahead. Maybe optional classes won’t even be necessary if you as a parent have the right tools to stimulate your child’s potential and it will grow naturally.

You don’t have to be an expert in that particular area to help your child grow and develop certain abilities. Many parents often ask me if there’s any point in singing together with a child, if they themselves sing off-key. I usually reply with another question: is there any point in walking together with a child, if you do not walk like a model on a catwalk? Simple as that.

So, once again: your child’s body wants to walk, sing, dance, talk and needs to do all those things. But the most important thing is having a model to imitate and follow. It’s important that a child sees someone else walking, singing or dancing – someone who’s a loving, caring person and an authority to follow. And who can be a better authority than a parent?

Now you know that in your child’s development there are some sensitive periods for different abilities – and that it’s good to know when they take place, so that you could support and encourage kids to grow exactly when they’re ready for it.