Holy Smokes! The latest volley – or reality check – in the annals of American achievement addiction arrived this past Sunday in The NY Times, via an article about pre-school tutoring, entitled “Fast-Tracking to Kindergarten?” The piece reports on the work of the Japanese tutoring company Kumon, now in the States and specializing in children 2-3 years old. It’s a laugh-or-you’ll-cry situation, and you can’t help but wonder what the next step will be – or rather, what can it be? That it’s all about the parents here is a foregone conclusion, but the delusion is nevertheless staggering. Meaning, if assigning 2-year-olds homework doesn’t make one question the culture’s underlying assumptions about “success,” nothing will. Akin to yesterday’s news about the mother giving her 8-year-old daughter Botox:

As competition in education has spread down, the tutoring industry has followed… [down to children as young as 2]. Research suggests that there is little benefit from this kind of tutoring; that young children learn just as much about math, if not more, fitting mixing bowls together on the kitchen floor. But programs like Kumon are gaining from, and generating, parents’ anxiety about what kind of preparation their children will need — and whether parents themselves have what it takes to provide it.

“The best you can say is that they’re useless,” said Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who compared the escalation of supplemental education with Irish elk competing to see which had the biggest antlers. “The result is that they go around tottering, unable to walk, under the enormous weight of these antlers they’ve developed,” she said. “I think it’s true of American parents from high school all the way down to preschool.”

Kumon, a Japanese import that calls itself the world’s largest math and reading enrichment program, has pushed most aggressively, admitting students as young as 2… “Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said Joseph Nativo, chief financial officer for Kumon North America. “But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

[One parent claims she] saw immediate results — Huxton began reading, adding and subtracting — and Eze, newly 3, started soon after. “These results translated into a self-esteem boost that I didn’t anticipate,” Ms. Goldman said. “They’ve gotten that there’s a thrill in achieving something. I care more about that than I care about them reading.” She liked that it required her to participate in her children’s homework. “I treat them both with more respect now, because I see what they’re capable of intellectually,” she said. And she liked that it was reward-based, even as she recognizes that some experts decry using prizes as incentives to learn. “That’s life,” she said. “If you do something, you get something.”

Parents and policy makers may be ambivalent, Professor Gopnik said, but the popularity of programs like Kumon is “pushing very young children’s lives and curriculum in preschool programs more and more in this direction… Part of them are saying, ‘This isn’t right, 3-year-olds should be playing in the sandbox and putting together mixing bowls,’ but then they’re thinking that maybe if the kid next door is doing it, it’ll be time to go to Harvard and my child won’t have the same advantage,” she said. “We are in a culture where education is the path to success, and it’s hard for people to recognize how deep and profound learning is when children are just playing.”

“Yes, your child might know more of his letters than the child who spent Saturday in the sandbox,” she said. “But the people who are team players, who are creative innovators, they are the ones who are going to invent the next iPad. The kids who are just memorizing are going to be outsourced to the kids in India who have memorized the same stuff.”

At the Battery Park City Kumon, Maverick Scott, a financial analyst, pulled a book from his backpack: “Every Child an Achiever: A Parent’s Guide to Kumon.” It had helped persuade him to bring his son, Cyrus, to Junior Kumon at age 4.

But all hope is not lost. As NPR reports, on the opposite side of the spectrum a considerably healthier outlook (translation: one that actually has a sense of humor) has been making waves, i.e. Adam Mansbach’s best-selling new brilliantly-titled “children’s” book, Go the [Expletive] to Sleep. It’s non-serious, of course, but the appeal might not be, ht LL [language warning]:

“I think it’s something every parents goes through and few are comfortable talking about,” Mansbach told us in a telephone interview. “I think there’s a lot of anxiety about being seen as a bad parent. There’s still a lot of subjects that I think people aren’t entirely comfortable being honest about.”

 

And that’s the thing about Go the [#$%@] to Sleep: It really challenges the notions of modern parenting. In some ways, it comes out of left field in a world where some parents fret about getting their children into the right pre-school or in a world where kids’ ballet, piano and baseball practice rule the lives of the adults. “Something has to give with all the emphasis on perfect parenting,” said Mansbach. “I think those conversations start to sag under their own weight and you do need some kind of alternative narrative that’s a little more honest or at least a little more funny.”

The book is just that: It combines the sweetness and fantasy of classic children’s books with the unspeakable profanity of a tired parent. Here is Mansbach reading one of the book’s verses:

The owls fly forth from the treetops.
Through the air, they soar and they sweep.
A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love
For real, shut the [expletive] up and sleep.
The cubs and the lions are snoring,
Wrapped in a big snuggly heap.
You’re cute as hell and smart as [expletive]
But why in the [expletive] won’t you sleep?