How Young is Too Young to Read?

It is an all-too-common desire nowadays: the head start. No longer is it acceptable to raise a child who is average or even gifted; today’s high-pressure culture demands virtuosic performance from our kids—think red-shirting, Bach-playing, tiger moms and Kumon. Now the forces of balance have struck back: Last week one brand that had capitalized unusually well on this cultural moment abruptly announced that it is folding. Carlsbad-based Your Baby Can Read, purveyor of DVDs, flash cards, books and fear, has gone the way of the dodo.

What brought down this marketing behemoth? A consumer complaint, or rather, several of them. Like Baby Einstein before it, YBCR was flagged for several dubious and vaguely terrifying claims, including the promise enshrined in its name, and the phrase “Seize this small window of opportunity” in marketing materials that implied that a child who doesn’t start reading instruction by age three months will miss out. Here’s the Boston Globe:

The website had said the best time for children to learn to read is when they are infants and toddlers, before they go to school; it said they could start as young as 3 months old. ‘‘Seize this small window of opportunity,’’ it urged parents.

The complaint filed with the FTC rejected this ‘‘window of opportunity’’ statement, as well as many of the other assertions in the ads.

Look. I know every baby is different, and lord knows our own Culver City preschool kids arrive with every possible skill, gift and advantage, but three months? Really? Had these people met an actual three-month-old before?  Needless to say, the great majority of us who somehow learned to read at the ripe old age of Normal might respectfully disagree.

There is a never-fail way to determine when kids are ready to learn a new skill: pay attention to the kids. They’ll let you know. If your child indicates an interest in spelling “Hop on Pop,” by all means feed that curiosity, and nurture it. The same goes for a nascent interest in dinosaurs, or in music, or math. But if you find yourself imposing pedagogical milestones on a timetable that was conceived before your child was, it may be time to take a deep breath.

My advice as a Los Angeles preschool proprietor: create a home where unstructured time flourishes and where your child can organically explore the wonders of learning, and I guarantee he’ll learn to read. He might even do it without a DVD.