Clotilde, a 32-year-old French mother of two, moved to New York several years ago. But her immersion in American culture, or to be more precise, the hyperintense culture of upscale Manhattan child-rearing, didn’t truly begin until her first son turned 9—months, that is. That’s when the baby’s pediatrician noticed that his growth had slowed.
“The doctor freaked out,” Clotilde recalls in lightly accented English. “She started to say, ‘I think he has a heart murmur. Has he been tested for cystic fibrosis?’ She sent me to a gastroenterologist, who didn’t find anything. So she said, ‘Maybe he has an aural motor delay.’ Which means a delay in the motion of the mouth and the tongue. He doesn’t eat, or he does, but it’s taking him longer to process the food, or God knows what. So she referred us to early intervention.”
Thus began a yearlong odyssey into a subculture of psychologists and occupational and speech therapists issuing diagnoses littered with terms like dyspraxia and proprioceptors and sensory-integration systems, and recommending intensive therapy. “My husband was thinking, They know better, therefore we should just do it,” Clotilde says. “My instinct was telling me, No, your child is fine.”
By the time all the evaluations were complete, the baby was just over a year old. “They came back and said he definitely had a speech delay,” his mother continues. “We’re talking 14 months. And a severe muscle delay in his back. That was because he used to sit with his legs bent in the shape of a W.
“But the language was the main concern. I said, ‘He’s growing up in a bilingual environment.’ They said, ‘No, no. We’re concerned.’ They put a lot of pressure. They recommended we start therapy. ‘It’s a wonderful program, and it’s free.’ ”
In a way, the therapists’ concern was justified. Clotilde’s little boy did have a language delay—and he did sit funny. Not perhaps by the laid-back standards of human evolution and normal toddler development. But certainly by the expectations that now circle any child who hopes to attend a selective private school or one of the gifted-and-talented programs in public schools. The expectation is that by the time they graduate from nursery school, their verbal and counting skills, not to mention their ability to do mazes and chat confidently with adults, will be so firmly in place as to make it impossible for the director of their first-choice kindergarten to reject them in favor of another child.
Early intervention can be a blessing for children who truly need it, diagnosing and remedying their problems while they’re still young enough to alter the very architecture of their brains. Children with a five-word vocabulary at 18 months, who have problems with creative play such as brushing a doll’s hair at age 2, or who aren’t interacting with other children by age 3, are without question in need of intervention. But in New York City in the past few years, the science of early-childhood development has been pressed into service as a tool by parents and educators to correct normal variations in children’s development—so that by 4, or, at the latest, 5, they’ll be prepared to compete with their kindergarten peers.
The question is, what’s lost by all this pressure? Some argue it’s nothing less than childhood itself. “New York City private schools today are demanding such high-level skills that these kids are actually in need of services,” says Janine Pollack, a neuropsychologist. “There’s a private school in Brooklyn where they’ll discuss with a 6-year-old, ‘How do you feel when you look at blue?’ That requires a very sophisticated use of language.
“It’s a cycle,” she goes on. “And it starts in preschool. It is irrational that every child has to be above average.”
Irrational from the point of view of raising happy, emotionally healthy kids. But not in light of the cutthroat competition to get into kindergarten. Pollack believes it ultimately boils down to numbers. “There are so many exceptional kids, they just take the cream of the crop,” she says. But early intervention can sometimes become a way of creating the perfect child, or at least one whose imperfections will remain invisible to admissions directors. “There are no average kids anymore,” says Elisabeth Krents, the Dalton School’s admissions director. “It’s ‘If you’re not making it, let me get you services.’ ”
The core of the problem is that schools have a limited amount of information upon which to base a decision. And those criteria hit at the heart of skills at which the developmentally delayed child may not excel—staying on-task, or taking direction well, for example. The tests for kindergarten admission, which may detect those deficits, represent a daunting obstacle. “The schools take a ruler,” claims a mother who tutored her son, who is in both speech and occupational therapy, for the Stanford-Binet, required for admission to the public schools’ gifted programs. She is referring to the percentile line below which they cannot stray. “And if the scores are under something, forget it.”
To avoid that fate, she’s helped keep Barnes & Noble in business, purchasing test-prep books and games such as Brain Quest and MightyMind. “I find it so much fun,” she says. “My children don’t like it.”
“Everybody thinks they go into the schools and have to be this perfect little family,” says Nina Bauer, director of IvyWise Kids, a school-admissions counseling service. “God forbid their child isn’t separating from them or they untucked their shirt.”
Yet Bauer admits that the schools are more susceptible to the sort of child who interviews well, the one who got dealt a royal flush, genetically speaking, or at least appears that way. “They have such a short time with the kids,” she observes. “Where the process doesn’t do well is these shy, wallflower kids. A good admissions director will see past that, but sometimes these kids’ personalities don’t come through.”
And that pressure to deliver to the kindergartens 5-year-olds with people skills percolates down to preschool. “I have parents who come to me and say their kid only scored an 88,” says Amy Flynn, the head of the Bank Street Family Center, referring to the ERB, the aptitude test given to aspiring kindergartners. “That translates into pressure for children. They need to play. That realm of fantasy is important—‘I’m the doctor,’ ‘I’m the fireman.’ It’s about abstract thinking, and you don’t get that by telling kids to think abstractly.”