The Boston Globe ran a fascinating (and, warning, rather long) piece on the infant education industry a little over a week ago. You can read the piece, "Rush, Little Baby," here.
Author Neil Swidey reaches the standard conclusion of these pieces. For most children, early formal instruction (before the usual start of first grade or at most kindergarten) does little good. Early readers are not really reading, they are memorizing and, in fact, children who are pushed to read too young are less avid readers later on. All the commercial products out there to maximize infant brain development may in fact retard such development. After all, just look at the recent study pointing out that Baby Einstein video devotees had less well-developed vocabularies than children who didn't watch such videos.
Swidey puts a lot of the research in one place, and is good at pointing out the absurdity of some claims -- and some parents. My 6-month-old son has never seen a flashcard in his life (he has seen Sesame Street, but that's because we found out it shut him up the other morning when my husband and I were both trying to get things done. We were surprised that Sesame Street had kids learning about the number 18, though. Maybe this is a testament to the infant education movement's reach. We didn't think Sesame Street went past the number 12!)
But what is true for the average child -- that kids parroting back Dick and Jane books are not really reading -- is not at all true for the highly gifted child. Swidey does mention that maybe 3% of children are truly early readers. That is, they comprehend what they are reading on the page, and how each letter or letter combination corresponds to a sound, and how stringing those sounds together makes a word. These children are able to figure out words from context. Readers of this blog -- who have seen their five and six year olds devouring Harry Potter, reading silently -- know that these children are, in fact, reading. Generally, these kids haven't been pushed at all. They learn to read because they want to discover what wonderful things are in books.
The problem is that the research cited in this piece, and the general tone of "oh those crazy parents" is often used to say that early enrichment for gifted kids isn't necessary. After all, kids all even out by third grade or so, as Swidey says. This is why many gifted programs don't start until third grade. By then, the effect of early parental striving has allegedly disappeared, so we can get down to business of figuring out who is "actually" gifted. But believing that toddlers can't actually have advanced intelligence that needs to be nurtured is as absurd as showing a 6-week-old baby a flashcard. Many parents of gifted kids have the experience of being labeled "pushy" at some point or another, and articles like this certainly add to the adversarial nature of the relationship between parents and educators. Maybe some brilliant kids haven't been pushed at all. Maybe they push their parents. Trying to hold them back is silly, and stating that they may possibly become less avid readers later on just adds to parental insecurities.