Chapel Hill: Opinion

Ellie Kinnaird: Lessons for today’s parents from our Nobel Prize winners

How best to educate our children is on the minds of parents, as well as teachers, administrators and politicians.

We compare our children’s progress to those in other countries, set goals for graduation, count the number of children headed to college, and debate at what age to start pushing kids to perform for success.

So I was quite surprised when the educational background of our two Nobel Prize winners, Aziz Sancar at UNC and Paul Modrich at Duke was reported in interviews. Surely, two great scientists in our midst can be held up as models for our children to emulate.

I was startled to read that the two esteemed Nobel prize winners did not spend their childhoods in the frenetic, activity-filled schedules we subject today’s children to: hours of homework each day, soccer, music, summer enrichment, book clubs, dance, art lessons, swimming – more competition, more work piled on.

It turns out that their childhood was spent in doing nothing but just being children – no planned activities.

Sancar, the seventh of eight children, was born in Turkey to illiterate parents. No parents pushing him to compete in order to be successful.

Modrich describes his childhood in northern New Mexico: “It was the perfect place to be a child. Completely safe, all this room to explore the natural world. We had to entertain ourselves, and we learned to do that.”

None of the elements today’s parents and educators seem to feel is crucial for success.

My reaction is to say to parents, stop! Instead, ask, what is the lesson to be learned from these most respected scientists? Children have it within themselves to learn and grow when left on their own. We don’t need to prod children to read in kindergarten in order to compete for a place in Harvard. Children don’t need hours of homework each night.

We read of children with depression, some even driven to suicide in this high-pressure educational environment. The players in this race egg each other on in an endless circle. Parents worried that children won’t get into the best schools, push the school boards that push superintendents that push the teachers.

Then politicians get into the act to show they care what voters want, themselves changing teaching methods and requirements over and over. As a result, we don’t let teachers teach, but instead hire consultants, “professional educators,” to invent one “reform” after another, subjecting teachers to programs that change year after year. One of the reasons charter schools are successful is because let their teachers teach.

Another surprise is the Finnish educational system which has the best schools in the world. They connect with the child’s family at eight months, assess all the needs, strengths and aspects of the child. Using this information, they devise a plan for the whole child. The child attends a resource center each day. The child’s physical, psychological, intellectual or social needs and proclivities are continually reviewed and appropriately addressed. No school work until the child is 7 years old in the first grade when they first learn to read.

As our Nobel prize winners show, maybe just “room to explore the natural world” might be the best for children after all.

Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator, mayor of Carrboro and an attorney. She lives in Chapel Hill.