What should a four year old know?

Recently, I read a post from a mother regarding the education of her four year old daughter. She is concerned that her daughter doesn’t know enough and was requesting opinions from other mothers. What should a four year old know? The responses to this request saddened me. One mother posted a detailed list of the things her four year old son knows and things that he is capable of doing. He can count to 10, name all the planets, write his first, middle and last name. He knows the alphabet forwards and backwards, he knows how to use her iphone and the remote control of the tv, and so on. Other mothers responded in a similar way, proudly listing all the things their children, some only 2 or 3 years old, already know and master.

All this communication and doting made me reflect. How would that worried mother feel now? Not any better that’s for sure, after reading all the things other kids were doing and her daughter was not. Why are we so concerned about what our preschool children are doing or not doing? Why are we so motivated and competitive? What is all the fuss and rush? What is the hurry for these adorable, precious children to grow and know so much so soon? Do we really want them to start participating in this race with no finish line at the ages of 3 or 4?

My two daughters, Kenia (10) and Havana (7) just started school a week ago in Costa Rica (the school year is from February to November) after a year of freeflyinghomeschooling (and a lot of no schooling) on the road. Since preschool both girls have changed schools 5 times and have probably missed more days than all of their schoolmates put together. They both speak 3 languages. They know how to recite several prayers in Sanskrit and have an impressive hindi vocabulary acquired during our stay at an Indian ashram in Italy. Kenia also reads in 3 languages. Kenia probably isn’t as good in math as the average 5th grader, but she is as capable of taking orders and working the cash register of our friend’s crepes stand. At tradeshows and festivals, both our daughters often happily help us set up and dismount our book stand whether it is super early in the morning or really late at night.

Havana still doesn’t read well in any of the languages, but she knows how to construct and paint her own two-story “Barbie” house, furniture and all, out of carton boxes. They both take showers and wash their hair themselves (and have been doing so since the age of 5). They know how to move around the kitchen, prepare healthy meals and desserts all by themselves, and clean up afterwards. Kenia, at 9 years old, decided on her own that she wants to be a vegan. Havana occasionally mediates on her own. They both know how to comfort me when I am sad and their dad when he is nervous. They are extremely friendly and know how to play hours on end without toys or electronic devices. Most of these things are a result of their own uniqueness and experiences, don’t make them better than any other child (just different), and were not learned in a classroom.

The 14 year old son of an ex client of mine comes to mind: He was a straight “A” student at the time and a wiz at the computer, but he didn’t know how to peel and cut an apple or prepare his own clothes for school. So, what should a young child really know? What should an adolescent know? Who decides what is truly important for our children’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth?  How can we insure that our children, each unique in their own way, grow into happy, confident and independent adults?

Days before the first day of school in Costa Rica, I wondered how they would react to school hours, new kids, a new language and homework after so much freedom. I actually felt bad about the idea of them spending 5 hours a day behind a desk after seeing them mature and develop in such a free, instinctive way this past year. It got me wondering about what I hoped this new experience would offer them. Self-confidence, adaptability and equanimity were on my list. They have just completed their first week and I am happy that the PURA VIDA* philosophy still exists in the Costa Rican school they attend. They are given lots of freedom of movement, there is lighter workload during school hours and less homework, the teachers have time to interact with parents, and kids are respected for their individuality and not pressured to perform at a competitive pace.

One day after dropping my daughters off at school, I began speaking with another mother. After a bit, I asked her what she thinks young children should know. She didn’t need to think for too long before giving me this response:

  1. To speak kindly and show respect towards their peers and elders.
  2. To have good hygiene: Wash face, ears and private parts. Change clothes when dirty.
  3. To smile, play freely with their friends outside and to watch out for cars (Costa Ricans have a tendency of turning a corner without looking).

This is a woman who has never left the small town where she was born, doesn’t read much or have an email address or Facebook account, lives in a modest house, and whose main aspiration in life is to care for her husband, 3 children, 2 dogs and close family and friends. Her answer put a smile on my face and reminded me really how wonderfully simple life can be. No special degrees required!

Muchas Gracias Maria Elena!

*PURA VIDA: translated, pure life, Pura Vida is a Costa Rican philosophy. They often use it as a greeting instead of Hola o Adios.



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