A Different Look at the Mental Health of Children
Raymond S. Moore, Dorothy Moore
In Acres of Diamonds, Russell Conwell’s most famous Chautauqua story, Al Hafed sold his farm to finance his quest for a legendary diamond mine. He searched the world over until his fortune was gone. He died penniless, unaware that a vast diamond deposit had been discovered in the river sands which snaked through his own backyard, now the famed Golconda Diamond Mines. America’s quest for excellence—for healthy, self directed, student minds—very well could have the same ending.
From the White House to the humblest home, Americans are groping for answers to declines in literacy, ethics, and general behavior which threatens our nation. Apparently, few have noticed the close relationship between the achievement, behavior and sociability we prefer, and the lifestyles that we impose on our children daily which may amount to our most pervasive form of child abuse. For example, a surprising ignorance or indifference exists to peer dependency, a mental health nemesis that is rampant even in preschools.
Instead of studying how best to meet their needs, we often put our “little ones” out of the home, away from environments that best produce outgoing, healthy, happy, creative children. In a federally-sponsored analysis of more than 8,000 early childhood studies, Moore Foundation concluded that the United States is rushing its little ones out of the home and into school long before most, particularly boys, are ready.  The effect on mental and emotional health is deeply disturbing. Dropout rates also are mute testimony, though in some cases, the dropout, like Thomas Edison, is more fortunate than those who stay.
From Piagetian specialist David Elkind in Boston to William Rohwer in Berkeley, Calif., top learning and development authorities warn that early formal school is burning out our children. Teachers who attempt to cope with these youngsters also are burning out. The learning tools of the average child who enrolls today between the ages of four and six or seven are neither tempered nor sharp enough for the structured academic tasks that increasingly are thrown at them. Worse still, we destroy positive sociability.
The sequence for the average child these days often spells disaster for both mental and physical health in a sure sequence:1) uncertainly as the child leaves the family nest early for a less secure environment, 2) puzzlement at the new pressures and restrictions of the classroom, 3) frustration because unready learning tools — senses, cognition, brain hemispheres, coordination — cannot handle the regimentation of formal lessons and the pressures they bring, 4) hyperactivity growing out of nerves and jitter, from frustration, 5) failure which quite naturally flows from the four experiences above, and 6) delinquency which is failure’s twin and apparently for the same reason.
Indifference to the mental and emotional health of children is not new. The pages of history outline great cycles that began with vigorous cultures awaking to the needs of children and ending with surrender of family ties and the death of societies and empires.
Research provides a link from past to present and provides a moving perspective on children today. Persuasive reasons exist for declining literacy, academic failures, widespread delinquency, and rampant peer dependency. All four act in concert to deny our goal of happy, confident children who are healthy in body, mind, and spirit. Whether or not we can be conclusive about causes, America’s decline in literacy from the estimated 90 percentiles in the last century to the 50 percentiles today parallels the parental scramble to institutionalize children at ever younger ages. 
The Moore Foundation analyses  concluded that, where possible, children should be withheld from formal schooling until at least ages eight - ten. Elkind  warned against student burnout which has become pervasive in American schools. Rohwer  agreed, basing his conclusions in part on investigations in 12 countries by Sweden’s Torsten Husen. Husen subsequently confirmed Rohwer’s perceptions, according to a letter from Husen, Nov. 23, 1972. Rohwer, with deep concern for conceptual demands of reading and arithmetic, offered a solution:
This solution would delay school entrance at least until the child is 11 or 12, ages which become critical.
In face of present practice, how can these remarks be justified, bearing in mind that the present and future health of the child is at stake? First, children normally are not mature enough for formal school programs until their senses, coordination, neurological development, and cognition are ready. Piagetian experiments have shown repeatedly that cognitive maturity may not come until close to age 12.
Interestingly, the ancient Bar Mitzvah of the Orthodox Jew provided no schooling until after age 12 when the child was considered able to accept full responsibility for his actions. Fisher, then considered dean of American psychiatrists, wrote in 1950 how he started school at 13, unable to read or write. Graduating from a Boston high school at 16, he thought he was a genius until he found that any “normal” child could do it. He added, “if a child could be assured of a wholesome home life and proper physical development, this might provide the answer to ... a shortage of qualified teachers.” 
Nearly a century ago, Dewey  called for school entry at age eight or later. A half century ago, Skeels  proved that loving, though retarded, teenagers made remarkably good teachers A quarter century ago, Geber  demonstrated that mothers in the African bush brought up children who were more socially and mentally alert than youngsters of the elite who could afford preschool. Warmth was the key. Still later, Mermelstein and others  proved that, at least until ages nine or ten, children who went to school did no better than those who did not attend school. De Rebello (unpublished data, January 1985) reported that dropouts who find employment are ahead of their peers in mental and social perception.
Few conventional educators understand this situation. We do not understand fully the damage of frustration nor denial of free exploration, nor the value of warmth as a learning motivator, nor yet the tutorial method which historically never has been equaled. A UCLA study  of 1,016 public schools found that teachers averaged about seven minutes daily in personal exchanges with their students. This would allow for no more than one or two personal responses for each student. In contrast, our counts of daily responses in typical home schools ranged from about 100 to more than 300.
We should not be shocked then by the Smithsonian Report  on genius which offered a three -part recipe for high achievement, consisting of 1) much time spent with warm, responsive parents and other adults, 2) very little time spent with peers, and 3) a great deal of free exploration under parental guidance. Study director Harold McCurdy concluded:
“the mass education of our public school system is, in its way, a vast experiment on reducing ... all three factors to a minimum; accordingly, it should tend to suppress the occurrence of genius.” 
At the Moore Foundation we recently obtained the court-approved standardized test scores of children whose mothers or fathers were arrested for teaching at home. Most parents were of low socio-economic status with less formal education than usual, yet , the children averaged 80.1%, or 30 percentile ranks higher than the nation’s average classroom child.
Very young children do indeed learn very fast, as is commonly believed, yet only in proportion to their maturity. The child who combines cognitive maturity with eight - ten years more of free exploration has developed thousands of “learning hooks” and an ability to reason consistently which is impossible for the younger child. Without this maturity, and confined to a classroom, the child often becomes anxious, frustrated, and eventually learning disabled.
The common assumption these days is that well - socialized children require the association schools afford. Replicable evidence clearly points the other way. Cornell studies  found that children who spend more elective time with their peers than with their parents until the fifth or sixth grades — about ages 11 or 12 — will become peer dependent. Such “knuckling under” to peer values incurs four losses crucial to sound mental health and a positive sociability. These losses are self worth, optimism, respect for parents, and trust in peers.
The loss to boys is of particular concern academically, behaviorally, and socially. Despite their widely-acknowledged delay in maturity, we demand their enrollment in school at the same ages as girls. In recent years, many reports suggest that boys are several times as likely as girls to fail, become delinquent, or acutely hyperactive. Perhaps most ominous are recent (Education Week, March 14, 1984, p. 19) findings in American high schools that there are eight boys for each girl in classes for the emotionally impaired, and 13 boys for each girl are in remedial learning groups. Self worth, male identity, and respect for women are lost—unfortunate outcomes especially in today’s society.
A COMMON SENSE SOLUTION
We need more parent education and less institutionalizing of young children. In the home school renaissance, hundreds of thousands of parents have re-evaluated their child-rearing roles and have begun to study warmly their children’s developmental needs. The result is higher achieving, better behaving, self-directed children.
Some demur, pointing to Head Start. Yet, the Ypsilanti study, the only long -range experiment consistently upholding Head Start, involves the home far more than typical programs. Even such key Head Start founders as Bloom and Nimnicht now laud the home as the best learning nest and parents as the best teachers. [13,14] In physical health and behavior — in exposure to disease (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 5, 1984) and to negative aggressive acts — the home is 15 times as safe as the average day care center.
Several suggestions can help us improve the mental and emotional health of our children:
- More of home and less of formal school;
- More free exploration with the guidance of warm, responsive parents and fewer limits of classrooms and books;
- More concern for readiness for learning and ability to think and less training to be simple repeaters;
- More attention to educating parents and less to institutionalizing young children;
- More and higher priorities to child-rearing and fewer to material wants; and
- More old fashion chores —children working with parents—and less attention to rivalry sports and amusements.
To some educators and parents such ideas may appear prosaic or dull—like the backyard Al Hafed left. Yet, everyone likes diamonds, and that backyard can be an exciting place. Anything else may be more child abuse than education.
- Moore RS: School Can Wait. Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University Press, 1979, pp 175-186
- The Adult Performance Level Project (APL). Austin, Texas, University of Texas, 1983
- Elkind D: The case for the academic preschool: Fact or fiction: Young Child 1970; 25:180-188.
- Rohwer WD Jr.: Prime time for education: Early childhood or adolescence? Harvard Education Rev 1971;41:316-341
- Fisher JT, Hawley LSH: A Few Buttons Missing. Philadelphia JB Lippincott, 1951, p 14.
- Dewey J: The primary education fetish. Forum 1898; 25:314-328
- Skeels HM: Adult Status of Children with Contrasting Early Life Experiences: A follow-up study. Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966.
- Geber M: The psycho-motor development of African children in the first year, and the influence of maternal behavior. J Soc Psychol 1958;47: 185-195
- Mermelstein E, Shulman LS: Lack of formal schooling and the acquisition of conversation. Child Dev 1967;38:39-52
- Goodlad JI: A study of schooling: Some findings and hypotheses. Phi Delta Kappan 1983;64(7):465
- McCurdy HG: The childhood pattern of genius. Horizon 1960;2:33-38
- Bronfenbrenner U: Two Worlds of Childhood; US and USSR. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970, pp97-101.
- Bloom BS: All Our Children Learning. Wash. DC, McGraw-Hill, 1980
- Hoffman BH: Do you know how to play with your child? Women’s Day 1972;46:118-120.
- Farran D: Now for the bad news....Parents Magazine 1982 (Sept.)
Journal of School Health February 1986, Vol. 56, No. 2 73