David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]


Astrophysicists looking for life in other solar systems search for planets in the “Goldilocks Zone.” Assuming that water is necessary for life as we know it, scientists suggest that planets too close to their suns will have water only in the form of steam and that planets too far from their suns will have simply ice. The theory is actually much more complicated and involves concepts including “methane,” “aphelion,” and “science”, but that’s as much as we need to know to enjoy an analogy from developmental psychology. We’ll get right back to how increase the odds that your kids don’t grow up to marry extraterrestrials after a quick trip to Sweden.

Going to Sweden might seem like a good way to learn to speak Swedish. Except that everybody in Sweden speaks English and, unless you already know some Swedish, you wouldn’t learn any more Swedish by going to a place where only Swedish is spoken. You’re certainly not going to become fluent by osmosis any more than sleeping with a biology book under your pillow will help you pass that exam involving the comparative digestive systems of snails and slugs. Language acquisition takes place a word at a time. The new word needs a safe place to land, preferably in a comfortable nest of already familiar other words. Readings with one new word per page are about right.  Too many new words on a page and I don’t understand anything. No new words on a page and I don’t learn any.

At the risk of beating this analogy horse to death, consider my Tuesday morning track workouts with my running buddies. If I run too slowly, I don’t improve my fitness level. If I run too fast, I get stress fractures, destroy my hamstrings, and become even more unbearable to live with. To avoid both sloth and grouchiness, I need to train at a speed that is “just right.”
The Russian developmental psychologist Vyvgotsky called this the “zone of proximal development.” Doubtless he was talking about learning in children rather than my early morning schlepping around an oval, but the point is the same. Children learn–“taught” is such an unpleasant word–when they are exposed to information at the right level. That’s why we have sequences of math classes: the only place that “intercourse” comes before “introduction” is the dictionary. The only place that pre-calculus comes before pre-algebra is in a nightmare in which you are being chased by menacing long-division problems. Learning calculus assumes a knowledge of algebra. Attempting a calculus course without a thorough understanding of algebra is no fun. Again, for progress to occur, the previous understanding should be “just right.”
So why do we as parents keep getting it wrong regarding the ability levels of our children? Why can’t we just find our kids where they are? Why can’t we accept them for who they are? If you think your kids are smarter than they actually are, they might have to fake being that smart and miss the actual information they need to grow and learn. On the other hand, if you treat your kids like they’re dummies, they may not get enough of what they need. Isn’t it possible that you are more invested in your kids being smart than they are? Wouldn’t you be better off just loving your children as the precious little wonderful things that they are all cuddly and sweet smelling after a bath?
Sure, there are some advantages to being the parent of that brilliant, motivated child who scores in the 99th percentile on all measures of aptitude, achievement, and athletic prowess. I guess it would be fun to have the child who graduates first in her class while pitching the seventh game of the world series and winning the citizenship award. But if you’re going to have a hissy fit and get it all wrong if you end up with some other child, what does that say about you? Nothing good, I’m afraid.
As always, the precept is “love the kid you get and you’ll get the kid you love.” Because it’s one thing to be on one of the 40 billion planets in our galaxy on which live COULD evolve, it’s another thing altogether to muck it up and not get it “just right” with the wonderful children that you already have.
Picture of David


2 thoughts on “Goldilocks

  1. John Calia

    All this time I thought the only difference between snails and slugs was the shell. Now, I find out that they have different digestive systems. Fascinating!

  2. Martin

    I will vouch for the misery of attempting to learn calculus without really being able to do algebra. I’ve tried it several times, and it’s horrendously frustrating. Your knowedge of this fact (confirmed by Salman Khan) gives you all the credibility I need. You know everything there is about raising kids, or at least about loving them and helping them to learn.

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