Childhood education as middle class child abuse in Nigeria

Pupils in a classroom with their teacher at the Tsangaya Model Primary School, Ganduje

The Nigerian Middle class is a brittle collectivity of people; brittle because it is insecure and unmoored to any abiding institutions and because its members suffer from status anxiety.

The fear of falling back down the socioeconomic ladder to return to the low-level hustle from which they climbed their way up is ever present and it over-determines the actions and worldview of members of the Nigerian middle class.

Like all fragile classes, the Nigerian middle class worries both about intra-class and inter-class perception. Members of this class obsess about how their peers perceive them and about how members of the upper class, occupants of their aspirational destination, see them.

Insecurity thus causes members of the Nigerian middle class to consume conspicuously, to loudly advertise their accomplishments, and to engage in a competitive one-upmanship, a higher iteration of the “I better pass my neighbor” competition among the Nigerian working class.

I’m no child psychologist or early childhood education expert, but there is a strong consensus in the literature and among experts about the necessity of letting children be children and of not burdening them with formal education or advanced learning until they’re ready.

This middle class contest for recognition, attention, and prestige encompasses the entire gamut of members’ socioeconomic existence, from the homes they rent or build to the cars they drive and the places in which they shop and eat.

The mantra of the Nigerian middle class seems to be that one must do as other members of the class are doing or even eclipse them. Peer influence generates further anxieties about keeping up. There are multiple arenas in which these anxieties manifest and can be located.

I want to comment briefly on one of them, education, because I earn a living in the education industry and have a passion for how Nigeria educates her young people.

One strange practice in the growing repertoire of self-fashioning of the Nigerian middle class is that of sending children to formal schools too early. It’s now common to see children as young as 8 and 9 starting secondary school and as young as 14 and 15 sitting for JAMB to get into university.

Parents are living vicariously through their children, using them as bragging points– “look at my son; he’s so brilliant he started secondary school at age of 8. Look at my daughter; she graduated from the university at age 18.”

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The competition to raise children that seem to defy the limitations of age and are seemingly capable of punching above their educational weight is fierce among Nigerian middle class families. I was told of 8 year olds who have trouble bathing and looking after themselves being sent to boarding schools and struggling to live the lives of teenagers when they should be left to live like the children they are.

One parent is said to have sent her 15 year old daughter to Bulgaria to study medicine in the university by herself. Bulgaria is not an English speaking country and the cultural contrast between Nigeria and the country could not be sharper. Yet, this child is expected to weather the culture shock all by herself while navigating a strange educational system.

The best way to give a child a head start, unless he/she is a gifted child, is to avoid exposing them too early to formal learning

I’m no child psychologist or early childhood education expert, but there is a strong consensus in the literature and among experts about the necessity of letting children be children and of not burdening them with formal education or advanced learning until they’re ready. Study after study has demonstrated the harm that passing unready children through the grind of formal schooling or through the crucible of advanced learning can do to their long term development in terms of intellectual sensibility, emotional intelligence, social confidence, and awareness of the world around them.

When it comes to early childhood education, the axiom “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” is a truthful, scientifically proven one. The derivative wisdom of letting
children be children is quite literally a recipe for wholesome child development.

From the age of 1-5, a child literally learns through play and socialization, not through the unnatural rigors of classroom learning. But nowadays in Nigerian middle class families you see 3 and 4 year olds already in primary 1.

Cognitively, the child may cope if pressured, but at great psychic cost to him/her. Accelerating children through the educational system and causing them to learn material that is beyond their cognitive level and maturity is a form of child abuse.

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I know that some parents doing this probably mean well and want their kids to get a head start. But clearly, others are doing it for bragging points and damaging their children in the process.

So that I’m not misunderstood, there are precocious children, specially gifted and thus capable of learning advanced materials above the level of their peers. That’s why some children skip grades so they don’t become bored and so they can learn at their cognitive level.

That determination is, however, made by teachers and experts when the child is enrolled at first at the appropriate level and is observed to be too cognitively mature for that level.

It is not a decision that parents should make on a whim. The trend in middle class Nigeria is not about gifted children.

Parents are making their children skip grades arbitrarily because they can and because, as long as they pay the high fees charged by private schools, the schools do not question such decisions as a way of protecting the child.

The problem in Nigeria is thus one of starting kids in formal education too early and pressuring them to move through the educational system rapidly by skipping grades and
advancing to harder material before they’re ready, thus robbing them of their childhood and doing lasting psycho-social damage to them.

Some say parents are being proactive in setting their children up with a built-in advantage given the amount of time it typically takes for graduates to secure jobs and the corporate and governmental practice of implementing an age cutoff for advertised employment.

If a child completes university at 18, so the argument goes, that gives her time to wait out the long job search process without passing the age limit of private sector and government

It is a valid point, but it does not justify the psycho-social cost to the child’s long term sdevelopment and happiness. Most of these children are socialized into believing that all there is to life is schooling and thereafter securing a job and building a family.

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When they finish school so early without both of these things happening, the resulting frustration takes a huge toll on their mental and psychological health. More mature graduates are able to deal with this stress, having acquired an all-round life education and socialization.

Less mature graduates have a difficult time dealing with the issues and vicissitudes of life on their own independent initiative. Secondly, these young people being pushed prematurely through the conveyor belt of structured education are learning by rote; they are simply mastering materials under the pressure of punishment or examinations. They are being trained without being educated.

There is a difference. Education around the world is moving away from by-rote learning to a system that empowers and challenges the child to think critically and creatively about
the world around them and about problems. It takes both maturity and the proper temporal sequence in passing through the educational system for students to develop critical thinking skills and independent research and problem-solving acumen.

These skills, along with certified training, not paper qualifications and credentialed education alone, are the advantageous asset of a future where there will be even greater competition for jobs and opportunities.

Most children will rise to the occasion and master advanced material under the threat of punishment, humiliation, ostracism, or shame. The problem is that they will be incapable of applying the knowledge creatively to situations and problems around them until and unless they acquire the emotional and psychological resources to go with the learning.

The best way to give a child a head start, unless he/she is a gifted child, is to avoid exposing them too early to formal learning and to keep away from them materials that are too advanced for their age and cognitive station. The next step is to enroll them in schools that not only teach them how to pass exams brilliantly but also how to think critically, how to be creative intellectually and practically, and how to cultivate an empathetic understanding the world.

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