Soon after 15-month-old John Sampar finishes breakfast in his family's Fairfax Station kitchen, the lessons begin.
Some days, his father Bill starts with Russian flash cards on the living-room sofa. Other days it might be algebra. This summer, John especially likes identifying birds.
"He's just amazing," boasts Bill Sampar, 53, who says he quit his $30,000-a-year job as an electrical engineer to teach his son, Sampar's first child. John, he says, can now recognize 700 words and identify all 30 books on the boy's shelf. "The other day I asked him what seven times seven plus one equaled and showed him two different cards. He picked the one with 50. We had never done that one before.
"I have no set plans about what I would like him to be," says Sampar of the results of his daily routine. "I just want him to have all his options."
Sampar is not unlike a growing number of parents in the Washington area and around the country who, spurred by competition among their friends and by new findings on the capacity of the young child's ability to learn, are trying to teach their toddlers to program a computer and converse in French.
Of the hundreds of changes that have taken place in the schools in the last two decades, this one--popularly called the superbaby syndrome--is not about to go away, educators say.
Its emotional effect on the young has yet to be measured. "The goals may be correct," cautions psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, "but these parents are wrong. By pushing children to learn at earlier and earlier ages they are making for many failures."
Bettelheim and other child-learning experts say parents should encourage curiosity in their young children, rather than teach facts. Data taught at an age at which a child is not ready for the information and does not need it may create a permanent distaste for learning that can last a lifetime, Bettelheim says.
The superbaby syndrome has had profound effects on the primary classroom.
"Anyone who would deny that there has not been a tremendous revolution in the kindergarten and first-grade classroom during the last 20 years as a result of early learning is an absolute fool," said Gabriel Massaro, principal of Burning Tree Elementary School, Montgomery County's major center for gifted children.
"Children are just exposed to so much more now than they ever were. They go to nursery school. They watch 'Sesame Street.' They travel. Their parents buy them work books before they go to school. They come better prepared and more sophisticated," Massaro said.
To catch up, public school officials are now talking about starting kindergarten and first grade a year earlier. The New York State commissioner of education, for example, said last month he'd like to look at beginning kindergarten at 4.
Late last month, the Montgomery County school board, following Prince George's County's lead, decided to let children enroll in first grade at age 5, if they can demonstrate an ability to keep up.
In some Northern Virginia schools, some 5-year-olds are allowed to attend first grade for half a day and kindergarten the other half.
Once an enlarged playroom where children primarily were taught how to behave with other children prior to first grade, kindergarten is now seen as the beginning of regular elementary school.
Kindergarten teachers are expected to teach children basic reading, arithmetic and writing skills, according to school officials, thus forcing some school systems to retrain those teachers.
"We have to move our kindergarten teachers beyond what they now teach," said Brian Porter, Prince George's County school spokesman. "Fifteen years ago you might not have had any children reading; now every class will have a number."
Before they get to kindergarten, these baby scholars are attending nursery schools in record numbers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Although the overall number of children ages 3 to 5 dropped nationally from 1970 to 1980, the number enrolled in nursery schools jumped astronomically.
In 1970, only 13 percent--or 454,000--of all American 3-year-olds attended preschool classes (not including day care). Now 27 percent do. Only 28 percent of the 4-year-olds in 1970 were enrolled in preschool classes. Now 46 percent are.
In the Washington metropolitan area, the trends are just as pronounced. In Montgomery County, the number of preschoolers more than doubled, from 3,609 in 1972 to 8,111 in 1982, while the number of preschool centers increased from 48 to 93. In Prince George's County, the number of preschoolers rose 37 percent from 1971 to 1981.
Other area school jurisdictions do not record the number of children attending preschool centers, but instead keep records on the number of centers--including day-care and preschool facilities--geared toward young children.
In Fairfax, the number of these centers rose from 171 in 1973 to 214 in 1983, while the number in the District of Columbia rose from 240 in 1978 to 260 today. District officials say 20 new centers are scheduled to open this fall.
Since most preschool centers are still privately funded and charge tuition ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, some education experts worry whether early education will become a privilege only for the rich, the upper-middle class, or for the poor who can take advantage of the federally funded Head Start program. Will children from lower-middle-income families be able to compete?
In 1980, according to the national center, 41 percent of 3-year-olds from families with incomes over $20,000 sent their children to preschool centers, compared to 19 percent of the families with incomes under $15,000. At the same time, 63 percent of the families with incomes over $20,000 signed their 4-year-olds up for preschool learning, compared to 37 percent of those earning under $15,000.
In the District, officials are seeking funds to provide preschool learning for all 4-year-olds. But some experts there and elsewhere wonder whether, in a time of budget restraints, publicly funded preschool centers are a realistic proposition.
"Those who lack resources to pay for privately funded preschool programs will suffer," said Aims McGuinness, assistant director of the Education Commission of the States. "There is a lot of pressure and interest in public preschools now . . . but I think it is only realistic to assume that in these times of limited public resources, the funding emphasis will be on high schools."
Meanwhile, private schools are gearing up for the youngsters. At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, for example, the new crop of kindergartners will learn how to use computers because, teacher Masha Spiegel said, kindergartens need "to be competitive."
Last year, Spiegel said, a lawyer and father of one of her pupils came in on the first day of school and told her he had a serious problem. His daughter, a 5-year-old, was unable to solve math equations--the kind typically taught at the ninth-grade level--despite his patient coaching.
"I told him, with a face as serious as his, that we would look into it," Spiegel said.
Much of the boom in baby academics can be attributed to discoveries made in the last two decades of what infants can learn at an early age. Some experts say children may never again learn as rapidly as they do from birth to age 3.
Glenn Doman, author of such books as "How to Teach Your Baby to Read," tells parents attending his $490 week-long seminars at the Better Baby Institute in Philadelphia that a child's ability to absorb information is an inverse function of age.
Doman urges parents to begin showing their offspring large cards--with information on subjects ranging from obscure languages to art and algebra--almost immediately following the infant's birth. Bill Sampar attended one of Doman's seminars six months after his son John's birth. That's when he decided to quit his job and take on another one. "It has been worth every minute," said Sampar, whose wife is a librarian with the Prince George's County school system.
Many in the academic community question the tactics of early-learning proponents such as Doman. A child may be able to recognize and repeat facts, they argue, and still be unable to comprehend them. The intense concentration at an early age on specific information may also take away precious time from a child's psychological and emotional development, they add.
Despite such cautions, some parents become almost maniacal at the thought of possibly wasting those precious early years. At the University of Maryland's Center for Young Children, assistant director June Wright said she gets calls from parents who want to enroll their 18-month-old children in the center's computer classes. In those classes, beginning at age 3, children are taught to write and play games with computers.
"Parents are afraid if their child does not get into the right kindergarten the child's whole future will be clouded," Wright said. "But parents just don't realize if they push too hard, they may turn their child off to learning forever. That's a huge risk to take."
The push to get a child into the preschool program of one's choice has led to some extreme antics. Directors of some Washington-area kindergartens and preschool centers report receiving packets of letters of recommendations thicker than those employers might receive for job applicants. Some parents give big donations to school auctions in hopes that the extra nudge might be just what's needed to get their child accepted.
The decision not to send one's child to a preschool program can shake up some friendships. Carolyn Cohen, for example, a former elementary school teacher who lives in Montgomery Village, has a daughter, Jennifer, who turned 3 two weeks ago. Cohen has decided that Jennifer is not emotionally ready to go to nursery school next year. Currently, both Cohen and her daughter go to a play group once a week.
"My friends think it's absolutely ridiculous that I'm not sending Jennifer to school next year," Cohen said. "I know not one parent of a 3-year-old who is not enrolling their child next year in preschool . . . the time probably will come soon that my decision not to send her may create some problems with my friends."
While parents are touting the wonders of what their children are learning, child psychologists and educators are reporting more signs of depression at early ages.
David Elkind, in his book "The Hurried Child," reports that a large number of children seen by clinical psychologists today have been pushed to learn things at too early an age, leading to what he calls the "shrinking childhood." Spiegel, at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, has another description for childhood depression--the nonspontaneous child.
"These children are absolutely exhausted," she said. "They're shoved from one place to the next. These kids are much more serious about their lessons and their classes. Their parents expect them to be."