harvard center on the developing child

Myths of Early Childhood - Pt. 2 "Parenting the Brain"

Last time I looked at some of the origins of the idea that how parents behave with their children in the early years shapes their ability to succeed later on. Today I want to look at the scientized expression of this idea, the notion that how children’s brains develop in the years from 0-5 determines how they will do later on.
Discovering the Brain
Neuroscience first became prominent in the discussion of child development in the mid 1990’s. Several important discoveries about how our brains grows in early childhood seemed to confirm psychological research suggesting IQ might be improved through the quality of the interactions between children and their parents in the years from 0-3.

It’s easy to see why it was a compelling idea. It seemed to offer an explanation as to why longitudinal studies of children who had participated in the Perry Preschool Project and Head Start did so much better than peers who hadn’t. It was also a godsend to advocates of early childhood education who struggled to maintain and extend their services, particularly through the Reagan years.
The idea that early interactions could mould the brain caught the attention of the public and policy makers alike and started a sort of mania for educational toys for infants. Playing classical music to increase IQ was particularly popular. Parents bought musical toys and Baby Einstein tapes in an effort to improve their babies’ brains.

It was simple, it was cheap and it was pleasant. Zell Miller, the governor of Georgia even went so far as to pledge “to deliver the first cassettes and CDs of classical music…to every newborn”, “No one questions”, he said “that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess… Having that infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop.”

Others emphasized the importance of parenting for brain development. The hugely influential “I Am Your Child” campaign run by actor Rob Reiner produced a series of documentaries containing information about parenting and brain development. Narrated by celebrities and politicians including the Clintons, Mel Brooks, Tom Hanks, and Jamie Lee Curtis, the campaign informed parents that “the first years last forever” and that, in Reiner’s words, “whether or not a child becomes a toxic or non-toxic member of society is largely determined by … his experiences with his parents and primary caregivers in those first three years”  

The Science of Wishful Thinking

The amazing claims that extra stimulation could enhance IQ by preserving extra synapses beyond age 3 were as wildly optimistic as they were incorrect. Some neuroscientists welcomed the interest in their field but many like Dr. John Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation reacted with alarm. Bruer wrote a withering critique of the 0-3 theories of brain development in his book, The Myth of the First Three Years. In it Bruer showed that in contrary to the claims of that the years of 0-3 constitute a critical all-or-nothing opportunity to increase children’s intelligence, neuroscience and behavioral/research hints at precisely the opposite conclusion: brain plasticity lasts throughout life.  

Not only are educational toys and classical music unnecessary for healthy brain development, he argued, there is also no evidence to support the idea any particular style of parent/child interaction is better for the brain than any other.

“Brain science” he concluded, “even if we add in behavioral science, can not tell us how to raise a scientifically correct child. Parents should realize that children thrive in a wide variety of physical and cultural environments and learn and benefit from experiences throughout their lives.”
The Myth Persists

The popular fascination with early brain development persists in spite of high profile challenges like Bruer’s and the notorious the Baby Einstein class action suit in which its creators were forced to admit that using their products won’t make babies more intelligent. There have been no startling breakthroughs in the field, of behavior neuroscience and yet, The Brain continues to be the star attraction in every discussion of child policy, education and parenting. But careful reading of papers emanating from institutions like the Harvard Center on the Developing Child show that they rely on evidence from a number of disciplines including neuroscience. The conclusions they they draw conclusions and the policy recommendations that flow from them are speculative at best. The only real change in the argument between the late 1990’s and today is that the window for optimum development is now 0-5 instead of 0-3 and there is a new emphasis on the prenatal period (sometime even to the pre-prenatal period!)
Although it is tempting to look at the studies from neuroscience, psychology and the economic analysis of early childhood programs and draw conclusions about how adults should behave with young children, the mere presence of evidence in one area does not necessarily imply a causal relationship between evidence in any other.

The most neuroscience can offer us at the present time is description of the biological mechanisms at work in early brain development. Their relationship to particular outcomes is far from straight-forward. Unfortunately, the over all effect is to reduce childhood development to technical matter of timing and neurological mechanisms.

Why Brain Science?

I believe the current vogue for neuro-centric early childhood policy has less to do with the research itself than with a tendency to reduce social phenomena to the level of individual behavior. It has also had a profound effect on the way we look at child rearing in general so that the parent/child relationship is transformed into a series of interactions that are important to the brain.

Not only does this strip human relationships of their complexity but it tends to reduce or shut down the scope for the individual potential of older children.

Whatever the flaws of the social reformers of the ‘60’s their starting point was one of an expansive human potential. Today we tend to look at human potential as limited and conditional. It is limited by what happens in early childhood ultimately depends on parents’ ability to create the conditions for them to reach that potential. In this scenario the individual child, their hopes, their aspirations, and their unique qualities recede as do other factors such as the impact of their relationships with their peers, other adults and their community. They are not much more than an extensions of the way they are parented - a situation that is unfair for children and parents alike.

Nancy McDermott
August 2011