The media is definitely herd-like. Recently most of the major magazines and newspapers had articles stressing new knowledge about the importance of early experience in the development of cognitive (thinking), intellectual, and social skills. This is really an old tune with simply some updated lyrics. Fifty, even 75 years ago, parents were being taught that a child’s personality was primarily formed by age five. Along the way we came to learn that infants were much more developed at birth than we had thought and were capable of considerable, though very rudimentary, learning in the first days and weeks of life.
Now, scientists have learned to identify the actual areas of the brain where these events are taking place and have revitalized the notion of “critical periods”, i.e., that stimulation is needed at particular times to generate more maximal brain development and the intelligence that a child will come to exhibit. I can already see another round of books on how to raise your infant’s IQ. and games designed to stimulate intelligence. Parental anxiety will go up even more as parents who have so little time to devote to parenting will feel even more guilty and spend the time training their children instead of enjoying them.
Many articles have stressed that if parents don’t talk to and touch their children enough, these children will enter school with limited skills and never catch up. However, there are some very serious misunderstandings here which threaten to distort the joy of parenting and cause more harm than good. For example, some research shows that at age three, children who had heard more words directed to them in parent-child interactions scored higher on standardized tests. It also showed that children of professional parents heard nearly twice as many words as children of working-class parents who, in turn, had heard three times as many words as children of welfare families. The conclusion appears to be that parents must talk to their children as much as possible. But there are at least three significant problems with this conclusion.
We don’t have an acceptable measure of intelligence that predicts life success so do these score differences really matter? How much of the difference is simply the likely higher genetic loading of “intelligence” in the genes of the children of more successful parents? Will the differences in these children persist if they are given strong educational programming over the next several years of their lives?
The importance of talking to, holding, caressing, reading to, and playing silly games with your infants, toddlers, and preschoolers is without question in its value. Not only to stimulate brain development but in forming the kind of parent-child bond that helps very young children to feel secure and in teaching them an awareness of relating to other people in positive ways. However, most parents do this to a sufficient degree. There is no evidence that reading more, playing extra hours of classical music, or starting sports or art classes at earlier ages will produce smarter children or better athletes or artists. The main task is simply to try to provide your child with a range of experiences of moderate intensity and let the child’s natural inclinations take over. In fact, one of the other VERY important tasks of parenting is being tuned in to your child’s innate temperament and to try to fit the stimulation to what your child can tolerate. Shy children need gentle social prodding, tactually sensitive children may need less cuddling, and auditorally sensitive children may need the volume turned down rather than up.
Those parents who don’t provide the basics for their children are often being affected by serious struggles to survive and need more than just parent education. It is important to reach these parents and help them to create positive family environments. But children are incredibly resilient and we should not be scaring the average parent into thinking that they blew it by not doing the right thing when their child was in the 6-9 month stage of whatever was supposed to be developing at that time. Another piece of research underscores this very dramatically. In trying to study the influence of genes versus experience on our lives, a lot of research is done on twins who are reared in different environments. Many studies have been going on for at least twenty years. One study looking at the impact on cognitive ability strongly showed that while the rearing environment had more influence early on, as the children grew older, the abilities of their biological parents have the greater influence and by age sixteen there is no correlation to their adoptive environment. This doesn’t mean family experience doesn’t significantly impact on other aspects of a child’s development. It merely suggest that for many children their intelligence will be determined primarily by simply being in a supportive environment that allows inborn capacities to surface. It also suggests genetics may place some natural limits on what a child is capable of doing and, once again, suggests that parents will create a healthier child by enjoying her/him instead of always pushing towards some vision of “potential”.