Chapter One: Through The Prism of the First Three Years
0ne afternoon in early fall of 1996, the phone on my desk rang. The call was from a journalist who was writing an article for a national parenting magazine. She was doing a story for her readers based on the then recently released Carnegie Corporation report Years of Promise. She told me that I was on the media list for the report a list of interested or knowledgeable people, sent out in the report's press kit, who would be willing to speak to journalists. My name appeared on the list because for the previous decade I had been funding and writing about applications of modern psychology to education and school reform.
She asked me, "Based on neuroscience, what can we tell parents about choosing a preschool for their children?" When I answered, "Based on neuroscience, absolutely nothing," I heard a gasp on the other end of the line. The journalist politely suggested that I must have been living under a rock for the past four years. She told me that there was a wealth of new neuroscience out there that suggested otherwise.
I did not think I had been living under a rock. And I did not offer my answer casually. For the four previous years, along with almost everyone else, I had been hearing murmurs about how new breakthroughs in neuroscience our new, emerging understanding of how the brain worked and developed were about to revolutionize how we think about children, childcare, and parenting. I had read the occasional articles, features, and editorials that had been published in major American newspapers. The headlines did get one's attention: "To Shape a Life, We Must Begin Before a Child is 3," "Building a Better Brain: A Child's First Three Years Provide Parents Once-in-Lifetime Opportunity to Dramatically Increase Intelligence," and "Youngest Kids Need Help, U.S. Told: Federal Government Urged to Focus on Their 1st Three Years." The articles under the headlines said that new brain research could now tell us how and when to build better brains in our children. The first three years the years from birth to 3 we were told, are the critical years for building better brains.
In early 1996, I read Sharon Begley's February 19 Newsweek article, "Your Child's Brain." Although I was glad to see that brain science was getting cover-story attention, some of the claims and statements in the article, especially those offered by childcare advocates who were not brain scientists, seemed farfetched. But that is not unusual in popular articles about science and research.
In spring 1996, because I was on the media list, I saw an advance copy of the aforementioned Carnegie Corporation report, Years of Promise, which briefly touched on what the new brain science might mean for educational practice. The report's discussion of the brain science was so fleeting that I dismissed the neuroscience as rhetorical window dressing to increase interest in educational policy and reform. About that time, during a visit to the MacArthur Foundation, I read an editorial in the Chicago Tribune titled "The IQ Gap Begins at Birth for the Poor." In this piece, as in others I was now collecting in my file cabinet, the writer claimed that applying the new brain science offered "the quickest, kindest, most promising way to break" the cycle of poverty and ignorance among the nation's poor and to "raise the IQs of low-scoring children (who are disproportionately black)...."
However, the more I read, the more puzzled I became. For the previous eighteen years, at three private foundations, I had been following research and awarding grants in education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. All during that time, I was wondering when I would begin to see credible research that linked brain science with problems and issues in child development and education. I was puzzled because, despite what the headlines proclaimed and the articles stated, I had not yet seen any such research.
In late spring 1996, I had received an invitation to attend a July workshop in Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States and the Charles A. Dana Foundation. The workshop's title was "Bridging the Gap Between Neuroscience and Education." Based on the reputations of the sponsoring organizations, I thought that the workshop would offer an ideal opportunity for me to learn about the new brain research and its implications. Unfortunately, I had a scheduling conflict and could not go, but my colleague, Dr. Susan Fitzpatrick, a neuroscientist, attended in my place.
When she returned from Denver and briefed me about the meeting, I had expected to hear about new research linking brain development, child development, and education. Instead, she began her briefing with a one-word description of the workshop: "Bizarre." She told me, and my subsequent reading of the workshop report confirmed, that there was little neuroscience presented in Denver and certainly none that I had not previously known about. There were, however, Susan told me, wide-ranging policy discussions, bordering on the nonsensical, in which early childhood advocates appealed to what might be most charitably described as a "folk" understanding of brain development to support their favorite policy recommendations. Reflecting on the Denver meeting and its report, it seemed as if there was, in fact, no new brain science involved in the policy and media discussions of child development. What seemed to be happening was that selected pieces of rather old brain science were being used, and often misinterpreted, to support preexisting views about child development and early childhood policy.
Thus, my response to the journalist's call reflected my conviction, based on what I had read and heard up to that point, that there was no new brain science that could tell parents anything about choosing a preschool. Her call, however, did change how I thought about the issue. If claims about brain science were confined to rhetorical flourishes in policy documents like Years of Promise or to the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, it was probably relatively harmless. It might even draw attention to some important issues that policymakers and newspaper readers might otherwise ignore. However, it struck me as a very different matter if people were taking the brain science seriously as a basis for policy and legislation and if parents were asking what the new brain science meant for raising their children and choosing schools. Following that call, I was no longer comfortable being merely puzzled or bemused about what I read in the newspapers. I wanted to understand what was going on and to consider more carefully what the brain science might actually mean for children, parents, and policy.
The White House Conference
My job as a foundation officer responsible for funding research in mind, brain, and education, plus some strategic letters from colleagues, earned me an invitation to the April 17, 1997, White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children. For those interested in children and education, the conference was an exciting development. It promised to focus the nation's interest, even if only for a few days, on science, children, and related, highly significant social issues. What better occasion could there be to understand the growing enthusiasm for what brain science meant for parenting and policy?
Mrs. Clinton opened the conference. She emphasized the significance of our new understanding of the brain. Brain science confirms what parents have instinctively known, "that the song a father sings to his child in the morning, or a story that a mother reads to her child before bed, help lay the foundation for a child's life, in turn, for our nation's future." Unlike fifteen years ago, when we thought babies' brains were virtually complete at birth, she told us, we now know brains are a work in progress. This means, Mrs. Clinton said, that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly forming brain. Children's earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired. The first three years are critically important because so much is happening in the baby's brain. "These experiences," Mrs. Clinton said, "can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves." She did caution that the early years are not the only years that matter and that brain science also tells us that some parts of the brain, in her words the "neurological circuitry for many emotions," remain a work in progress until children are at least 15 years old.
Mrs. Clinton introduced the president, who outlined several initiatives that his administration was undertaking on behalf of mothers, families, and the nation's youngest citizens. The president in turn introduced the chairman for the morning session, Dr. David A. Hamburg, then president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It was Hamburg who three years earlier had initially called attention to the "quiet crisis" afflicting young children, a crisis addressed in the Carnegie Corporation's report Starting Points. That report, in Hamburg's words, "focused on the strong evidence from research on brain and behavior development, indicating the long term effects of early experience." Starting Points, he said, also noted the wide gap between scientific research and public knowledge, between what we know and what we are doing with that knowledge. The White House Conference represented a major step in an attempt to close that gap.
Dr. Donald Cohen, director of the Yale Child Study Center, spoke next. The Yale Center has been a leader in the areas of early childhood research and education. Mrs. Clinton had worked with the Child Study Center while she was a law student at Yale. In his talk, Cohen also mentioned that, while at Yale, both he and Mrs. Clinton had been students of Sally Provence, one of the pioneers in the study of early childhood deprivation. He proceeded to speak about the effects of early experience on children's behavior and development, stressing parents' active role in brain development and the importance of social and emotional relations in child development: "When parents and caregivers take care of a child they're doing a lot more than just feeding or bathing or comforting. They're helping the child's brain to develop, shaping his temperament and teaching the child about the world." These early experiences are enduring because they lay down the pattern for all future development. The correct experiences enable the child to use "his intellectual potential to its limits." Although, he cautioned, we should never write children off, it can be difficult to change long-lasting, maladaptive patterns later in life.
Oddly, only one neuroscientist spoke at the White House Conference, Dr. Carla Shatz of the University of California at Berkeley. She spoke for eight minutes (as did most of the other experts). Drawing on her own studies of the visual system, she summarized what neuroscientists know about early brain development. She explained that there are two major periods in brain development. During the first period, which starts before birth, the brain's gross wiring is laid out under genetic control. It is as if the brain were laying out the major trunk lines of a telephone system. Then, also prior to birth, a second phase begins. Spontaneous brain activity neural firing that is not caused by sensory stimulation starts. One can think of it, she explained, as "autodialing" among telephones. This activity among the brain's neural cells begins to construct its fine wiring. Following birth, sensory experience takes the place of the spontaneous, automatic dialing to complete the wiring process. During the fine-wiring phase, the neural connections, or synapses, that are used become permanent and the others wither away. Neuroscientists believe, Shatz explained, that relying on neural activity for fine-tuning results in brains that are more complex and sensitive than if they were hard-wired at birth. This complexity and sensitivity has survival value. As Shatz said, "If after all, things were just hard-wired if everything in the brain were just strictly programmed genetically by molecules that wired everything up, A to B, C to D, and so on then we wouldn't be nearly as adaptable as we are as organisms."
She also summarized a classic piece of neuroscientific research that figures prominently in the early childhood literature. Adults who suffer from cataracts for extended periods, say five years, can have surgery to fix the damaged eye's optics. The surgery restores adults' vision. Yet, children born with cataracts, if operated on at age 5 years, remain blind in the afflicted eye. Five years of abnormal visual experience early in life has different and more serious consequences than five years of abnormal visual experience late in life. David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981, developed animal models, using cats and monkeys, in an attempt to figure out why adults and young children fare so differently following surgical treatment for cataracts. They found, among other things, that if kittens were deprived of visual input to one eye early in development, the kittens remained permanently blind in that eye. It is this research, Shatz said, that underscores the importance of early experience for brain development. Brain science tells us, she concluded, that there are "early periods of development, windows of opportunity or critical periods, as scientists call them, during which time experience is essential for brain wiring." Shatz's brilliant, highly accessible presentation was the only brain science presented at the White House Conference.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl, from the University of Washington, spoke about her work on infants' speech perception. Babies are born with the ability to discriminate the sounds found in all human languages, Kuhl told us. In her research, she has found that by six months of age infants have already focused on the particular sounds that their native language uses. Simply listening to adult speech alters infants' perceptual systems. This early perceptual learning makes the infant responsive to its linguistic environment but also renders the infant vulnerable, almost hostage, to that environment. She emphasized how important it is for parents to be sure that their infants can hear, see, and process stimuli present in the environment. She carefully noted that research cannot yet tell us how much talking it takes thirty minutes a day or two hours a day to support this kind of development and learning. She discouraged parents from trying to accelerate the normal course of language development: "We don't recommend flash cards to try to teach words to three-monthers." She advised doing what comes naturally: "Nature has provided a perfect fit between the parents' desire to communicate with the child and the child's ability to soak this information up." Kuhl's presentation marked the end of the scientific presentations at the conference.
The balance of the White House presentations addressed policy issues. All these presentations had a similar structure. If the experts mentioned brain science at all, and more than a few did not, it was early in their allotted eight minutes. They invoked the new brain science to give a prefatory, high-level justification for better prenatal, postpartum, and pediatric care; family planning; welfare reform; parent education; and high-quality day care and early childhood education.
Toward the end of the afternoon session, Rob Reiner spoke in his capacity as founder of the Rob Reiner Foundation and mastermind of the I Am Your Child campaign. I Am Your Child is a national public education campaign on early child development. Reiner spoke for around forty minutes on his efforts to educate the public about the far-reaching implications of the new brain science. He described his role as creating the public will to get the country to change how we think and "to look through the prism of zero to three in terms of problem solving at every level of society." According to Reiner, "If we want to have a real significant impact, not only on children's success in school and later on in life, healthy relationships, but also an impact on reduction in crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child abuse, welfare, homelessness, and a variety of other social ills, we are going to have to address the first three years of life. There is no getting around it. All roads lead to Rome."
At the day's end, I left the East Room and caught a cab to National Airport, no less puzzled about the relevance of brain science to early childhood than when I had arrived.
I remained puzzled because at the conference I heard numerous wide-ranging policy recommendations based on the new brain science. Yet, I had heard relatively little brain research, none of which I could comfortably describe as new, and none that provided a clear link between blind kittens and welfare reform. In fairness, and as David Hamburg had said, in a one-day conference only a limited and highly selected body of material could be presented. Nonetheless, as I rode to the airport, my initial impression was that the only substantive link between Carla Shatz's morning presentation and Reiner's afternoon talk had been lunch with Mrs. Clinton.
Could it be true, as Reiner suggested, that if we understood the new brain science and acted on it we could solve social problems ranging from infant mortality to unemployment to low intelligence to urban violence? Could it be true, as he said, that what we know about brain development during the first three years of life was "the key to problem solving at every level of society?"
Based on what I had heard at the conference, my answer to both questions was "Highly unlikely." There were too many gaping holes, breathtaking leaps of faith, and monumental extrapolations in the arguments the participants made in their attempt to link problems like teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, and homelessness with brain science.
Of course, one possibility was that a gifted, enthusiastic spokesman like Reiner might have used the occasion of a White House conference to get the message out forcefully and dramatically, engaging in a touch of hyperbole along the way.
Further post-White House reading suggested otherwise. Reiner's enthusiasm about the critical, wide-ranging implications of brain development during the first three years was not confined to his White House remarks. It was also the central message in his national awareness campaign. In launching I Am Your Child, Reiner said, "A child born today will be three years old as we enter the new millennium. We know that these years last forever they directly impact the adult that the child will become. As a country, we need to focus attention on these critical years so that our children truly reach their potential and to ensure that they grow to be healthy adults."
On July 21, 1998, as the brain and early childhood message moved from the White House to levels of local government, Reiner addressed the National Association of Counties. He told them, "Whether or not a child becomes a toxic or non-toxic member of society is largely determined by what happens to the child in terms of his experiences with his parents and primary caregivers in those first three years."
Where did these ideas about brain and early childhood come from?
The Three Neurobiological Strands
Although Reiner is a superb spokesman for the campaign, neither the message nor the science that supposedly supports it is his creation. The source of the message and the science are two prominent policy documents, Starting Points and Rethinking the Brain. On numerous occasions, Reiner has cited Starting Points as the document that substantiated many of his beliefs about early childhood and that provided the impetus for him to move forward with the I Am Your Child campaign.
Starting Points has a structure exactly like the White House Conference. The report's discussion of brain science is confined to only 2 pages that appear early in the 132-page report, in a section entitled "The Critical Importance of the First Three Years." These few paragraphs on the brain, which cite three research papers and an unpublished speech, serve as a short prelude to the more extensive presentation of social and behavioral science and the discussion of policy issues.
Rethinking the Brain, released in conjunction with the White House Conference, extends and elaborates the brain science assumed to be fundamental to a science of early childhood. Rethinking addresses a professional audience and attempts to explain how the new brain science establishes the critical importance of the early years of life. Rethinking was written to summarize the research that was to be the scientific foundation for I Am Your Child.
Three recurrent neuroscientific themes or strands run through these documents, as they do through most of the popular literature on the brain and early child development. These three strands pick out significant, but not particularly new, findings from the field of developmental neurobiology the science of brain development as the basis for rethinking the relation between brain science and child development.
First, brain scientists have known for over two decades that the brain grows and changes during the early months and years following birth. Over the past twenty-five years, in a variety of species, neuroscientists have observed that starting shortly before or after birth (depending on the species), the brain is the site of a fit of "biological exuberance." Infant brains produce trillions more synapses the connections between nerve cells than are found in mature, adult brains. As Rethinking put it, the 2-year-old's brain has about twice as many synapses as her pediatrician's. During this early developmental period, brain connections form at a rate that far exceeds the rate at which connections are lost. In humans, this fit of exuberance the period when synapse formation outstrips synapse elimination seems to be confined to the first three years of life. Rethinking appropriately cites the research of Pasko Rakic at Yale University and Peter Huttenlocher at the University of Chicago as evidence for this developmental phenomenon.
The second neurobiological strand is the one Carla Shatz spoke about at the White House Conference. Neuroscientists know that there are critical periods in brain development. There are times during which the brain requires certain kinds of stimulation if it is to develop normally. Critical periods, then, are time windows during development, when, given the right kinds of stimuli, normal brain circuitry develops. The wrong kind or total lack of stimulation during these periods results in abnormal brain development. Once the windows close, the opportunity to wire certain kinds of neural pathways, if not totally eliminated, diminishes substantially. The development of the visual system is everyone's favorite example of a critical period. The birth-to-3 literature cites the work of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel and their blind kittens in discussions of critical periods.
The third neurobiological strand that figures prominently in the brain and early childhood literature is that of enriched, or complex, environments. Animal studies over the past four decades, mostly on rats, have found that animals raised in complex, enriched environments have more synapses in certain parts of their brains than animals raised under more austere conditions. The birth-to-3 literature extrapolates this rodent finding to human infants. Some of the best research on the effects of rearing conditions on rodent brains is that of William Greenough and his colleagues at the University of Illinois.
Brain and early childhood articles, including Starting Points and Rethinking the Brain, weave these three strands together to formulate an argument that the first three years of life are uniquely important for optimal brain development. This argument is intended to support Reiner's assertion about the fundamental importance of looking through the prism of birth to 3 if we are to understand and solve problems at every level of society.
Most simply stated, the argument is this: During the first three years of life in humans, there is a period of rapid synapse formation that connects nerve cells into functioning circuits. This time of rapid synapse formation is the critical period in brain development. Although the brain continues to develop after this time, it does so by losing or eliminating synapses, not by forming new ones. It is during this critical period when enriched environments and increased stimulation can have the greatest effect on brain development. Thus, the first three years provide policymakers, caregivers, and parents a unique, biologically delimited window of opportunity, during which the right experiences and early childhood programs can help children build better brains.
Enthusiasts for this argument will, no doubt, accuse me of vastly oversimplifying their position. And I have, a bit, although you can find a statement of the argument almost identical to the one above in Starting Smart: How Early Experiences Affect Brain Development, a document presented on the Ounce of Prevention Fund Web site. For now, I would respond to this charge by pointing out that in the following chapters we will examine the argument and its premises much more fully and carefully as we try to understand what neuroscience does say and what its implications might be for child development. I would also respond that, although the argument's champions might on occasion present more sophisticated, elaborated, and qualified versions, my simple, unvarnished statement captures the message that nonexpert parents, caregivers, and educators have taken away from the brain and early childhood literature.
The Promise of Brain-Based Policy, Education, and Parenting
For those who accept this three-stranded argument, looking through the prism of birth to 3 offers a vision no less global and far-reaching than the one Reiner articulated at the White House.
According to Starting Points, once we appreciate what brain science tells us about the critical importance of the first three years of life, it becomes evident that we should invest in better family planning, parenting education, and pre- and postnatal health services. We should guarantee high-quality childcare choices for all parents and use federal funds, if necessary, to assure that all parents have access to high-quality childcare. We should strengthen the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide several months, if not an entire year, of paid work leave for new mothers. We should improve salary and benefits for childcare workers, provide home-visiting services for first-time mothers, expand infant nutrition programs, take steps to reduce injuries to young children, and enact legislation to control firearms. Why? Because all of these things, and no doubt numerous others we could think of, have an impact on children's brains during the first three critical years.
If the first three years are so critically important, then as Time magazine reported, "There is an urgent need...for preschool programs to boost the brain power of youngsters born into impoverished rural and inner-city households." Why? Because, as some early childhood advocates argue, impoverished parents, preoccupied with the daily struggle to provide basic necessities for their children, may not have the resources, information, or time they need to provide stimulating experiences that foster brain growth. Following this argument, one solution would be more and better programs like Head Start.
Boosting brainpower in disadvantaged children was one of Head Start's primary, original objectives. A perennial criticism of Head Start has been that any cognitive gains its participants make, as measured by improved IQ scores, fade over the years and disappear. But, Head Start advocates argue, the new brain science offers a defense of the program and an explanation for why the early gains fade. Children enter Head Start at age 3, after the critical first three years of brain development are over. Thus, the Head Start experiences occur too late in life to fundamentally and permanently rewire children's brains. Therefore, the brain-based policy solution is to provide programs like Head Start for children during the first three critical years, when their brains can be fundamentally and permanently rewired. The science of early brain development, in this way, provides not only a ready defense of an existing program, but an argument for an expanded one. Congress no doubt considered this argument favorably when in 1994 they created Early Head Start as part of the Head Start reauthorization package. Early Head Start provides education and childcare on the Head Start model to children from birth to age 3.
Viewed through the prism of birth to 3, bad early childhood experiences especially, it seems, among the nation's inner-city poor cause permanent and detrimental brain changes. These brain-damaged individuals have a lifelong propensity for violence and criminal behavior. In Inside the Brain, science writer Ron Kotulak explained, "The first three years of a child's life are critically important to brain development. Unfortunately, for a growing number of children, the period from birth to age 3 has become a mental wasteland that can sustain only the gnarled roots of violent behavior. Society needs to focus on this period if it is to do something about the increasing rates of violent and criminal acts."
If we understood the new brain science, he goes on, we would also understand that children born to mothers without a high school education, 22 percent of all births in the United States, are at special risk. Kotulak explains why: "These women often do not know how to promote stimulation talk, toys, physical activity to their infants, which can lead to stunting of the brain during the crucial first three years of life."
An editorial in the Chicago Tribune expanded on the theme that too few synapses beget too few synapses: "In the first year, the communications network within the brain develops at a breathtaking pace. But if the neural synapses, the bridges of that communications network, aren't exercised, they wither. That withering impoverishes the mind and, ultimately, nourishes the cycle of poverty." Impoverished minds result in impoverished citizens. Too few synapses, and our unwillingness to do something about it, explain why our citizens have behavioral problems, fail in school, are unable to a hold a job, and tend to engage in violent behavior. Too few synapses in the parents a result of their own impoverished childhoods further diminishes the brainpower of their offspring.
To use brain science to solve social problems like these would, of course, require that we have state institutions to assure that all children receive what we believe to be optimal developmental experiences, where "we" refers to society, not necessarily to parents or families. Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine, has been highly vocal in spelling out his view of what the new brain science means for breaking the cycle of violence. Perry observed that we could solve these social problems but that it would require us to "transform our culture." According to Perry, "We need to change our child rearing practices, we need to change the malignant and destructive view that children are the property of their biological parents. Human beings evolved not as individuals, but as communities....Children belong to the community, they are entrusted to parents." Needless to say, such a transformation would have far-reaching effects on our social, legal, and educational institutions. It would truly transform how we would think about families, children, and parents.
Looking through the prism of birth to 3 also has implications for formal education and school instruction. Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, said, "I don't think there is any question that these revelations [about early brain development] have a major impact on education policy and child rearing." Enriched school environments should help make the most of each child's mental capacities, but, echoing the Head Start argument, the new brain research indicates that formal schooling begins too late. "From the standpoint of brain development, children start school relatively late in life. Long before youngsters master the ABCs, their brains have passed many developmental milestones. Yet, education policy has not addressed how children learn before they arrive at school. Nor has policy focused on helping parents enrich the home environment so that their children will be ready to learn when they reach school age. New research in brain development suggests it is time to rethink many educational policies, including those related to early childhood and special education." As one widely circulated quotation put it, we have to act and act early because "by the time a child starts first grade, the most critical of his learning years are past."
Of course, we would expect that looking through the prism of birth to 3 would also have some far-reaching implications for parenting. Popular articles do offer advice to parents. What is surprising, though, is that when we move from the global level of Early Head Start and eradicating urban violence, to the level of how to raise Jack and/or Jill, the advice to parents seems far less dramatic and revolutionary. Often the brain-based advice offered to parents is oddly vague, contradictory, and what one might call "middle-class traditional."
What should parents do to build better brains? What matters most during those early years? Instead of specific advice and a few new insights, parents are told that everything matters in those early years loving, holding, talking, reading, and exploring the environment. During the critical years, when experiences can permanently rewire the brain, we should engage children in culturally valued activities. Early, but not later, exposure to music, art, or chess can, parents are told, change the fine anatomy of the child's brain forever. Parents should make use of the windows of developmental opportunity nature has provided, applying a full-court developmental press every minute during the birth-to-3 developmental season. Failure to exert full-court pressure can have long-term consequences. Parents must begin to realize that "if they, or their baby sitter, or day care provider isn't speaking articulately to baby, SAT scores may be at stake." The implications are sufficiently dire to make most middle-class parents take notice. The advice provided is sufficiently vague to leave parents deeply uncertain and profoundly anxious about what they should do differently and about what does matter other than everything during the early years.
Not only is the advice vague, but it is also contradictory. Brain-based parenting advice has the same character as the advice one gets from reading books on nutrition and diet that you can find in most airport bookstores. You want to live to be 100? You should have a glass of red wine every day, but avoid alcohol.
Here is one example sure to leave parents confused. The major theme in brain-based advice to parents is the importance of early stimulation during the critical years to facilitate optimal brain development. Those are the years during which parents, if they provide the right kind of stimulation, can build better brains. It is during those years that they and their baby-sitters can improve or damage future SAT scores. One would think that the science-based parenting advice surrounding such a central theme would be pretty clear-cut. It isn't.
Parents are sometimes told that it is time to throw out Dr. Benjamin Spock and his old advice to new parents, "Trust your common sense." Why? Because we now know that "for the majority of fathers and mothers, doing the things that maximize a child's potential is not intuitive." If so, parents need expert help. To fully exploit nature's windows of opportunity, an article in the Chicago Tribune cited this expert advice: "People often ask Dr. Harry Chugani how much mental stimulation a baby should receive. Chugani, a pediatric neurologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, said no precise answer can be given, but generally 'as much as you can.'"
On the other hand, parents are also told that although optimal stimulation is good, too much stimulation is bad. The amount of talking, reading, and singing must be carefully matched to the child's developmental level, personality, and mood. According to child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, as quoted in Newsweek, "Only 20 to 30 percent of parents know how to do this instinctively." It's not just a matter of the more and the earlier the stimulation the better!
Yet other popular articles in Newsweek, Time, and Working Mother tell parents that the implications of brain science are not that radical and that the new discoveries reaffirm Dr. Spock's endorsement of common sense. Parents are told that science is, in fact, reaffirming what our parents and grandparents knew instinctively. In Sandra Blakeslee's New York Times article on the White House Conference, parents were told that although talking to babies is important, "the curriculum that most benefits babies is simply common sense."
Parent might well ask, "So, what is it I should do?" or "What's all the fuss about anyway?"
One place a bewildered parent might look for answers to these questions is the I Am Your Child Web site, the official site for the Reiner Foundation's national awareness campaign. The Web site and campaign are generously funded by fifteen major foundations and corporations, including the MacArthur Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, the Carnegie Corporation, the Dana Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Heinz Foundation. If we were to find a clear, concise brain-based message for parents, we would expect to find it there.
Once at the Web site, under the heading "The First Years Last Forever," a parent would find five paragraphs on brain development, in which brain science is presented in a very general, but accurate, way a parent would read that an infant's brain has 100 billion nerve cells that grow and connect to form the circuits that control our senses, movement, and emotions. Early childhood experiences "help to determine brain structure, thus shaping the way people learn, think, and behave for the rest of their lives."
There is another section called "Brain Facts," which informs parents about early synapse formation, how experience shapes brain circuitry, and how critical periods or "prime times" occur during brain development. A parent would also read that the kind of care a child receives during these critical periods can effect development and that warm, responsive care is good for the brain.
I Am Your Child presents ten guidelines that parents can use to promote children's healthy development. Among these guidelines are: Be warm, loving, and responsive; talk, read, and sing to baby; use discipline to teach; be selective about TV watching; choose quality day care. There is nothing controversial on the list, but there is nothing on the list that would prompt the average parent to say, "Wow, I never heard that before!" Parents could find the same guiding principles in parenting books and advice columns published thirty years ago.
There are video clips on the Web site in which experts offer advice to parents. The experts include T. Berry Brazelton, Barbara Bowman, C. Everett Koop, and Bruce Perry. For the most part, these experts have substantial followings and deserved reputations in child development and public health, but none, with the possible exception of Perry, would consider himself or herself an expert in developmental neurobiology.
The site provides a list of links to other parenting Web sites and a bibliography of the parenting and child development literature that cites works published between 1980 and 1997. Among the authors are the "the usual suspects" Brazelton, James Comer, Alvin Poussaint, Penelope Leach, to name a few. The I Am Your Child bibliography cites only one book on brain development, Kotulak's Inside the Brain.
If parents go to the site thinking that they will find new insights into parenting practices, derived from brain research, that will optimize brain, intellectual, and social development, they will be disappointed. After visiting the site and its associated links, many parents might still be wondering what all the fuss is about.
A parent who reads the I Am Your Child guidelines carefully, however, might notice that the guidelines emphasize the importance of a secure relationship, or secure attachment, between caregiver and child and what such a relationship means for a child's social and emotional development. This connection appears under the first guideline "Be warm, loving, and responsive" and links responsive care and secure relationships to research on attachment theory (a theory we will examine more closely in the next chapter). I Am Your Child states that research on attachment shows that children who receive warm and responsive care and who are securely attached to their caregivers cope with difficult times more easily when they are older. Securely attached infants are more likely to develop a healthy response to stressful situations, and this response is, the Web site suggests, the result of optimal early brain development. According to some attachment theorists, secure attachments are formed, or fail to form, during the first three years of life. This is why parents should provide warm, loving care, respond to baby's cues and clues, establish routines, establish a close tie to your child by talking, singing, and reading, and look for childcare that does all of the above.
The importance and lifelong consequences of attachment form the central message of I Am Your Child. It is no accident that the site's page introducing advice for parents carries the banner "The First Years Last Forever" and that the final words of advice are "the first years truly last forever." This same message is implicit in Starting Points and developed in some detail in Rethinking the Brain. It is this theoretical viewpoint that is at the basis of Reiner's conviction that all roads lead to Rome and that we should view children and the world through the prism of the first three years. This is why, as Reiner told the county government representatives to applause, "justice begins in the high chair, not the electric chair."
However, a thoughtful parent reading the Web site might also notice something else. There are some general statements about brain development, followed by ten rather traditional parenting guidelines, guidelines that for the most part emphasize social and emotional development. But just what is the connection, for example, between the 100 billion nerve cells, developing healthy brain circuitry, and selective TV watching? Does someone know that Sesame Street is better for the brain than Rugrats or The Simpsons? Do we know that one hour of television is good for the brain, two hours bad, and no television whatever the best of all? The short answer: no.
I Am Your Child suggests that there is a connection between brain science and the parenting advice, but like Starting Points and the White House Conference, it is not all that clear or specific about what that connection is. There is talk about the brain, followed by some hand waving, followed by advice to parents. None of this instills much confidence in the claim that the new brain science is about to revolutionize parenting and childcare.
Further Grounds for Skepticism: What Neuroscientists Say
There are additional reasons why we should be skeptical about the benefits of viewing the world through the prism of the first three years. Neuroscientists, as opposed to early childhood advocates, have a somewhat different view concerning the possible implications of early synapse formation, critical periods, and enriched environments for early childhood.
According to the brain and early childhood literature, early stimulation somehow affects early synapse and brain circuit formation. It implies that parents and caretakers can influence this process and that we know in some detail what kinds of early experiences would result in the desired brain circuits and in optimal brain development.
Neuroscientists, even neuroscientists who have been involved in discussions of early brain development, have a different view. In a September 1992 Scientific American article, Carla Shatz noted that if we observe children's behavior, it is evident that children who are grossly neglected left in their cribs for the first year of life develop motor skills abnormally slowly. From this observation, it is reasonable to infer, she says, that children do require a normal environment for normal development. Children need normal tactile, linguistic, and visual stimulation to develop normally. However, she continues, "Based in part on such observations, some people favor enriched environments for young children, in the hopes of enhancing development. Yet current studies provide no clear evidence that such extra stimulation is helpful....Much research remains to be done before anyone can conclusively determine the types of sensory input that encourage the formation of particular neural connections in newborns." Apart from eliminating gross neglect, neuroscience cannot currently tell us much about whether we can, let alone how to, influence brain development during the early stage of exuberant synapse formation. If so, we should not be surprised that brain-based parenting advice is vague and contradictory.
The brain and early childhood literature suggests that the first three years of life is the critical period for brain development. It's a time when the young brain's learning power is almost limitless. As Hillary Clinton describes it, "The computer comes with so much memory capacity that for the first three years it can store more information than an army of humans could possibly input. By the end of three or four years, however, the pace of learning slows. The computer will continue to accept new information, but at a decreasing rate....But it is clear that by the time most children begin preschool, the architecture of the brain has essentially been constructed. From that time until adolescence, the brain remains a relatively eager learner with occasional 'growth spurts,' but it will never again attain the incredible pace of learning that occurs in the first few years." After this critical period, as Harvard child psychiatrist Felton Earls told Ron Kotulak, "A kind of irreversibility sets in. There is this shaping process that goes on early, and then at the end of this process, be that age 2, 3 or 4, you have essentially designed a brain that probably is not going to change very much more."
This interpretation of critical periods assumes that the brain learns best and is unusually plastic only during the early, superdense years. It also assumes that the experiences we have during those years are particularly powerful and have long-term, irreversible consequences.
Again, neuroscientists; see it a little differently. In a review on child development and neuroscience, Charles Nelson and Floyd Bloom deftly summarize our emerging understanding of how molecular and cellular events contribute to brain development. Most important, they also discuss some genuinely new findings in neuroscience what happens in the brain when adults learn new motor skills and the rapidity with which the adult brain can reorganize after loss of sensory input from an amputated limb. The new findings Nelson and Bloom allude to suggest that the brain retains its ability to reorganize itself in response to experience or injury throughout life. They conclude, "...it may be useful to question the simplistic view that the brain becomes unbendable and increasingly difficult to modify beyond the first few years of life. Although clearly much of brain development occurs late in gestation through the first years of postnatal life, the brain is far from set in its trajectory, even at the completion of adolescence." If so, we should be wary of claims that parents have only a single, biologically delimited, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help their children build better brains.
Although not in a scientific journal, the neuroscientist Arnold Scheibel, who, with his wife Marian Diamond, has studied the effects of enriched environments on brain development, arrived at a similar conclusion. In an article he wrote on the implications of the new brain science for education, Scheibel expressed reservations about popular claims that the brain's ability to learn varies during development and that teaching should be keyed to those critical periods when the brain is most receptive. "Those who subscribe to this view," he wrote, "might be left with the feeling that if we miss a critical window of opportunity between ages 3 and 6, or between 8 and 10, we have failed in our responsibilities, and the students we have missed are destined for linguistic or cognitive mediocrity. But I believe this is an inaccurate conclusion drawn from improperly interpreted structural and functional data." Scheibel goes on to argue that the brain remains a "superbly attuned learning instrument for virtually all of life." If so, we should be wary of the claim that by the time a child starts first grade the most critical of his learning years are past.
Finally, the brain and early childhood literature tends to misinterpret the significance of research on the effects of enriched environments on brain development. The policy and popular articles assume that if early experiences during the critical period sculpt the brain for life, then rich, complex early experiences will sculpt rich, complex brains for life: "Research bears out that an enriched environment can boost the number of synapses that children form." Based on a conviction that the early years are the most crucial learning years, these articles argue that early enrichment is particularly powerful: "In an environment rich in all sorts of learning experiences, the growth of synapses the connections between nerve cells in the brain that relay information is more lush, and this complex circuitry enlarges brain capacity. Infants who are not held and touched, whose playfulness and curiosity are not encouraged, form fewer of these critical connections."
Neuroscientists who have done research on the effects of enriched environments on brain structure take a different view. In 1997, William Greenough, one of the most prominent researchers in this area, wrote a short piece for the APA Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association. He stated that despite the claims of children's education organizations and articles in the popular press on how early childhood experiences can enhance children's cognitive development between the ages of 0 and 3, the neuroscience used to support these claims is not new. Furthermore, he continued, careful examination of the evidence does not support a selective focus on the first three years. Experience plays a major role in brain development, but claims that it plays a more important role in the first three years than at other times need to be assessed carefully. He emphasizes that his own, oft-cited research on animals raised in complex environments indicates that the brain continues to be plastic modifiable by experience throughout later development and into adulthood. According to Greenough, the existing neuroscientific and behavioral evidence do not support an exclusive focus on birth to 3 to the relative exclusion of older age groups. If so, we should be wary of claims that the only, or the most important, time to provide enrichment is the early years.
At this early point in our exploration of brain science and child development, what these neuroscientists are saying should serve to heighten our skepticism about what we read in the papers and see on the Internet. Their comments should at least prompt us to take a more careful, critical look at brain science and the merits of viewing the world through the prism of the first three years. Of course, by themselves the neuroscientists' assertions bear no more weight than do those of the most fervent birth-to-3 brain advocate. However, the neuroscientists have reasons for saying what they do, reasons that derive from their weighing and consideration of the existing scientific evidence. So, rather than merely listing authorities and assertions pro and con, it is time that we look carefully at that evidence. After we review the evidence in the subsequent chapters, we will see that we do not have a revolutionary, brainbased action agenda for child development. What we have instead is the Myth of the First Three Years. And, looking through this mythical lens gives us a highly distorted view of children, parents, and early childhood policy.
Some might ask, "Why should we care whether what we have is a research-based agenda or a myth? We need better programs and policies for children and current programs are underfunded. Any argument that would lead to improved opportunities and outcomes for children is a good argument." One could take this position and many well-intentioned early childhood advocates do take this view. It's the hard-nosed but often realistic view that everyone knows that policy arguments are merely exercises in political rhetoric. Sophisticated citizens (usually those making the arguments) know this and the argument is intended only to sway the emotions of the unsophisticated. On this view, science, as such, and the evidence it might bring to a policy discussion, do not matter. Science is just another rhetorical tool that happens to elicit a strong emotional response in the public, like God, the sanctity of motherhood, the innocence of childhood, and the flag. Some might then say, "It's a myth and I know it. But by God, given what I want to do, it's a useful myth." If this is the stance we wish to take, then we should also admit that our arguments about what to do for children and families and why we should do it carry the same weight as the blustery, staged debates from the left and right that entertain us over dinner on Firing Line. On this view, although science and scientists might have a place at the policy-setting table, others at the table do not take the science seriously if it conflicts with their policy goals.
On the other hand, if we do take the science seriously, then we have to care if we are acting on a science-based agenda or a myth. What a science-based policy argument should do is add some evidence and factual basis, beyond our own biases, prejudices, and ideological tastes, for what the preferable policy might be. Science should inform us of what the optimal strategies might be to reach a policy objective. What the science can add to the policy debate are insights about the causes, mechanisms, and leverage points that we could most effectively exploit to reach our goal. If the science is wrong, misleading, or misinterpreted, then we are trying to achieve our policy, and parenting, goals by pushing the wrong, ineffective, or nonexistent buttons. We are wasting time and resources attempting to bring about change via causes, mechanisms, and leverage points that do not exist.
The brain and early childhood literature appeals to neuroscience to argue for the unique importance of the first three years of life. According to that literature, seeing the world through the prism of birth to 3 is the key to improving opportunities and outcomes for children, families, and the nation. If this view is accurate, then Early Head Start, removing children from violent inner-city neighborhoods, and applying a full-court developmental press are good ideas. But what if, as our current grounds for skepticism at least suggest, brain science does not support that key claim? We might want to find other and better reasons to invest $4 billion in Early Head Start or to consider other ways, using other leverage points, to expend that money to help young children. We might be reluctant to transform our culture and change our views about who children belong to. We might question the prudence of decreasing expenditures for adult education or special education on the grounds that a person's intellectual and emotional course is firmly set during the early years. We might be reluctant to tell parents to apply full-court pressure during the early years and to suggest to parents that early learning problems will leave their children at a permanent disadvantage.
Being critical of the Myth does not mean being critical of making the world better for children. It signals, instead, a commitment to look at the science of early brain development seriously in the hope that we can identify the most efficient leverage points with which to push parenting practices and early childhood policy in the desired direction.
Myths often have interesting histories. The Myth of the First Three Years is no exception. The Myth's popularity and its beguiling, intuitive appeal is rooted in our cultural beliefs about children and childhood, our fascination with the mind-brain, and our perennial need to find reassuring answers to troubling questions. That history is the subject of the next chapter.
After we review the Myth's history, we will examine each of the Myth's three biological strands, reviewing the science and the conclusions we can and cannot draw from this research for child development. In Chapter 3, we will explore what neuroscientists know about rapid synapse development in the early years of life. Chapter 4 discusses our current neurobiological understanding of critical periods and what critical periods mean for childcare and development. Chapter 5 presents the research on enriched environments and examines what it implies for early childhood education and lifelong learning. Based on this review of what we know about early childhood and brain development, Chapter 6 attempts to answer the question "What is a parent, or any of us who are interested in children, brain science, and policy, to do?"
Copyright © 1999 by John T. Bruer