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The Youngest Minds: Parenting and Genetic Inheritance in the Development of Intellect and Emotion

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Drawing on insights from recent advances in neuroscience and psychological research, The Youngest Minds offers a new look at how children learn language, establish emotional ties, gain control of their own emotions, and embrace moral values. The authors discuss recent research and theory about the effects of early experience on the physiology of the brain. They show how a child's genetic inheritance and experiences interact at many different levels. The capacities for language, emotional development, and moral ...
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Overview

Drawing on insights from recent advances in neuroscience and psychological research, The Youngest Minds offers a new look at how children learn language, establish emotional ties, gain control of their own emotions, and embrace moral values. The authors discuss recent research and theory about the effects of early experience on the physiology of the brain. They show how a child's genetic inheritance and experiences interact at many different levels. The capacities for language, emotional development, and moral understanding are inborn, but they are fine-tuned by human relationships that influence the landscape of the brain.

The Youngest Minds explains how parents and other caregivers support the intertwined processes of language, intellectual, and emotional development with the experiences they provide for a baby. Through daily interactions, infants establish ways of responding that will influence them all their lives

The pre-school years are critical in the lives of children because their brains are developing more rapidly than at any other time in life. In these years, children are especially dependent on parents and other primary caregivers to meet their needs for love, security, stimulation, and challenge. The Barnets describe how children learn to control their anger, consider the feelings of others, assimilate the standards of acceptable behavior in their family and culture, and develop moral sensibilities.

Using studies that follow groups of children over many years, the authors explain how an accumulation of risks in early years can lead to serious trouble in adult life. But they also present research demonstrating that many children overcome great odds. The Youngest Minds outlines the essential characteristics of a good caregiving environment. Whether a child is cared for at home or at a daycare center, certain conditions need to be met. Because of many changes in our society over the last few decades, families are finding it harder to provide the unstressful but challenging environment that much scientific evidence indicates babies need. The authors conclude with a look at who is taking care of America's young children and offer some ideas for improving the quality of their care.

"...expains how a child's early experiences continuosly shape and reshape the brain, why nurturing is so critical to development, and how the effects of bad early experiences can be overcome in later years."

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An expert in early brain development offers a timely reminder of the importance of human relationships in shaping the minds of the very young. Ann Barnet, a Washington, D.C., pediatric neurologist and founder of the Family Place, a community center for disadvantaged families, is aided by her writer husband (author of Global Dreams, 1994, and other political and socio-economic analyses) in this review of what research in neurobiology and psychology reveals about the influences of genetics and environment on the intellectual and emotional development of children.

They start by looking at the rapidly developing brain itself and how language is acquired by the young. Even children in a barely adequate environment learn to talk, they report reassuringly, but acquiring language proficiency and the level of literacy required for a more than poverty-level job is quite another matter. Next they turn to children's emotional growth and how it depends on interaction between inborn tendencies and life experiences. They examine the research on how empathy develops, the role it plays in moral judgment, and the multiple causes of aggressive behavior.

They conclude that if violent crime is to be reduced in this country, early intervention in the lives of at-risk children is essential, but must be accompanied by broad improvements in the social and economic fabric—jobs, education, living conditions. Of special interest to working parents is the authors' examination of the effects of outside child care on children's development. High-quality day care, they report, can enhance children's development, but unfortunately, many facilities in this country, especially those for the youngestchildren, are of outstandingly poor quality. Having established the importance of nurturing relationships in the cognitive and emotional development of children, they urge public subsidy of paid parental leave and high-quality out-of-home child care. A sobering look at the power of early influences to affect the development of a healthy mind—and ultimately a healthy society.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684815374
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/13/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.41 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Discussions about the meaning of childhood, the special requirements of children, and the role of parents generate heated disagreements about the most basic questions: What do children need in order to develop into normal, happy, and caring adults? When do they need it? Who should provide it? The answers have changed over the course of history in response to differing cultural and economic forces, and, more recently, also as a result of the research of child psychologists and other scientists. How much influence inborn temperamental tendencies exert compared with experiences with caregivers is a matter of dispute. We will discuss recent research bearing on these issues.

Bringing Up Baby

The child-rearing attitudes and practices of humans are much more varied than those of other species. In eighteenth-century France, for example, about half the infants born to well-to-do urban families were sent away for a year or more to wet nurses in the countryside on the theory that they would benefit from the healthy air. Among the Efe!, a semi-nomadic people in Congo, a newborn is given to another lactating woman to hold and nurse, and many different caregivers share responsibility for the child. Infant feeding practices, for example, how long or whether to breastfeed and the correct moment to introduce solid food, are equally varied and subject to the swings of cultural fashions.

Across the world small babies are laid to sleep alone or with others, in cradles, hammocks, and cribs, on papoose boards, in the parents' bed, or in clothing that secures the infant to mother's back or front. They are swaddled, wrapped, loosely covered, uncovered, laid face up or prone. In traditional cultures mothers normally learn their caregiving routines from their own mother or some other older woman and believe that they are caring for their baby in the best or the only way. Modern women, however, may instantly change their ways under the influence of outside authorities and in the light of new knowledge or circumstance. When pediatric studies confirmed an association between sudden infant death syndrome (crib death) and the custom of placing infants on their stomachs for sleep, surveys showed a flip from one year to the next in babies' sleeping position, and a decrease in the incidence of sudden infant death.

Millions of parents who have never heard of, much less read, Sigmund Freud, John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, John Bowlby, or Arnold Gesell have interacted with their babies under the influence of these experts. Over the years, pediatricians, therapists, social workers, and family court judges have often reflected various theories of child development in their advice and decisions, and versions of the theories have filtered into the daily life of parents through popular books on parenting, TV, newspaper and magazine articles, novels, and movies.

Consider the authoritative advice of the behaviorist John B. Watson, whose famous book Psychological Care of Infant and Child was published in 1928. For Watson, infants were potter's clay: they would become whatever their environment -- meaning mother, mostly -- molded them to be. Mother's power to shape her children's behavior was total and her responsibility awesome. Some of Watsons wisdom was disturbingly counterintuitive: "Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight." The child thus trained, he promised, will learn not to cry or whine for attention.

As difficult as listening to the wails of an unconsoled baby must have been for sleepless Depression-era mothers, the very different advice later offered by the British child psychiatrist John Bowlby also could generate maternal guilt. "Intimate attachments to other human beings," he wrote, "are the hub around which a person's life revolves not only when s/he is an infant or a toddler, but throughout adolescence and the years of maturity as well and on into old age." Bowlby considered it critically important that a mother communicate her affection for her infant in the early months of life so sensitively that the child becomes "securely attached" to the person he comes to know and trust above all others. On this foundation "the rest of his emotional life is built -- without [it] there is risk for his future happiness and health."

Bowlby presented his theory of attachment in a series of books and papers beginning in the 1950s. He had been struck by Konrad Lorenz's studies showing that newly hatched birds bonded to the first moving object they saw, whether their mother or the human experimenter, and by the work of other ethologists, notably Harry Harlow, who described the importance of the mother-infant relationship in monkeys." Bowlby argued that in humans the relationship between mothers and infants is organized by the infants innate, unlearned behavioral signals -- sucking, clinging, following, smiling, and crying -- which bind each to the other. If the mother is physically or emotionally unavailable, or the child fears that he will be abandoned, he becomes chronically anxious. If the primary caregiver is remote, depressed, uncaring, or inconsistent and unreliable, or if the people who fill that role come and go with great frequency, the resulting distortions of the primary relationship, Bowlby theorized, can lead to difficulties in forming deep relationships with others in adult life.

On the basis of early attachment experience, Bowlby believed, every infant develops an internal working model of himself and others. A securely attached infant is one who is confident that his mother, father, or some other primary caregiver will respond to his needs. His confidence that the adults who care for him are trustworthy gives him a sense that the world is an essentially safe place. Out of this sense of security comes the confidence that he can meet new challenges. His security is the underpinning of his developing autonomy. Insecurely attached infants and toddlers have a different working model of human relationships; they tend to be more wary of others, more uncertain about whether their environment is threatening or benign. As babies they are more hesitant to explore the world around them; as they grow, they are more apt to be overly self-protective, anxious, or angry.

By focusing on early interactions between infants and caregivers and postulating that these have profound impact on later life, attachment theory has become an influential concept in psychology. Over the last forty years the theory has influenced how parents, child development specialists, pediatricians, day care providers, and therapists think about emotional development. Later in this chapter we will discuss some of the ample evidence from observation of both humans and nonhumans that lends credibility to Bowlby's thesis -- and suggests some reservations as well.

Bowlby challenged Freudian orthodoxy by ignoring Freud's theories concerning an instinctual tension-reduction drive, repression, infant sexuality, and the Oedipus complex. He agreed with classical Freudian theory in ascribing great importance to the early relationship between parents and their child. But the Freudian theories predominant in the first half of the twentieth century dealt with children's fantasies and dreams about their parents rather than with the real-world details of the relationship. As one prominent psychoanalyst explained it in the 1920s, psychoanalysis was concerned "simply and solely with the imaginings of the childish mind, the phantasied pleasures, and the dreaded retributions." Indeed, classical analysis was interested in children only because universal myths of childhood, in particular incest fantasies, figured importantly in the treatment of adult psychiatric problems. Bowlby, on the other hand, believed that "real-life events -- the way parents treat a child -- is of key importance in determining development."

Bowlby's theories raised issues of responsibility. If infants' emotional destiny is fixed by early experience -- Bowlby did not believe this to be the case, but sometimes his work was so interpreted -- then some adult, usually the mother, is faulted for the child's failures in later years. During much of this century, mothers have been blamed for ruining their children -- and many have blamed themselves -- because they have overwhelmed them with their own emotions, been aggressively overprotective, smothered them with demanding love, showed too little love and too much anger, toilet-trained them too late or too early, weaned them too early or too late. Indeed, not so long ago mothers were blamed for making their children autistic by treating them insensitively.

In the late 1920s, Arnold Gesell, an eminent pediatrician at Yale, began to popularize a more comfortable idea: that development proceeds according to a built-in schedule and, within broad limits, is hard to derail. All normal children learn to talk and walk, and develop other skills, within more or less the same time span. Gesell stressed the benign implications of nature's timetable: "The inborn tendency toward optimum development is so inveterate that [the child] benefits liberally from what is good in our practice, and suffers less than he logically should from our unenlightenment."

Far from settling the controversies over parents' role in their child's emotional development, recent revival of interest in the durable effects of a baby's innate propensities has fueled the debate. Over the last two decades the hypothesis that physical and behavioral development are controlled by the child's genetic endowment has become so fashionable, and belief that early childhood experience makes the critical difference so unfashionable in some scientific circles, that, by 1991, Sandra Scarr, the president of the U.S. Society for Research in Child Development, was arguing that children "make their own environment...based on their own heritable characteristics." According to this view, a child unconsciously picks and chooses from among the many elements in the environment only those that fit his or her inherited proclivities. For example, a naturally outgoing three-year-old will plunge happily into a playground group and take part, while a shy child will hang back on the fringe of the group. No matter how hard the teacher tries to influence the two children, their social experiences will be different. Likewise, boys and girls will often choose different items -- toys, activities, playmates -- from the same environmental menu. Observation over time shows that the sum of each child's social experiences adds up quite differently, depending on their differing biological predispositions.

By and large, the advocates of this position hold, children become what they are biologically programmed to be. As long as parents are "good enough" at caring for their offspring, Scarr maintained, it does not matter much what they do. They should relax and avoid "needless sacrifices and emotional turmoil." Another prominent psychologist concludes that parents' behavior has relatively little influence on their children's cognition and personality compared to that imposed by inborn constraints.

But what is "good enough," and what does it mean that "parents have little influence"? In the American marketplace of ideas two basically contradictory notions about children are contending with one another. Many people hold both simultaneously. One is the old-fashioned notion that families -- again, read "mothers" -- are responsible for nurturing their babies so that they become industrious, competent workers and engaged, morally sound members of the community. Children who don't turn out well have been raised wrong. The other view, much influenced by some interpretations of behavioral genetics research, is that inborn genetic traits are so strong that, unless disaster strikes, environment plays only a minor role in determining the sort of adult any child will become.

The most compelling evidence for the latter hypothesis comes from studies of sets of twins who were separated from each other and from their biological mothers shortly after birth. It turns out that identical twins, although reared by different adoptive families, are often astonishingly alike as adults, not only in physical characteristics but also in behavior. If one twin was affectionate, drank diet soda, and liked sports cars, the other tended to have the same qualities and preferences, even down to liking the same brand. If one twin was a salesman or liked hunting and science fiction, the other was likely to have the same kind of occupation and interests. These twins, with their virtually identical genes, were much more like each other than like their adoptive brothers or sisters, even though they had shared a home and had a similar upbringing.

The twins and their adoptive siblings all presumably received "good enough" parenting. Behavioral geneticists interpret these results to mean that in an environment that is not severely deviant or damaging, personal development moves along a track whose course is strongly affected by biological endowment. According to this view, given the same parents, the same home, the same school, children are influenced only by the factors in these environments that fit their innate predispositions: thus, what seems superficially to be the same environment is in fact different for each person. And it is these "unshared" factors that matter.

But even identical twins, whether raised together in the same home or raised apart, are not exactly alike. Parents and friends can tell them apart with no trouble. Dissimilarities between identical twins are nearly always attributable to environmental influences, some of which begin well before birth. For example, identical twins rarely have the same birthweight. This suggests that prenatal nutrition or other factors influencing growth differ for each member of the pair. Birthweight may also affect postnatal environment in critically important ways. A healthy five-pound baby goes home in a few days, while his or her "identical" four-pound twin may remain in the hospital for many weeks. This may cause parents to treat the twins differently.

A recent study makes a good case that firstborn and later-born siblings exhibit striking differences in personality and character and in the lives they lead because parents, without necessarily meaning to do so, treat first- and laterborn siblings differently, and the siblings themselves interact with one another and with their parents differently depending on birth order. Thus, the happenstance of a child's birth order, a factor that is fixed but not genetically determined, influences her environment in ways that strongly affect her behavior. Current estimates made by behavioral geneticists for the relative influence of heritable factors and environment are about 50-50, although the ratio shifts considerably depending on the trait studied.

The Nature of Mother Love

For most mammals, just being exposed to newborn offspring induces physiological changes that promote caregiving. For many human parents, the most profound experience of love they will ever have comes with the birth of a child. A mother and father gaze at their baby, and their joy echoes Adams on seeing Eye for the first time: "Now this at last, bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh."

Processes in the body, brain, and culture that foster these bonds begin well before birth -- in expectant parents' hormones and imagination, in friends' and families' smiling approval, in advertisements for pink and blue baby gear. Consider this study of one aspect of the program that prepares it parent for the task of child rearing: Linda Mayes, a pediatrician at Yale Medical School, questioned expectant parents, mostly middle-class New Haven couples, about their thoughts and feelings before and after the birth of their child. All of them thought a great deal about the baby, and often their ruminations had a special quality: they were unbidden, preoccupying, compelling, even intrusive. The amount of time the parents spent preoccupied with thoughts and daydreams about the baby kept increasing from the moment they learned that they had conceived until about two weeks after the baby's birth, stayed very high for three months, and then very slowly began to fall off. When their preoccupation was at its height, mothers reported that they were thinking about the baby every three minutes! (Fathers said that they thought about the baby every forty-five minutes.)

In the weeks before the baby's birth, the parents undertook all sorts of projects. Women who had never sewn a seam began to hem curtains. Expectant parents busied themselves cleaning, painting, wallpapering, and rearranging furniture to get things just right. As new parents, the couples found themselves possessed by happy, excited, and expectant thoughts, but also by worries. They checked on the baby when they had just checked moments before. They worried about germs. Fathers, especially, were afraid of dropping the baby; they had irrational fears of harming the infant.

Although a nudge from a gene does not determine human feelings or behavior, species survival in all mammals is promoted by wired-in programs that promote nurture of the young. Humans have come up with innumerable elaborations on these programs, and individuals differ greatly in the extent to which they respond. When Mayes's description of parents' "nesting behaviors" was presented at a meeting of about three hundred physicians and other scientists, there were smiles and murmurs of recognition from the audience. But not, one can be certain, from every parent in attendance.

Researchers have pointed out the many similarities that can exist between parental love, especially in its initiation and early stages, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This seems to be true with respect to not only the thoughts and behaviors we have mentioned, but also, remarkably, the brain pathways involved. The normal involuntary preoccupations of new parents, which serve to keep babies safe, and the abnormally intrusive thoughts and compulsive rituals, such as repetitive handwashing, suffered by persons with obsessive-compulsive disorder may share some underlying brain circuitry, neurohormonal influences, and genes.

The hormone oxytocin seems to play a role both in rituals of nurture and in obsessive-compulsive rituals. Oxytocin has been found to be a vital stimulus to nurturing behaviors. Found only in mammals, it is a component of the extremely complex system that regulates reproductive behavior, influencing uterine contractions and milk release in females, and sexual function in both sexes. Oxytocin is secreted in the hypothalamus, the master center for regulation of vital survival functions such as temperature control and food and water intake. Oxytocin secreting neurons influence many brain systems, including brainstem centers governing sleep and wakefulness, limbic centers governing emotions, and hippocampal centers governing memory. Neural receptors for oxytocin undergo changes during an individual's development. Their numbers wax and wane with sexual activities and social behaviors, but their most characteristic shifts occur with maternal (and, in some species, paternal) behaviors.

Neuroscientists looking for genetic links in the bonds between mothers and offspring have discovered a gene called fosB, which may be a linchpin of maternal caregiving. The fosB gene normally is active in an area of the by hypothalamus known to be important for nurturing behaviors. Researchers have managed to inactivate this gene in mice and have found that the animals with the gene deletion (which seem otherwise normal) are profoundly indifferent to their young, ignoring them until they die.

Deviations can occur in the physiological systems that promote the nurture of human infants. Severe postpartum depression is one example. Another comes from recent research suggesting that the reason some cocaine-addicted mothers show utter disregard for their babies (their behavior is often more extreme than that of alcohol- or heroin-addicted mothers) may be that receptors in the maternal behavior system we have just described are co-opted to the craving for cocaine.

Love Is a Basic Need

What happens when caregiving fails is tragically clear. Infants deprived of the caring touch of a parental figure do not thrive even if their other basic needs -- for food, drink, warmth, and physical protection -- are met. They lose interest in food, in their surroundings, and in life; if the emotional deprivation is severe enough, they die. As early as 1760, a Spanish bishop noted in his diary: "In the foundling home the child becomes sad and many of them die from sadness."

In ten U.S. orphan asylums studied in 1915, mortality rates for children under two ranged from 32 percent to 75 percent. Over the next three decades the sadness, loneliness, and retarded development of young children in hospitals and orphanages aroused the concern of psychiatrists and pediatricians in a number of countries. They found institutionalized children to be emotionally flat, listless, uninterested, and unconnected. Five-year-olds who had been moved from one foster home to another every six months -- it was thought to be bad for the child to become attached to any adult before he or she was adopted -- appeared to lack the capacity to control their feelings. They were hyperactive, given to temper tantrums, and unable to engage in group play. Toddlers clung to strangers. A child would rush up to a male visitor never seen before, crying "Daddy!" or plaintively ask a female stranger, "Will you be my mommy?" They seemed confused about the cast of characters in their life, especially themselves.

But until the mid-twentieth century, most institutions caring for children were preoccupied with preventing the spread of disease. Infants were fed lying in their cribs, with their nursing bottles propped on a folded diaper. Children were touched as little as possible. The idea that babies had emotional needs was hardly recognized. In a 1941 paper entitled "Loneliness in Infants," the pediatrician Harry Bakwin described the lengths to which hospitals had gone to isolate babies, notably the antiseptic box into which each infant was placed so that "she can be taken care of almost untouched by human hands." In a 1960 study of children in an Iranian orphanage where similar conditions prevailed, 60 percent of two-year-olds could not sit up unassisted, and 85 percent of the four-year-olds could not walk on their own.

In 1945 the psychoanalyst René Spitz published a study of two sets of infants, one group raised in a foundling home for abandoned children and the other in a nursery attached to a women's prison. In the foundling home, each nurse was assigned seven infants. Each crib was covered with a sheet, with the result that the babies could not look out. In the prison nursery the babies were cared for by their mothers, who lavished affection on them in the time allotted for mother and child to be together.

By a number of developmental measures, the foundling-home infants were the more advanced in the first four months of life (suggesting that they were not born more handicapped). But by the end of their first year they had fallen far behind the prison babies. Only two of the twenty-six children in the foundling home could walk and talk by the time they were three, while the children reared by their prisoner mothers were developing normally.

Spitz's basic findings have been corroborated by many other studies that have demonstrated a wide gap in IQ between institutionalized children and those raised in more homelike settings. In one research effort conducted in the 1930s, thirteen institutionalized toddlers were removed to a residence for older "feeble-minded" girls, and each was "adopted" by one of them. Under the care of these retarded but affectionate young women, the average IQ of the emotionally starved toddlers jumped from 64 to 92, evidence that compassionate care promotes cognitive development as well as emotional well-being.

During the Second World War, children from cities all over Europe were sent away from their families to live in rural areas. This practice, meant to protect the children from air raids, led in many instances to the emotional deprivation we have described. John Bowlby collected the findings on the mental health of the separated children in Maternal Care and Mental Health, a report published in 1951 under the auspices of the World Health Organization. Other efforts that documented the effects of maternal deprivation, including a touching 1953 film showing the desperate protest, grief, and despair of a child in a hospital that held to the then nearly universal policy of severely restricting parental visiting hours, were influential in revising caregiving practices in hospitals and other child care institutions. Parental visiting hours were increased. Caregivers were instructed to hold babies and respond to them; bottle propping for feeding was prohibited in many institutions.

But knowledge that challenges entrenched institutional practices is often ignored. In the 1990s, Western observers who visited Romanian institutions for abandoned and orphaned children found conditions to be "harsh" and "deplorable." There was "no personalized caregiving." In some institutions, the children were washed by being hosed down with cold water. Predictably, the babies were severely retarded, in both physical and mental development. Happily, when such institutionalized children are removed to good foster or adoptive homes, their behavior and their performance on intelligence tests often greatly improve. But the longer infants are exposed to deprivation, the more likely it is that their deficits will be permanent.

There are good mothers and bad, and most are somewhere in the middle. Fathers are often nurturing, too, and so are others who are biologically unrelated to the baby. Infants are accommodating, but the evidence is persuasive that a baby must have someone he or she can count on who does what parents do -- consistently, dependably, lovingly, and over the long haul.

The Power of Attachment

Harry Harlow's experiments in the 1950s in which he separated monkey infants from their mothers offered striking support for a number of Bowlby's theories. The monkey infants' need for what Harlow called "contact comfort" -- prolonged and extensive tactile communication with another monkey -- was so great that they would desperately cling to a cloth-covered object he provided them, even though this inanimate "surrogate mother" offered no nourishment.

Harlow and his colleagues found that isolated monkey infants were impaired psychologically, physically, and socially. When an infant that had been isolated for six months -- a very long time in the life of a primate -- was returned to the monkey colony, it stayed by itself, neither playing with others nor defending itself when attacked. Some of the animals crouched and rocked in the corner; much like some autistic children, they clasped themselves and chewed on their fingers and toes. The younger the baby and the longer and more total the isolation, the worse the symptoms; but there were also large individual differences. Some animals were relatively unscathed by their experience of isolation; others were devastated.

Many years later monkeys deprived of contact comfort in infancy still showed radical differences from mother-reared animals both in behavior and in physiology, even though they spent the rest of their lives in more normal living conditions. Their lives were shorter. Their cognitive abilities were impaired; in tests, they failed to process information as effectively as normal monkeys. Some animals had depressed immune function; tests done at autopsy revealed abnormal brain immunochemistry. Some evidence suggested that animals showing persistently abnormal movements, such as endless rocking back and forth, had altered brain chemistries indicating involvement of motor regulation systems. Some of the monkeys were overly aggressive, a behavior pattern consistent with their abnormal serotonin levels; others were unduly submissive. Some would not mate, and some that did ignored or abused their progeny, especially their firstborn. It was discovered that attachment patterns can cross generations; the characteristic ways a female monkey infant related to her mother were likely to show up again in her own offspring.

Isolation experiments with infant monkeys and great apes began at a time when the "best" medical practice was unwittingly subjecting institutionalized human babies to the emotional pain and developmental risks of social isolation. When the cruel effects of abnormal social environments on both human and nonhuman primates were finally noticed and understood, practices began to change. In recent decades -- thanks in part to rising concern, sparked by the animal rights movement, about mistreatment of research animals -- monkeys have not been subjected to long periods of social isolation. But shameful violations of accepted guidelines for treatment of helpless children and helpless animals still occur. Advocates for humane treatment have plenty of work to do.

Researchers now study lesser degrees of social separation in nonhuman primates. In one such program, headed by Stephen Suomi, a student of Harlow's and now the director of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, infant rhesus monkeys were reared apart from their mothers but in the company of other juvenile monkeys. When these "peer-reared" animals were in familiar, socially stimulating, and stable surroundings, they usually seemed normal as they passed through adolescence into adulthood. When, however, they encountered new or stressful situations, such as annual isolation from their social group for a four-day series of tests, the monkeys who had been deprived of maternal rearing reacted very differently from their peers who bad been mother-reared during the critical first months of life. Although none of the animals enjoyed the tests, peer-reared animals were far more distressed and fearful, and physiological measurements also indicated stress. The scientists concluded that patterns of response which had disappeared under benign conditions were still latent and could reappear years later when triggered by a stressful experience. An infant's reaction to separation predicted its response to other social challenges during its adolescence and even adulthood, although its behavior and physiological responses changed with age. For example, protest cries and a look of utter desolation were more common in babyhood; aggressiveness was more common in older animals.

Primate research suggests that individual differences in responses to separation are based in part on inherited traits; some baby monkeys are more easily and more profoundly stressed by separation than others. Researchers found this to be true even of separations that occur naturally, as when a mother rejects her baby during weaning and the breeding season. Most infant monkeys take such separations more or less in stride, while about 20 percent become frantically distressed and seem overwhelmed by despair. Typically, they cry for long periods and stop playing. Levels of stress hormones such as adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) and plasma cortisol sharply increase, and the infants' heart rate goes up, indicating heightened activity in the sympathetic nervous system. Serotonin and dopamine systems also give evidence of stress responses.

Suomi and his colleagues had observed certain mother-infant pairs who were similar in temperament. Both members of a pair were either highly reactive or very unflappable. The reactive animals became extremely excited and upset by novel or mildly stressful stimuli, while the others remained calm. The researchers conducted a series of experiments designed to learn whether the infants' temperamental tendency to calm or excitable behavior (which was presumed to be inherited) could be modified by the quality of maternal rearing they received. The researchers placed newborn infants from presumed high-reactive and easygoing lineages in the care of foster-mother monkeys chosen because they had exhibited either unusually nurturant maternal behavior or "typical" behavior for their species. Both high-reactive and easygoing infants developed normally in the care of their foster mothers. The experimenters noticed that the high-reactive infants with unusually nurturant foster mothers were actually accelerated in their development. Whether high-reactive or easygoing, these monkeys explored more boldly and displayed less distress during weaning than the babies being fostered by "typical" mothers.

At six months of age the infants were separated from their foster mothers for a four-day test period, during which each was housed by itself. High-reactive infants, whether they'd had nurturant or typical foster mothers, became much more upset than their easygoing counterparts. But when they returned to their foster mothers, all the infants did well and the high-reactive babies once again appeared precocious compared to the others.

A few months later, all the infants were moved into larger groups with other juvenile rhesus monkeys. Each group also included an old male-female pair with a history of exerting a good influence on the social life of young monkeys. The foster grandfather broke up fights and controlled the more rambunctious members, while the foster grandmother was available for the youngsters desiring close physical contact.

Suomi describes the results of these social maneuvers:

In this larger group setting, high-reactive monkeys who had been reared by a nurturant foster mother immediately established close social relationships with these old adults, particularly the old female. With the old adults providing a basis of social support, these high-reactive youngsters became the most dominant member of the peer group. In contrast, high-reactive monkeys who had been reared by "typical" foster mothers avoided the older monkeys and wound up at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy. (Easy-going monkeys, whether reared by nurturant or typical foster mothers, were somewhere in the middle of the dominance hierarchy.)

These studies showed that individual monkeys with similar predispositions to high reactivity fared very differently in the social hierarchy depending on the social support they received both as infants and later on in life. Although the reasons for this outcome are far from clear, Suomi's results suggest the interplay of several factors: inherited predispositions to respond in a certain way to novel and challenging situations; quality of early nurture; elements in the current social situation, including the availability of social support; and the responses of others to the animal's behavior. Sufficient nurture, both past and current, seemed to buffer the animals from unfavorable consequences of their natural tendency to overreact.

Do similar effects occur in human groups? Humans, of course, have ranges of responses not available to nonhuman primates. But as Suomi concludes: "It seems likely that most, if not all, of the more general principles that can be gleaned from the monkey data can, in fact, apply to the human case. A wealth of data suggests that early attachment relationships do have long-term consequences in humans, especially under conditions of stress and challenge. Moreover, the pattern of individual differences in the behavioral and physiological responses to challenge observed in rhesus monkeys seems strikingly similar to the pattern of individual differences reported for human infants and young children."

Babies in Strange Situations

Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist who worked in London in the early 1950s as an assistant to John Bowlby, went on to devise a laboratory test to assess the quality of human infants' attachment to their mothers. Her Strange Situation test, published in 1978, is still widely used.

After an initial study in Uganda, in which she observed the interactions of mothers and infants in their homes, Ainsworth moved to Baltimore and undertook a larger observational study, achieving similar results despite the great cultural differences between the two populations.

During the first year of the Baltimore infant subjects' lives, Ainsworth and her assistants conducted eighteen four-hour home visits, closely monitoring the interactions of each of twenty-six mother-infant pairs in the study. A striking assortment of behavior patterns was observed. A few mothers ignored almost all their infant's cries; others reacted promptly to nearly every whimper. Some mothers were quick to pick up cues, such as coos, gurgles, and body movements, responding in ways that were pleasurable and soothing for both the infant and themselves. A few months later these women were playing with their child, eliciting smiles, vocalizations, and joyful bouncing. Meanwhile, the encounters of less sensitive mothers with their babies were muted or brief, they approached the infant in silence or with no trace of a smile and they struggled as their babies wriggled in their arms or spat up while being fed. Mothers who showed more sensitivity in the first quarter of the year's observations maintained a more harmonious relationship with their child through the first year. Maternal behaviors that Ainsworth characterized as "sensitive" or "insensitive" were highly correlated with the quality of the infants' relationship with their mothers -- that is, their attachment.

These different patterns of mother-child interaction and relationship in the home prompted Ainsworth to develop a laboratory test to classify patterns of attachment. The "Strange Situation" was designed for babies a little over one year old, an age when they could freely explore their surroundings but before they were fluent in language. Mother and baby start out together in an unfamiliar room filled with inviting toys. At one point a friendly stranger enters the room. Then a series of brief separations and reunions are staged as the mother leaves and then reenters the playroom. The procedure is designed to be mildly and then moderately stressful. In the strange room, the baby first has to decide whether it is safe to leave the mother in order to explore the new toys. Then come the stress of her departures and the relief of her reappearances. Most infants cry and stop playing when their mother leaves; but when she returns, they are easily comforted, and they return to their play.

The success of a baby in using her mother as "a secure base from which to explore" and in deriving comfort from her when she is distressed are measures of attachment security. In experiments using the Strange Situation, it was found that babies' behavior on reunion with their mothers provides the most reliable and consistent measure of attachment security, so the classification of a baby's attachment is based mainly on reunion behaviors.

Ainsworth found that roughly 55 to 65 percent of infants behaved in ways that caused them to be classified as "securely attached." A baby so classified explored the playroom while her mother was in the room. She might or might not show distress when she left, but greeted her warmly on her return, either by going directly to her to be picked up, or by showing through a smile or a little utterance that she was happy to see her. After a period of being held or staying in close proximity, she resumed her play.

The remainder of the infants Ainsworth studied exhibited behaviors thought to indicate insecure and anxious attachment. They fell roughly into two categories, one termed "resistant/ambivalent" and the other "avoidant." Resistant/ambivalent children, about 10 or 15 percent of those tested, did not venture far from their mother while she was in the room and they were distressed when she left. When she returned, however, a resistant/ambivalent baby was hard to comfort and took a long time to settle down. When his mother picked him up or patted him, he cried and stiffened or even took a swipe at her. He squirmed to be put down and then cried to be picked up again. He sought contact but also resisted it. Resistant/ambivalent infants did not seem to be able to use their mother's help in modulating their high degree of arousal and distress.

A child in the second category of insecure attachment, the "avoidant," showed minimal distress when his mother left; when she returned, he ignored or even avoided her attempts to interact with him. About a quarter of the infants tested by Ainsworth fell into this category.

Classifying this latter pattern of behavior as a manifestation of insecure attachment is controversial; critics maintain that "avoidant" infants may just be especially independent. In answer, attachment researchers point to longitudinal studies that find "avoidant" infants to have a different developmental course from "securely attached" infants. The former actually have more difficulty being independent in their childhood and adolescent years. The explanation given for this seeming paradox is that securely attached infants have their dependency needs well met, and from this secure base they are able to move on with confidence.

By now, children all over the world have participated in this twenty-minute laboratory drama. About 90 percent of large samples of children can be readily assigned to one or another of the categories defined by Ainsworth. Longitudinal studies of normal children and children in a number of special populations -- those born with low birthweight or with handicapping conditions, abused children, children raised by foster or adoptive parents, and those experiencing differing types and amounts of day care -- have extended Ainsworth's findings, given rise to several subclassifications, and tested their predictive significance.

One more recently described category is the "disorganized/disoriented." On reunion with the parent, such an infant may start to approach her, then freeze. He may come toward her but with head averted. Or he may scream during her absence but move away from her when she returns. These incoherent reactions are common among children of abusing and psychotic parents, but are also seen in infants whose parents are highly inconsistent in how they treat the child. Their contradictory and unpredictable parenting makes it hard for their children to develop effective ways to cope in stressful situations. Disorganized attachment also seems to be more frequent among children whose parents have themselves suffered highly traumatic experiences in childhood, leaving them with unresolved feelings of fear and helplessness.

Studies in a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan, Germany, and Israel, have found similar patterns of infant attachment across many cultures, although the percentages of children found in each category vary a good deal. In general, Ainsworth's finding that the mother's (or primary caregiver's) sensitivity to the infant predicts the baby's attachment classification has been validated. Infant attachment classification has been shown to be useful in predicting important facets of the child's future development. For example, preschool and young school-aged children who had been classified as insecurely attached in infancy were more likely to have behavior problems than those who had been classified as securely attached.

Culturally influenced child-rearing practices seem to play a role in attachment patterns. In studies of infants in Bielefeld, a city in northern Germany, half were found to be "avoidant," a much higher proportion than found in studies of American babies. In Regensburg, a city in the southern part of Germany, the figures were much like those in the United States. The observers found that mothers in Bielefeld demonstrated less overt affection and tenderness in caring for infants than did middle-class American mothers and those in the south of Germany. Bielefeld mothers tended to discourage physical closeness and actively encouraged their infants to be exploratory and independent.

As they raise their children, parents communicate the values of their culture, usually unconsciously. Most American parents tend to encourage self-reliance and individualism by the emotional cues they give, the routines they set, the games they encourage, and the toys they buy. On the other hand, many Japanese mothers encourage emotional dependency and loyalty. In both cases the caregivers are passing along social signals about character and emotional relationships they have internalized over their lifetime. In a similar manner the differing cultural values and expectations for girls and boys are transmitted early in children's lives.

One tendency in child rearing is to repeat the practices of our own parents. In every nursery there are ghosts, says Selma Fraiberg. This practitioner, with vast experience in observing infants and their families, offers an evocative description of the psychological processes that cause parents to echo their own upbringing. In the cases she analyzes, the parents were neglectful or had committed acts of abuse, but the insight also applies across a wide range of normal attitudes and practices. Parenthood, especially the first time around, opens up the Pandora's box of the past. We will see in the next chapter why this phenomenon is not only a poetic metaphor but a neurophysiological fact -- or so current research on emotional memories suggests.

Temperament and Experience

The Harvard child psychologist Jerome Kagan has not only challenged the validity of the Strange Situation test but questions attachment theory itself. Kagan argues against the idea that psychological life is formed in any lasting way by early relationships or that "the events of infancy seriously influence the future mood and behavior of the adolescent." Dismissing popular ideas of the overriding importance of the mother-infant bond for the child's future happiness and adjustment as "intuitively pleasing" but wrong, Kagan maintains that the child's own temperamental predispositions are the major determining factors in the kind of person he becomes in later life. Kagan also questions the underlying values of attachment theorists, who in his view are overly concerned with security: "In the forties and fifties, the children now called attached were called overprotected and that was a bad thing."

According to Kagan, whether children are independent, sociable, and easygoing, or timid, shy, and easily distressed, depends primarily upon their inborn traits. True, babies' temperamental predispositions are modified by how they are treated and by their assimilation of parental expectations and values, and this can be very important in many cases. "If your parent values autonomy, you'll be autonomous; if your parent values dependency, you'll be dependent. But the most enduring influence on the course of development, Kagan maintains, is exerted by inborn predispositions grounded in biological endowment.

The second-century Greek physician Galen believed that the "humors," four bodily fluids, determined whether a given individual would have a sanguine, melancholy, phlegmatic, or choleric temperament. In line with this ancient idea, modern temperament theorists believe that the differences among people -- some shy and timid, others fearless and adventurous; some outgoing and effervescent, others hesitant and thoughtful, and still others passive, even sad -- flow from the genetic cards a person is dealt. Temperament also defines a person's characteristic emotional range and the settings of his emotional thermostat, causing individuals to differ in their sensitivities to various stimuli, thresholds for triggering reactions, and response characteristics.

In Kagan's Laboratory for Child Development, he and his colleagues noted the differences in the way twenty-one-month-old toddlers played with one another. While most of them readily and joyfully engaged with others, a smaller group, about 15 to 20 percent, hung back, clung to their mothers, and looked on. These "behaviorally inhibited" children had exhibited higher than average heart rate at birth, and when they were toddlers their heartbeat accelerated rapidly if they were exposed to a novel situation in the laboratory. Almost four years later the same children were back in the lab. About two-thirds of the timid toddlers were now anxious five-year-olds, still afraid to meet new people and reluctant to taste unfamiliar food or try doing something they had never done before. None of the bold, outgoing toddlers had become timid.

Kagan's longitudinal studies indicated that timid, inhibited children tended to develop into shy, anxious adolescents and adults, especially if their shyness persisted throughout childhood. One study, which surveyed 754 boys and girls in the sixth and seventh grades, found that 44 of them had already suffered at least one panic attack. At thirteen or fourteen these same shy children smiled and talked less, avoided unfamiliar situations, and were more anxious in social activities than their peers. They also were prone to feelings of guilt and self-reproach.

Kagan points out that his findings with respect to humans are consistent with animal research on the anatomical and neurophysiological underpinnings of emotional behavior. He postulates that fear-prone infants are born with nervous systems that are easily triggered by fear-inducing stimuli. They react strongly to events other children shrug off, and their fear responses last longer and are more intense. Kagan notes that timid children compared to others show more arousal of the autonomic nervous system. Even mildly stressful stimuli such as a bad smell or being picked up by an unfamiliar person trigger such autonomic responses as increased heart and respiration rates and dilated pupils. There is an increase in levels of urinary markers of norepinephrine, a stress hormone associated with autonomic nervous system activity. Animal research has demonstrated that a pivotal structure in the brain's emotional alarm system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of several groups of neurons buried deep in each temporal lobe of the brain. (We will talk further about the amygdala in the following chapter.) Kagan speculates that children who are unusually shy and fearful are born with an easily excitable amygdalar fear system.

A child's temperament, according to Kagan's view, affects the parent-child relationship; for example, parents tend to react differently to an inhibited or clinging child than to one who is more outgoing and fearless. Moreover, parents' styles of child rearing, their values, and their expectations interact with their children's behavioral tendencies. Some parents shelter their timid, sensitive children, guarding them from unfamiliar experiences. Another parent might push his fearful child into new experiences, hoping they will "toughen" his tender sensibilities.

Kagan makes the sensible suggestion that parents can "engineer emboldening experiences" by showing their own interest in unfamiliar objects and new experiences, encouraging the child to explore them, allowing the child to resolve mild challenges and uncertainties by himself, and setting clear limits on acceptable behavior. Timid toddlers need opportunities to master the fears to which they are prone so that they learn to cope with life's normal ups and downs. Kagan has found that about one-third of the inhibited children he has studied grow out of their timidity by kindergarten. He believes that gentle pressure from parents helped them to be more self-confident and outgoing.

The uninhibited, easy going, exploratory child is more likely to exhibit secure attachment than the timid child, but, according to Kagan, this is due much more to his fearless temperament than to his experience with his caregivers. Temperamentally inhibited babies, on the other hand, become more upset and fearful than uninhibited babies in the Strange Situation test and thus are harder to comfort; it is this, rather than an impaired mother-child relationship, that causes them to be classified as "insecurely attached."

Attachment researchers note, however, that attachment characterizes a relationship rather than an individual; they point to the finding that infants' attachment to their fathers may differ from that to their mothers. They also maintain that infants' temperament does not directly influence the quality of attachment because, as University of Pennsylvania psychologist Jay Belsky puts it, "even a difficult infant, given the 'right' care, can become secure." Whatever the child's temperamental tendencies may be, the way she behaves in the Strange Situation will be shaped by her relationships with her attachment figures.

A study in the Netherlands lends support to this view. Dymphna van den Boom identified a group of one hundred newborn infants who were highly irritable and hard to soothe. Van den Boom provided counseling to fifty of the one hundred mothers when their babies were between six and nine months old, helping them to monitor the infants' signals accurately and to learn effective strategies for calming their fussy babies. At one year of age, 62 percent of the babies whose mothers had received counseling were found to be securely attached on the Strange Situation test. In contrast, only 28 percent of the babies in the control group, whose mother had not received counseling, were classified as secure. Thus, the babies' experience with their mothers seemed to have a greater influence on the quality of their attachment than did their temperamental tendencies.

Influences flow both ways: an infant's own qualities can have a strong impact on the parent and affect the quality of care he or she receives. Parents who are not conscious of the role their infant's temperament plays in their relationship can, as the child psychiatrist Stella Chess noted many, years ago, "develop enormous guilt feelings due to the assumption that they must necessarily be solely responsible for their children's emotional difficulties. With this guilt comes anxiety, defensiveness, increased pressures on the children, and even hostility toward them for 'exposing' the mother's inadequacy by their disturbed behavior." On the other hand, in order to help a difficult baby, caregivers need to provide the quality of nurture that decreases the baby's distress. Chess makes this important point: A child's temperament does not signify parental failure (or success), but neither does it indicate that sensitive care is unimportant; it does indicate that what constitutes sensitive care is different for different babies.

Megan Gunnar and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota have performed a series of experiments in which they have assessed babies' temperamental predisposition to fearfulness, their attachment to caregivers, and the ways in which they cope with stressful situations. Gunnar measures levels of the stress hormone cortisol under various conditions. Whether and how much cortisol levels rise under stress seems to be influenced by whether the baby is securely attached. The researchers found that when a securely attached fifteen-month-old is given his measles shot, he screams loudly and clings to his mother, father, or whatever adult has brought him to the doctor's office. But his cortisol level does not rise. In contrast, the fifteen-month-old who is insecurely attached as measured by the Strange Situation test screams just as loudly when he feels the prick of the needle, but he is not as likely to reach for his caregiver for comfort. His cortisol level shoots up. Secure attachment appears to offer support in coping with stressful situations.

Children have different coping styles and resources. Coping behaviors depend on a childs developmental stage as well as on his temperament. In stressful or threatening situations, a child copes by sucking his thumb or nuzzling his security blanket, by distracting himself in play, by hitting, by shutting his eyes and closing out the threat, or by resorting to various other learned maneuvers. When our then three-year-old son, Michael, went out to play in the yard of the house to which we had just moved, he was accompanied by Brave Willie Sheriff, a friend only he could see.

But a small child's main coping resources are the adults he depends on, his attachment figures. This was brought home to us when our two-year-old daughter, Beth, fell down and gashed her forehead. She shrieked loudly, of course, but quieted down, thumb in mouth, as we drove to Children's Hospital to get her stitched up. In the emergency room, the resident physician and the nurse prepared for their work by wrapping their little patient's body, arms, and legs in a "mummy pack," a swaddling device used to keep children from moving during medical procedures. By this time Beth was screaming in terror. The doctor gave the customary instruction to her parents to leave the room. "I'm staying," Ann said. "And she needs to suck her thumb." He hesitated, and Ann said, with all the authority she could muster, "Give her her thumb!" Beth was then allowed to keep her coping resources: her thumb and her mother. Her screams subsided, and she was asleep before the procedure was over.

Emotional growth depends upon continuous interaction between an individual's unique emotional makeup and a parade of life experiences. But there is something special about the first relationships. Allan Schore, a psychiatrist and the author of a treatise on the neurobiology of emotional development, offers an arresting summation in neurobiological terms: "The experiences that finetune brain circuitries in critical periods of infancy are embedded in socioemotional interchanges between an adult brain and a developing brain." Primary caregivers, he contends, not only play a key role in modulating the infant's emotional state, but also "indelibly and permanently shape the emerging self's capacity for self-organization." In the next chapter we will examine this idea in the light of recent neurophysiological discoveries concerning the neural underpinnings of emotional development.

Copyright © 1998 by Ann B. Barnett and Richard J. Barnett

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