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

Overview

Revealing what every parent needs to know about what goes on in a child's brain during the critical first months and years of life, Ann B. Barnet, M.D., and Richard J. Barnet explore children's genetic tendencies toward anger, fear, and other emotions. Showing how interactions with other people can actually organize and reorganize a child's brain, they offer invaluable guidance to parents and caregivers by describing the essential characteristics of healthy parent-child relationships and good child care, as well ...

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Overview

Revealing what every parent needs to know about what goes on in a child's brain during the critical first months and years of life, Ann B. Barnet, M.D., and Richard J. Barnet explore children's genetic tendencies toward anger, fear, and other emotions. Showing how interactions with other people can actually organize and reorganize a child's brain, they offer invaluable guidance to parents and caregivers by describing the essential characteristics of healthy parent-child relationships and good child care, as well as how the effects of bad early experiences can be overcome later in life.
An unprecedented, up-to-the-minute look at the way human relationships and genetics shape the personalities and destinies of children, The Youngest Minds reveals more clearly than ever before how parents, for better or worse, become partners in the development of their child's mind.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence Every parent, educator, and politician should read The Youngest Minds.

Jonathan Kozol The Youngest Minds is brilliant and complex but stunningly accessible and terribly important; the Barnets have created something elegantly moral, wise, and beautiful.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684854403
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/7/1999
  • Edition description: Touchstone
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann B. Barnet, M.D., an expert in early brain development, is Professor Emeritus of Neurology at George Washington University School of Medicine and a member of the Department of Neurology at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

This book grows out of our forty-five-year collaboration. The delights and tensions of being parents and the total pleasure of being grandparents are reflected in these pages. Our first daughter was born when one of us was in medical school and the other in law school. Our third grandchild arrived a few months ago. Like all parents, we have been more than witnesses to the miraculous transformations of childhood; for better or worse, every parent plays an important role in the development of a child's mind.

Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology are making it possible to understand more clearly how parents help to shape their children's brains. Our primary purpose in writing this book is to explain what is becoming known about how young children acquire language, develop emotional ties, gain control of their own emotions, become able to experience the joy and pain of others, and embrace moral values.

We bring a range of professional experiences and interests to this joint effort. Ann, a pediatric neurologist who has spent her adult life observing and caring for children, has developed research tools for studying children's brains, and diagnostic tests to detect abnormalities in infants' hearing, vision, and tactile sensation. For many years she directed electroencephalographic (brain wave) research at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. She is also the founder of the Family Place, a community center for young children and their parents that offers poor families a variety of services, such as referrals to medical care, counseling, and parent education. Her interest in the role genes play in development dates from the two summers she spent studying the brains and behavior of mice at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, just before she entered Harvard Medical School. Children, especially young children, have been at the center of her medical practice, neurological research, and volunteer work in the community.

Richard has spent most of his professional life as a writer and teacher. He is the author of twelve books and numerous articles on political and socioeconomic issues. In studying the social changes that accompany global economic integration, he was struck by how much the experience of childhood is changing around the world, and he became concerned about how this rapid transformation was affecting children. This sparked his interest in learning about the remarkable advances in the neurosciences in understanding some of the biological processes of early development. Precisely how environmental influences affect the expression of genes in the shaping of a child's brain is still a mystery, but it is becoming less of one year by year.

That human beings are social animals is a very old idea. From the moment of birth we need the nurture and love of other people. Over the last few years it has become clearer that the quality and character of interactions with others — parents, family members, and caregivers outside the family — actually influence brain development. At the same time, breakthroughs in genetics are providing new insights into the power of inborn factors to shape our lives.

The ancient nature-nurture dichotomy is not helpful in describing the development process. Even in an unborn baby, genes and environment interact almost from the moment of conception. Development is a lifelong dialogue between inherited tendencies and our life history. Children's brains are neither blank slates waiting for a story to be written nor immutable hard-wired circuits controlled by implacable genes. Whether and how a gene is expressed in an individual — that is, whether it ever speaks and what it says — depends on the dynamic interaction of genetic inheritance and the person's experiences. The notion that experience plays a role in development is not controversial, but differing understandings of how early interactions cast their shadows over later life have generated heated controversy throughout the twentieth century.

Our hope is to make the reader more aware of the continuous interplay of biological and environmental factors in specific areas of human development. We have looked at development from the perspective of both neurobiology and psychology, connecting islands of knowledge where we can. Science is telling us a great deal more than we used to know about what children need and when they need it. Although the combined efforts of neuroscientists, educators, psychologists, and pediatricians still fall far short of a comprehensive theory of brain development, a wide range of studies in many fields is yielding new knowledge of great promise.

We have tried to lay before the reader conflicting evidence and opposing views about what children need for healthy development. As alternative hypotheses are tested, a clearer picture will emerge. But clashes over conclusions supported by scientific evidence are virtually inevitable when the findings indicate a need to change personal behavior or social policy. Controversies over global warming and the dangers of tobacco are famous examples. Debates over scientific evidence about what children need and who should provide it are full of passion because the contending views carry with them implicit recommendations about how parents should act and how public money should be spent.

The book focuses on issues that seem especially important to us and on research that we find particularly compelling or intriguing. We cannot claim to be disinterested observers. We start with a concern that a large minority of children in the United States are facing considerable risks in growing up, and we believe that failure to meet their developmental needs is having serious consequences for our whole society. But we also start with the hope that better understanding of the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in children's development can lead to personal decisions and public policies that will reduce these risks. We undertook this project to deepen our own understanding of the space within each child between what is biologically determined and what can be changed; it would please us if what we have found is of use to others.

Three intertwined sets of connections define the process of development. The first set is the wiring of the brain itself. As nerve cells carry their trillions of electrochemical messages from one part of the brain to another, and from the brain to the body and back, the physical structure of the brain takes shape. Each person's set of brain connections is unique; it cannot be cloned. There is a basic reason for this. Even though fundamental features are shared, critical connections in the human brain are shaped and reshaped by ongoing experiences unique to the individual.

A second set of connections, the links between infants and their environment, powerfully affect the connection-making processes within the brain. Among these environmental influences, interactions with caregivers are especially important. Human connections are as important to the development of brain connections as having food to eat, sounds to hear, and light by which to see. Broadly speaking, all children require similar care. But the experience is different for each child because caregivers are not all the same, because each child is born with a distinct combination of traits, and because the character and quality of the interactions between caregivers and children are subject to many different influences.

A third set of connections establishes the social context within which the relationships between caregivers and children develop. The culture in which a family is embedded — and, more specifically, economic and social circumstances, habits, and values — influences the physical surroundings, the daily routines, and the emotional climate of the household. Financial worries, family insecurities, personal uncertainties, job-related stress, and a host of other factors rooted in the social order affect relationships within the family, notably the amount of time mothers and fathers have for their children and how that time is spent. Although we include some research findings from other countries and comparative data to illustrate the role culture plays in child development, our focus is on children in the United States. The explosion in scientific knowledge concerning the processes of brain development is giving us a clearer understanding of the experiences babies need to become healthy adults. But a whirlwind of social change is creating a climate in which it is becoming harder for great numbers of parents to provide these experiences for their children.

Most of this book deals with the first two sets of connections, those within the brain that organize a child's mental capacities and character and those that link children and caregivers. After a brief chapter on the basics of brain organization, we discuss in three chapters the interplay of biological and social links in language acquisition. Four subsequent chapters examine similar processes in the development of a child's capacity for emotional expression and self-control. While the third set of connections — the cultural, political, and economic factors that affect the care of children — are the background for the entire book, they are emphasized in the two final chapters.

In this book we raise many questions. How much does childhood experience influence development of specific human capabilities and character traits? In what ways? Why do things sometimes go wrong? What kinds of childhood experience improve a child's prospects? Why do some children do very well despite their wretched childhoods? What sorts of help increase the possibility of a good life for people who were neglected or otherwise deprived in early childhood?

Some of these questions can be approached with growing assurance. But information is accumulating so fast that theories and beliefs constantly require rethinking and revision. Some of the most intriguing ideas currently being advanced in the neurosciences are hotly debated. In presenting the scientific data we will make an effort to distinguish what we believe to be true because the evidence is convincing, what we find to be interesting and plausible, and what are no more than the informed guesses that have always spurred progress in science even when they turn out to be wrong.

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

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

Introduction

1. HOW THE BRAIN TAKES SHAPE

2. THE HOUSE OF MEANING

3. PATHWAYS OF LANGUAGE

4. HOW MUCH HELP DOES A BABY NEED?

5. LANGUAGE OF THE HEART

6. I AND THOU: EMOTIONAL RELATIONSHIP AND THE DISCOVERY OF SELF

7. EMPATHY, CONSCIENCE, AND MORAL DEVELOPMENT

8. CHILDREN'S ANGER AND ADULT VIOLENCE

9. BEATING THE ODDS

10. CARING FOR CHILDREN SUMMING UP: SHAPING THE MIND
Acknowledgments

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

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Introduction

Introduction This book grows out of our forty-five-year collaboration. The delights and tensions of being parents and the total pleasure of being grandparents are reflected in these pages. Our first daughter was born when one of us was in medical school and the other in law school. Our third grandchild arrived a few months ago. Like all parents, we have been more than witnesses to the miraculous transformations of childhood; for better or worse, every parent plays an important role in the development of a child's mind.

Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology are making it possible to understand more clearly how parents help to shape their children's brains. Our primary purpose in writing this book is to explain what is becoming known about how young children acquire language, develop emotional ties, gain control of their own emotions, become able to experience the joy and pain of others, and embrace moral values.

We bring a range of professional experiences and interests to this joint effort. Ann, a pediatric neurologist who has spent her adult life observing and caring for children, has developed research tools for studying children's brains, and diagnostic tests to detect abnormalities in infants' hearing, vision, and tactile sensation. For many years she directed electroencephalographic (brain wave) research at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. She is also the founder of the Family Place, a community center for young children and their parents that offers poor families a variety of services, such as referrals to medical care, counseling, and parent education. Her interest in the role genes play in development dates from the two summers she spent studying the brains and behavior of mice at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, just before she entered Harvard Medical School. Children, especially young children, have been at the center of her medical practice, neurological research, and volunteer work in the community.

Richard has spent most of his professional life as a writer and teacher. He is the author of twelve books and numerous articles on political and socioeconomic issues. In studying the social changes that accompany global economic integration, he was struck by how much the experience of childhood is changing around the world, and he became concerned about how this rapid transformation was affecting children. This sparked his interest in learning about the remarkable advances in the neurosciences in understanding some of the biological processes of early development. Precisely how environmental influences affect the expression of genes in the shaping of a child's brain is still a mystery, but it is becoming less of one year by year.

That human beings are social animals is a very old idea. From the moment of birth we need the nurture and love of other people. Over the last few years it has become clearer that the quality and character of interactions with others -- parents, family members, and caregivers outside the family -- actually influence brain development. At the same time, breakthroughs in genetics are providing new insights into the power of inborn factors to shape our lives.

The ancient nature-nurture dichotomy is not helpful in describing the development process. Even in an unborn baby, genes and environment interact almost from the moment of conception. Development is a lifelong dialogue between inherited tendencies and our life history. Children's brains are neither blank slates waiting for a story to be written nor immutable hard-wired circuits controlled by implacable genes. Whether and how a gene is expressed in an individual -- that is, whether it ever speaks and what it says -- depends on the dynamic interaction of genetic inheritance and the person's experiences. The notion that experience plays a role in development is not controversial, but differing understandings of how early interactions cast their shadows over later life have generated heated controversy throughout the twentieth century.

Our hope is to make the reader more aware of the continuous interplay of biological and environmental factors in specific areas of human development. We have looked at development from the perspective of both neurobiology and psychology, connecting islands of knowledge where we can. Science is telling us a great deal more than we used to know about what children need and when they need it. Although the combined efforts of neuroscientists, educators, psychologists, and pediatricians still fall far short of a comprehensive theory of brain development, a wide range of studies in many fields is yielding new knowledge of great promise.

We have tried to lay before the reader conflicting evidence and opposing views about what children need for healthy development. As alternative hypotheses are tested, a clearer picture will emerge. But clashes over conclusions supported by scientific evidence are virtually inevitable when the findings indicate a need to change personal behavior or social policy. Controversies over global warming and the dangers of tobacco are famous examples. Debates over scientific evidence about what children need and who should provide it are full of passion because the contending views carry with them implicit recommendations about how parents should act and how public money should be spent.

The book focuses on issues that seem especially important to us and on research that we find particularly compelling or intriguing. We cannot claim to be disinterested observers. We start with a concern that a large minority of children in the United States are facing considerable risks in growing up, and we believe that failure to meet their developmental needs is having serious consequences for our whole society. But we also start with the hope that better understanding of the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in children's development can lead to personal decisions and public policies that will reduce these risks. We undertook this project to deepen our own understanding of the space within each child between what is biologically determined and what can be changed; it would please us if what we have found is of use to others.

Three intertwined sets of connections define the process of development. The first set is the wiring of the brain itself. As nerve cells carry their trillions of electrochemical messages from one part of the brain to another, and from the brain to the body and back, the physical structure of the brain takes shape. Each person's set of brain connections is unique; it cannot be cloned. There is a basic reason for this. Even though fundamental features are shared, critical connections in the human brain are shaped and reshaped by ongoing experiences unique to the individual.

A second set of connections, the links between infants and their environment, powerfully affect the connection-making processes within the brain. Among these environmental influences, interactions with caregivers are especially important. Human connections are as important to the development of brain connections as having food to eat, sounds to hear, and light by which to see. Broadly speaking, all children require similar care. But the experience is different for each child because caregivers are not all the same, because each child is born with a distinct combination of traits, and because the character and quality of the interactions between caregivers and children are subject to many different influences.

A third set of connections establishes the social context within which the relationships between caregivers and children develop. The culture in which a family is embedded -- and, more specifically, economic and social circumstances, habits, and values -- influences the physical surroundings, the daily routines, and the emotional climate of the household. Financial worries, family insecurities, personal uncertainties, job-related stress, and a host of other factors rooted in the social order affect relationships within the family, notably the amount of time mothers and fathers have for their children and how that time is spent. Although we include some research findings from other countries and comparative data to illustrate the role culture plays in child development, our focus is on children in the United States. The explosion in scientific knowledge concerning the processes of brain development is giving us a clearer understanding of the experiences babies need to become healthy adults. But a whirlwind of social change is creating a climate in which it is becoming harder for great numbers of parents to provide these experiences for their children.

Most of this book deals with the first two sets of connections, those within the brain that organize a child's mental capacities and character and those that link children and caregivers. After a brief chapter on the basics of brain organization, we discuss in three chapters the interplay of biological and social links in language acquisition. Four subsequent chapters examine similar processes in the development of a child's capacity for emotional expression and self-control. While the third set of connections -- the cultural, political, and economic factors that affect the care of children -- are the background for the entire book, they are emphasized in the two final chapters.

In this book we raise many questions. How much does childhood experience influence development of specific human capabilities and character traits? In what ways? Why do things sometimes go wrong? What kinds of childhood experience improve a child's prospects? Why do some children do very well despite their wretched childhoods? What sorts of help increase the possibility of a good life for people who were neglected or otherwise deprived in early childhood?

Some of these questions can be approached with growing assurance. But information is accumulating so fast that theories and beliefs constantly require rethinking and revision. Some of the most intriguing ideas currently being advanced in the neurosciences are hotly debated. In presenting the scientific data we will make an effort to distinguish what we believe to be true because the evidence is convincing, what we find to be interesting and plausible, and what are no more than the informed guesses that have always spurred progress in science even when they turn out to be wrong.

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

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