Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
The more parents talk to their children, even in the earliest moments of life, the better their kids linguistic abilities become and the faster that improvement is achieved. The gold standard is 2,100 words per hour. The variety of the words spoken (nouns, verbs, and adjectives used, along with the length and complexity of phrases and sentences) is nearly as important as the number of words spoken. So is the amount of positive feedback. You can reinforce language skills through interaction: looking at your infant; imitating his vocalizations, laughter, and facial expressions; rewarding her language attempts with heightened attention. Children whose parents talked positively, richly, and regularly to them knew twice as many words as kids whose parents talked to them the least. When these kids entered the school system, their reading, spelling, and writing abilities soared above those of children in less verbal households. Even though babies don’t respond like adults, they are listening, and it is good for them.
Educational psychologist William Fowler trained a group of parents to talk to their children in a particular fashion, following some of the guidelines mentioned above. The children spoke their first words between 7 and 9 months of age, some even speaking sentences at 10 months. They had conquered most of the basic rules of grammar by age 2, while the controls achieved a similar mastery around age 4. Longer-term studies showed that the kids did very well in school, including in math and science. By the time they entered high school, 62 percent of them were enrolled in gifted or accelerated programs. Critical parts of Fowler’s training program need further study, but his work is terrific. It adds to the overwhelming evidence that a whole lot of talking is like fertilizer for neurons.
If survival is the brain’s most important priority, safety is the most important expression of that priority. This is the lesson Harlow’s iron maidens teach us. Babies are completely at the mercy of the people who brought them into the world. This understanding has a behavioral blast radius in infants that obscures every other behavioral priority they have.
How do babies handle these concerns? By attempting to establish a productive relationship with the local power structures—you, in other words—as soon as possible. We call this attachment. During the attachment process, a baby’s brain intensely monitors the caregiving it receives. It is essentially asking such things as “Am I being touched? Am I being fed? Who is safe?” If the baby’s requirements are being fulfilled, the brain develops one way; if not, genetic instructions trigger it to develop in another way. It may be a bit disconcerting to realize, but infants have their parents behaviors in their sights virtually from the moment they come into this world. It is in their evolutionary best interests to do so, of course, which is another way of saying that they can’t help it. Babies have nowhere else to turn.
There’s a window of several years during which babies strive to create these bonds and establish perceptions of safety. If it doesn’t happen, they can suffer long-term emotional damage. In extreme cases, they can be scarred for life.
We know this because of a powerful—and heartbreaking—story from Communist Romania, discovered circa 1990 by Western reporters. In 1966, in an effort to boost the country’s low birthrate, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned both contraception and abortion and taxed those who were childless after age 25—whether married, single, or infertile. As the birthrate rose, so did poverty and homeless-ness. Children were often simply abandoned. Ceausescu’s response was to create a gulag of state orphanages, with children warehoused by the thousands.
The orphanages soon were stripped of resources as Ceausescu began exporting most of Romania’s food and industry to repay the country’s crippling national debt. The scenes in these orphanages were shocking. Babies were seldom held or given deliberate sensory stimulation. Many were found tied to their beds, left alone for hours or days, with bottles of gruel propped haphazardly into their mouths. Many infants stared blankly into space. Indeed, you could walk into some of these hundred-bed orphanages and not hear a sound. Blankets were covered in urine, feces, and lice. The childhood mortality rate in these institutions was sickening, termed by some Westerners “pediatric Auschwitz.”
Horrible as these conditions were, they created a real opportunity to investigate—and perhaps treat—large groups of severely traumatized children. One remarkable study involved Canadian families who adopted some of these infants and raised them back home. As the adopted children matured, researchers could easily divide them into two groups. One group seemed remarkably stable. Social behavior, stress responses, grades, medical issues—all were indistinguishable from healthy Canadian controls. The other group seemed just as remarkably troubled. They had more eating problems, got sick more often, and exhibited increasingly aggressive antisocial behaviors. The independent variable? The age of adoption.
If the children were adopted before the fourth month of life, they acted like every other happy kid you know. If they were adopted after the eighth month of life, they acted like gang members. The inability to find safety through bonding, by a specific age in infancy, clearly caused immense stress to their systems. And that stress affected these children’s behavior years later. They may have been removed from the orphanages long ago, but they were never really free.
Vygotsky was one of the few researchers of his era to study dramatic play in children. He predicted that the ability of the under-5 crowd to engage in imaginative activities was going to be a better gauge of academic success than any other activity—including quantitative and verbal competencies. The reason, Vygotsky believed, was that such engagement allowed children to learn how to regulate their social behaviors. Hardly the carefree activity we think of in the United States, Vygotsky saw imaginative play as one of the most tightly restricting behaviors children experience. If little Sasha was going to be a chef, he would have to follow the rules, expectations, and limitations of “chef-ness”. If this imaginative exercise included friends, they would have to follow the rules, too. They might push and pull and argue with each other until they agreed on what those rules were and how they should be executed. That’s how self-control developed, he posited. In a group setting, such a task is extremely intellectually demanding, even for adults. If this sounds like a prelude to the more modern notion of executive function, you are right on the money. Vygotksy’s followers showed that children acting out imaginative scenes controlled their impulses much better than they did in non-MDP situations. While other parts of Vygotsky’s work are starting to show some intellectual arthritis, his ideas on self-regulation have held up well.
Studies show that, compared with controls, kids allowed a specific type of open-ended play time were:
• More creative. On average they came up with three times as many nonstandard creative uses for specific objects (a standard lab measure) as did controls.
• Better at language. The children’s use of language was more facile. They displayed a richer store of vocabulary and a more varied use of words.
• Better at problem solving. This is fluid intelligence, one of the basic ingredients in the intelligence stew.
• Less stressed. Children regularly exposed to such activity had half the anxiety levels of controls. This may help explain the problem-solving benefit, as problem-solving skills are notoriously sensitive to anxiety.
• Better at memory. Play situations improved memory scores; for example, kids who pretended they were at the supermarket remembered twice as many words on a grocery list as controls.
• More socially skilled. The social-buffering benefits of play are reflected in the crime statistics of inner-city kids. If low-income kids were exposed to play-oriented preschools in their earliest years, fewer than 7 percent had been arrested for a felony by age 23. For children exposed to instruction-oriented preschools, that figure was 33 percent.
Gestures and speech used similar neural circuits as they developed in our evolutionary history. University of Chicago psycholinguist David McNeill was the first to suggest this. He thought nonverbal and verbal skills might retain their strong ties even though they’ve diverged into separate behavioral spheres. He was right. Studies confirmed it with a puzzling finding: People who could no longer move their limbs after a brain injury also increasingly lost their ability to communicate verbally. Studies of babies showed the same direct association. We now know that infants do not gain a more sophisticated vocabulary until their fine-motor finger control improves. That’s a remarkable finding. Gestures are “windows into thought processes,” McNeill says. Could learning physical gestures improve other cognitive skills? One study hints that it could, though more work needs to be done. Kids with normal hearing took an American Sign Language class for nine months, in the first grade, then were administered a series of cognitive tests. Their attentional focus, spatial abilities, memory, and visual discrimination scores improved dramatically—by as much as 50 percent—compared with controls who had no formal instruction.
• The desire to explore
• Verbal communication
• Decoding nonverbal communication
Even in an emotionally stable home, one without regular marital hostility, there will be fights. Fortunately, research shows that the amount of fighting couples do in front of their children is less damaging than the lack of reconciliation the kids observe. Many couples will fight in front of their children but reconcile in private. This skews a child’s perceptions, even at early ages, for the child always sees the wounding but never the bandaging. Parents who practice bandaging each other deliberately—and explicitly—after a fight allow their children to model both how to fight fair and how to make up.
In 1962, researchers wanted to test the effects of an early-childhood preschool training program they had designed. Kids in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first attended the preschool program (which eventually became a model for other preschool programs nationwide, including Head Start). The second group did not. The differences powerfully illustrate the importance of a child’s early years. The kids in the program academically outperformed the controls in virtually every way you can measure performance, from IQ and language tests in the early years to standardized achievement assessments and literacy exams in the later years. More graduated from high school (84 percent vs. 32 percent for the girls). Not surprisingly, they were more likely to attend college. The kids who were not in the program were four times more likely to require treatment for a mental-health problem (36 percent vs. 8 percent). They were twice as likely to repeat a grade (41 percent vs. 21 percent). As adults, those who had been in the program were less likely to commit crimes and more likely to hold steady jobs. They made more money, more often had a savings account, and were more likely to own a home. Economists calculated that the return on society’s investment in such a program was 7 to 10 percent, about what you’d historically get in the stock market. Some estimate a substantially higher return: $16 for every tax dollar invested in early childhood.