Orlando Sentinel

Focus on more than baby's first 3 years

By Kathleen Parker Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 19, 1999.

Pity today's parents who want to do the right thing. They buy child-rearing books, pore over psychology articles, play Mozart in nurseries festooned with alphabet cards and the periodic table.

All trying to do the right thing for their precious offspring -- to give him a leg up, to mold her into her personal best, to nurture the prodigy every mother fantasizes emerged from her womb.

Most important, these parents know, is what they do those first three critical years. They've read Newsweek. They've listened to the Clintons. They've read the headlines. "How to Build a Baby's Brain" went one headline in Newsweek's 1997 special edition "From Birth to 3."

Never has parenting been so challenging, nor so ridiculous.

Ask yourself: Did Thomas Jefferson's mother haul him off to enriched-play environments and obsess over the frequency and complexity of his brain synapses and circuit formation? As a mother of 10, she likely did not.

Nevertheless, by age 16, Jefferson was enrolled at William and Mary College, a voracious reader already fluent in Greek and Latin, accomplished at violin and a good dancer, too. Nary a psychological study nor government preschool in sight.

Relying on the latest scientific discovery rather than on instinct and common sense -- whether the subject is child-rearing or red meat -- is problematic, not least because the latest discovery is instantly yesterday's. A new, improved discovery is just around the corner.

Given which, therapists' lines no doubt will be tied up the next few weeks as earnest parents peruse the latest book on babies' brains. Lamentably -- pity the parents -- it's called: The Myth of the First Three Years.

Author John T. Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which finances brain research, writes that the first three years may be important for a variety of reasons, but the truth is we don't know jack about how the brain really works. Neuroscience, for all the headlines, thus far has told us "absolutely nothing" about what babies' brains can or cannot do, Bruer states.

The only thing science has proved thus far is that babies left to languish in their cribs, neglected and without stimulation, develop motor skills abnormally slowly.

"Apart from eliminating gross neglect, neuroscience cannot currently tell us much about whether we can, let alone how to, influence brain development during the early stage of exuberant synapse formation," Bruer writes.

Thesis? Babies need a normal environment to develop normally. "Normal" means normal -- lots of touching, cooing, responding to needs, talking -- formerly known as "mothering." Instinct. Common sense. Jefferson's mother knew that. We used to know that, too.

Bruer's purpose in debunking the myth isn't to diminish the importance of good parenting in early infancy but to suggest that public policies must be based on sound, not wishful, science.

Understanding early brain development is a legitimate societal goal. Affecting parenting and education in positive ways should be a national priority. But skewing or exaggerating scientific findings to advance popular policies is ultimately counterproductive.

By advising parents to focus on the first three years, Bruer writes, we risk minimizing the importance of brain development in later years. From a policy point of view, selectively focusing on the first three years may divert limited resources from enrichment programs needed elsewhere.

Furthermore, writes Bruer, we might want to find other and better ways to help young children. Such as, perhaps, encouraging mothers (and fathers) to spend more time with their infants -- cooing, coddling, playing and responding.

The prodigal sons and daughters who fill history books somehow managed on just that.

Kathleen Parker's column also appears Wednesday in the Sentinel's Living section. She can be reached via e-mail at Kparker@Kparker.com

[Posted 09/20/1999 3:07 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.