Early childhood maketh not the man

The idea that the first three years of a child’s life are more important than other phases is increasingly dominant in policy and media circles. John Bruer, president of the US James S McDonnell Foundation in Missouri, has made an international impact challenging this determinist outlook. His book The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning (published back in 1999) debunks the popular idea that early experiences will have an all-or-nothing effect on a child’s brain and development. Later this week, Bruer will be speaking at Kent University’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies conference in London titled The Uses And Abuses Of Biology: Neuroscience, Parenting and Family Policy in Britain. In the run-up to the conference, I posed some questions to Bruer about The Myth of the first three years and what has changed since it was first published.

Helene Guldberg: You wrote The Myth of the First Three Years 15 years ago. What – if anything – has changed since you started writing about infant determinism? Are educators, professionals, academics and the public more or less open to your ideas than they were 15 years ago?

John Bruer: The book’s intent was to present a balanced view of the neuroscience underlying early childhood development, and to correct the misinterpretations and over-generalisations of neuroscience invoked by early intervention advocates and propagated by journalists at the time. I really don’t see the book as presenting ‘my ideas’. My interests in this area are in the accurate and appropriate use of science in policy and in raising issues about academic and scholarly integrity.

The book did have an effect. At the time, most neuroscientists thought that any ink was good ink. Many were unaware of how their work was being misrepresented and abused. So one result has been that some neuroscientists are more sensitive about how their work is presented and used.

In 1999, when the book was published, claims about the lifelong neural effects of early experience were largely confined to policy documents published by advocacy groups and private foundations (eg, Starting Points published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Rethinking the Brain by Rima Shore). Of course, some neuroscientists supported these positions. However, in response to my book, several academic scientists including Charles Nelson [professor of pediatrics, neuroscience, and psychology at Harvard Medical School] and even Jack Shonkoff [professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and board member of Zero to Three, emphasising the importance of early experiences], wrote articles saying that the assertions of the policy literature overreached the available scientific evidence.

I think that The Myth of the First Three Years did cause advocates to dial back their claims somewhat. Generally the book was well received by neuroscientists and psychologists, but less well received by psychiatrists, attachment theorists, and policy advocates. Sir Michael Rutter, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry who led a major study into the effect of early severe deprivation on Romanian orphans adopted into Britain, wrote what I consider to be an excellent article on the dangers of ‘evangelising’ which supported the arguments of The Myth of the First Three Years.

However, the myth of the first three years has not gone away. A review of the policy documents circulating in the UK over the past few years shows that the myth is still uncritically embraced in policy and advocacy circles. It is not going to go away any time soon.

The academic community’s response to The Myth of the First Three Years is presented and discussed in a paper I prepared for the Centre for Parenting Studies 2011 conference, ‘Monitoring Parents: Science, evidence, experts and the new parenting’.

HG: Has the science drawn upon by policymakers developed?

JB: This is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, our understanding of child development continues to improve based on research. However, judging from the policy literature in the UK, the neuroscience policymakers appeal to is quite limited, and for the most part is still subject to the criticisms I made in The Myth of the First Three Years. One concern is that even if the science does develop, we must address the problem of ‘cherry picking’ the science to fit our pre-conceived notions and ideological biases. There is a lot of work in neuroscience and developmental or child psychology that is not consistent with the very strong claims made by some early childhood advocates.

HG: Why is attachment theory and neuroscience met with such credulity by policymakers?

JB: There is a strong, widespread assumption in our culture that early childhood experiences have lifelong consequences, and that mothers are the source of these experiences. Our ideas about early childhood have philosophical precursors in Rousseau and Locke, and even farther back if one cares to look. Attachment theory itself developed after the Second World War, based on John Bowlby’s assessment of the effects of the war on family structure and the increase in the number of orphans and children of refugee status. Bowlby was a psychiatrist, and the long-term effects of early experience have always been more prevalent in that field than they have been in developmental psychology. So maybe one reason attachment theory resonates with policymakers is that it is a theory that is grounded in one of our deeply held cultural beliefs.

As for neuroscience’s popularity among policymakers, I can think of two possible reasons. In the US, President HW Bush declared the 1990s to be the ‘decade of the brain’. The government, private foundations, and the Society for Neuroscience engaged in a public-relations campaign to highlight the relevance of brain science to mental illness and other social problems – nothing wrong with that. With regard to early childhood, however, in the early 1990s the Carnegie Corporation of New York (a private foundation) issued a report entitled Starting Points. The purpose of the report was to build a case to support funding of Early Head Start. More or less as an afterthought, the writer responsible for the final draft of the report (Rima Shore) included a two-and-a-half-page summary of her reading of brain science that might be relevant to early childhood. To almost everyone’s surprise, the report was widely popular and influential due primarily to the brain science summarised by Shore.

In subsequent early childhood publicity campaigns, advocates consciously exploited the brain science. Apparently, the mechanistic explanation of development was widely popular among both men and women. The image of soldering synapses together and having synaptic preservation as a goal of successful parenting had an appeal. It is also the case that the public seems to take biological explanations more seriously than explanations based on behavioural science. Why this is the case is something scholars are still trying to figure out.

HG: Is it really the case that experiences in infancy have a determining effect on the rest of our lives? Is the quality of parents’ interaction so important that it can explain how the baby turns out as an adult? Is there any evidence that the first three years are any more important than subsequent years?

JB: Experiences in infancy do have an effect on later development, but there are questions about their extent and irreversibility. Another question is what neuroscience might tell us about their extent and irreversibility. There is considerable behavioural and neuroscientific data to suggest that experiences throughout one’s lifetime are important.

HG: Do you think science – and neuroscience in particular – can tell parents anything about how to interact with their children? Can it tell educators anything about what to do in the classroom?

JB: Yes, science can be helpful to parents and educators. We know a considerable amount about developmental trajectories that can help parents provide age-appropriate stimulation and activities for their children. It can help them identify developmental delays where it might be appropriate to seek professional help. Neuroscientific understanding of the sensory system has shown the importance of species-wide stimulation for the healthy development of vision, hearing, and language. Here the message is not so much about providing the right kinds of stimuli – the right kinds of stimuli are everywhere – but about being sure that the child’s sensory receptors – eyes and ears – are functioning to process these stimuli. Visual and hearing problems should be addressed as early as possible. As far as education is concerned, educational neuroscience is at a very early stage of development and is at best a promissory note for the future. However, research in developmental psychology has taught us a great deal about how to teach reading, elementary arithmetic, and even high-school and college physics.

HG: Would you reject completely the idea that there may be ‘critical periods’ for development?

JB: I find it difficult to reply briefly to questions about critical periods. The term means different things to different people. The popular notion that critical periods are ‘windows of opportunity that slam shut’ at specific ages has lost currency in the scientific community. The preferred term these days is ‘sensitive period’. Sensitive periods are defined as opening and closing gradually, and the effects of experience during the sensitive period are not irreversible. Whatever we call these periods in development, they appear to pertain only to species-wide behaviours like vision and language learning. The kinds of experiences required during a critical or sensitive period are very broad and universally available in any normal social or cultural environment. As far as we know, there are no sensitive periods for acquiring skills like reading, maths and so on.

HG: What effect has infant determinism had on people’s lives? Has anything positive come out of the increased focus on early years? For example, current UK social policy promotes early intervention ‘to improve the lives of disadvantaged children’. Is this not a good thing? And, if more resources are put into early education, is this a positive development?

JB: Assessing the effects of infant determinism on people’s lives would represent a substantial research programme. As I mentioned above, the importance of the early years is a belief firmly engrained in our culture. There is a history of emphasis on early intervention to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. Head Start in the US started in 1965 as a programme to break the cycle of poverty among disadvantaged children. What has been discouraging is that the programme has seemed to have had a limited impact. Of course, this last statement is highly contentious. True believers continue to generate and cite studies showing that Head Start appears to have had some long-term effects, although it has not improved school performance as was originally intended. And Head Start sceptics generate and cite studies showing that Head Start has had virtually no effect at all. This is a difficult question that will require more careful study and cooler heads on both sides of the debate.

However, brain science has added nothing meaningful to the debate, either pro or con. Investing in children and education is of course a good thing. However, we have an obligation to children and ourselves to invest wisely. The resources available will never be sufficient and difficult choices will have to be made. One way to think about it is to pursue the investment analogy. For my entire working life, I have been investing for my retirement. Some investments are better than others. More risks mean greater rewards, but one has to be reasonable about the risks. Some sound investments are boring. However, if 40 years ago someone had advised me to invest in junk bonds with extremely high yields, I would have been foolish to do so. Investments that sound too good to be true are, in general, too good to be true. The kinds of returns promised in the UK early childhood policy literature are too good to be true.

HG: What – if any – negative effects has infant determinism had?

JB: Jerry Kagan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, has written extensively on the history and consequences of infant determinism in his book, Three Seductive Ideas. In fact, I think the term, infant determinism, might even be his.

One negative effect of infant determinism is an unwarranted over-emphasis on early childhood. This can skew policy. We have to be open to the possibility that our science may overturn or modify our long-standing cultural biases.

HG: Would you argue that what parents do doesn’t matter at all?

JB: Of course, what a parent does matters. However, the claim that what parents do during the first three years has irreversible, lifelong effects in all areas of cognitive, social and emotional development is not supported by neuroscience.

First published on spiked, 24 March 2014