The determinist myth

The idea that the first three years of our lives make us who we are is scientifically unsound.

During a recent stay at a Thai boxing camp in Thailand, a fellow boxer told me he was put into care as a toddler. He wondered whether his mother’s alcoholism was likely to have damaged him, “because they say the first three years make you who you are, don’t they?”

Well, they do say that – but that doesn’t make it true. The myth of infant determinism, however, is all-pervasive. Back in 1997, the then first lady and now Democratic senator for New York, Hillary Clinton, drew on developments in neuroscience to set the tone for the popular debate.

At a White House conference she asserted that experiences in infancy “shape the rest of [our] lives” and will “determine how [our] brains are wired”.

More recently, the psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt argued in her much feted book, Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, that there is no such thing as a “difficult baby”, only “difficult parents”, who are either “neglectful” or “intrusive”. She warned that a lack of parental sensitivity in infancy will create problems when the child grows up – limiting the ability to respond to stress in adulthood, and increasing susceptibility to conditions such as depression, addiction and anorexia. Child rearing is such a delicate matter, it seems, that a tiny difference early on, such as ignoring a baby’s cries once too often, can lead to drastically different outcomes later in life.

And it goes on. In July this year the Guardian – drawing on two large-scale longitudinal studies – warned that day nurseries for children under two increase the incidence of insecurity and aggression in young children. The reports no doubt caused a lot of anguish for working parents.

But on further investigation of the results, neither study – in my view – shows evidence of long-term deleterious effects in children attending day-care from an early age. The day-care children in the American National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study did not differ from the norm.

The UK study, entitled “The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education”, did report a link between the time spent in day-care and “behaviour problems” at age three. But what does this mean? Not that the children are damaged by group care, that’s for sure. Just because children are found to be more aggressive at a particular stage in their lives, it doesn’t mean they will continue to be so. It could be the case that children in day-care from an early age exhibit more “problem behaviours” (which includes normal childhood behaviour such as demanding attention and arguing) earlier than children who have not spent their early years in nursery. This is just one example of an infant-determinist story that doesn’t bear up to close inspection.

Infant determinists invariably draw on work by the late UK psychiatrist John Bowlby at the Tavistock Clinic in London in the 1950s and 60s. He argued that an important difference between “vulnerable” and “resilient” children is found in the quality of their earliest relationships, particularly attachments to a mother figure. A secure relationship with their care-giver makes children more secure and able to cope with stressful situations later in life, claimed Bowlby; while children who haven’t developed secure attachments in infancy fail to develop lasting relationships as adults.

The reality is that it is far from obvious how early attachments shape our development – not least because of the difficulty in isolating variables in longitudinal studies of human behaviour. Quantifying the effect of childhood experiences on adult life is almost impossible. It may be the case that we are influenced by the care we receive in infancy. Childhood experiences do play their part in informing our attitudes and behaviour in later life, and our personalities start taking shape at an early age. But this doesn’t mean that we are determined by childhood influences – in the sense of early experiences that irreversibly shape the rest of our lives.

It is often argued that recent research in neuroscience gives weight to the idea that we are determined by the attention we receive as babies. The brain produces an immense number of synapses – or neural connections – in the first few years of a child’s life. After this there is a prolonged period of “pruning”, or withering away, of synapses. But neuroscience has not come up with any clear answers as to how synaptic circuits are shaped or altered by experience. There is no firm evidence demonstrating that the type of care received in infancy has an effect on synaptogenesis – the creation of new synapses – or on synaptic pruning. These processes take place regardless of infants’ experiences.

It may well be the case that extreme emotional deprivation in the first two years of life can have devastating, irreversible consequences. Gerhardt points out that researchers who studied the brains of young children in Romanian orphanages found a “virtual black hole” where the orbitofrontal cortex – an area of the brain involved in the regulation of emotions – should have been. However, it is exceptionally rare to see children subjected to the anything like the appalling treatment of the Romanian orphans. Extreme conditions of emotional deprivation may be so exceptional that they tell us absolutely nothing about the situations where there is engagement between adult and child. There is a world of difference between being starved of human contact and having parents who do not match up to attachment enthusiasts’ expectations – being continually loving, caring, expressive, and encouraging.

Of course, some parents will be awkward in the way they show their love for their children; others will fail to provide enough praise and encouragement. But even if emotional sensitivity is lacking, as psychotherapist Peter Hobson at the Tavistock Clinic in London argues, “One is constantly amazed by the resilience of babies and how effectively they can find ways round potential disadvantage and get much of what they need from people around them.” Much research contradicts the pessimistic belief in irreversible influences in early childhood, showing instead that children are psychologically resilient.

Some children are not wanted or loved by their parents, and suffer psychologically as a result. But the fact is that most parents have good days and bad days. Most children can handle the fact that their carers are not perfect. It will not help parents if they are loaded with guilt for being insensitive to their children’s every need – and it will do children no good to think they can blame their bad behaviour today, and whatever problems they may encounter in future, on their parents.

Published by the Guardian, 3 November 2004