The deterministic myth of the ‘early years’

The idea that infant experiences are more important than experiences later in life in determining who we are dominates policy discussions on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, for example, US president Barack Obama claimed that ‘the early years in a child’s life – when the human brain is forming – represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential’.

In the UK, all the main political parties believe we can explain who we are as adults on the basis of the type of care we received in infancy. There is a policymaking consensus that the state has to intervene in family life – as early as possible – to identify and ‘support’ inadequate parents.

The 2013 Department for Education report, Conception to Age Two – The Age of Opportunity, recommends the following: antenatal and postnatal care should also focus on the emotional bond between the mother and child rather than just on childbirth and a baby’s physical health; health visitors should offer mothers-to-be two interviews to assess the quality of their child-bonding; and an additional assessment of the mother and child’s ‘attachment behaviour’ will be offered to parents considered to be having difficulty bonding with their baby.

The Lib-Con coalition government’s commitment to early intervention was spelt out in the 2011 document, Supporting Families in the Foundation Years. The term ‘foundation years’ was explicitly adopted – as recommended by Labour MP Frank Field – because ‘children’s physical, emotional, language and cognitive development from pregnancy to age five are the foundations of the rest of their lives’.

Being a parent here is analogous to being a builder. If the right care and attention is not put into creating a solid foundation, it doesn’t matter how much effort is put into the rest of the building, the structure will not be secure. Likewise, if parents don’t get it right during the ‘foundation years’, the ability of the child to grow and flourish will be permanently undermined.

But is it really the case that experiences in infancy have a determining effect on the rest of our lives? Is the quality of parents’ interactions so important that it can explain how the baby turns out as an adult? Is Obama right to talk about infancy as a ‘window of opportunity’ to develop a child’s full potential’? When the window purportedly shuts, after infancy, is it too late to turn things around?

Infant determinists invariably draw on attachment theory, the Ceausescu-era orphanages in Romania and neuroscience to back up their claims about human development. I will take a critical look at all three.

Attachment Theory

The UK psychiatrist John Bowlby argued that an important difference between ‘vulnerable’ and ‘resilient’ children is found in the quality of their earliest relationships, particularly their attachment to a mother figure. A secure relationship with their caregiver makes children more secure and able to cope with stressful situations later in life. Children who haven’t developed secure attachments in infancy fail to develop lasting relationships as adults.

The bulk of empirical research on attachment security builds on the work of the psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues, who devised the experimental procedure known as ‘strange situation’. In the strange-situation test, children are subjected to a number of mild stresses – such as being left alone with a stranger – in order to assess their feelings towards their caregiver. Ainsworth claimed the data showed that children could be categorised into three basic attachment types: secure; insecure/avoidant; and insecure/resistant. The differences between the attachment types were seen to be the result of the caregiver’s sensitivity during interactions in early infancy. These attachment types were seen as relatively stable, and having predictive power over children’s future emotional development.

There is criticism, however. As professor of psychology Jerome Kagan points out in The Allure of Infant Determinism, ‘half of a large number of studies conducted by scientists working in different cities found no significant relation between the sensitivity of the mother’s care and the security of the child’s attachment’ (1). Nor is there conclusive evidence that attachment classifications remain stable over time. Kagan concludes: ‘Sometimes a child’s attachment security remains the same over time. Sometimes it does not.’ For anyone who has experience of young children this will resonate. Children can be clingy and insecure one day or secure, confident and even adventurous the next.

Emeritus professors of psychology, Ann and Alan Clarke, drew similar conclusions to Kagan: ‘For the majority of people, the effects of early-life experience represent no more than an initial step in an ongoing life path.’ Depending on a multitude of factors, including individual characteristics, interpersonal relationships and social factors, ‘such a path may be straight or winding, incremental or decremental, or merely fluctuant’.

The research has not established a link between parental sensitivity and types of attachment, nor has it shown that there are ‘critical periods’ for emotional and social development. Humans respond in very different ways to experiences. Early traumatic experience or severe neglect may have long-term deleterious effects on some individuals. The reasons for the negative effects could be manifold – and are most likely related to life experiences and relationships later in life. But early trauma and neglect can also result in some children becoming more resilient.

Our family relationships are likely to play a big role in shaping us – they tend to be our longest and most enduring relationships. But just as we may form relationships outside the home that affirm our sense of self and nature of attachment, so we may form relationships that challenge our self-image and our way of relating to other people.

Romanian orphanages and extreme deprivation

Proponents of ‘critical periods’ often draw on examples from Romanian orphanages to demonstrate the importance of early emotional engagements. After the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, many were stunned by the conditions at Romania’s state orphanages. The children had suffered extreme deprivation: they were malnourished and many were crippled, having been tied to their cots for months on end. Due to the absence of anything but minimal physical care, they were passive and emotionless and often massively behind in their development.

What is less often recalled is that children reared in these orphanages and adopted by US, Canadian and European parents often caught up with their non-orphan peers very quickly.

Michael Rutter, professor of developmental psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, followed up 144 children who had been in institutional care in Romania for periods of up to 42 months and adopted into UK families between 1990 and 1992. He found that by the time the children were six years old, even many of those adopted later in infancy showed ‘substantial normal cognitive and social function’. Some were left with significant deficits, but even those showed further gains by age 11.

Rutter highlights the ‘surprising’ extent of the variation in social and cognitive ability of the adopted children. ‘Even with the children who had the most prolonged experience of institutional care, there were some who at age 11 showed no indication of abnormal functioning on any of the domains that we assessed. Conversely, there was a substantial proportion of children who showed impairments in multiple domains of functioning’, Rutter writes (2).

The reality is that we still know very little about the effects of extreme neglect. Extreme emotional deprivation in the first two years of life may have devastating and irreversible consequences for some children. But for others, the effects may be minimal. Besides, the case of the Romanian orphans was so exceptional that there are limits to what can be learned from it.

The problem today is that the term ‘neglect’ has expanded to the point of becoming almost meaningless. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), ‘neglect’ includes everything from sending children to school in ill-fitting clothes to abandonment.

The NSPCC is not alone in redefining ‘neglect’. Too often, clumsy or unresponsive parental behaviour is conflated with systematic abuse and neglect. But there is a world of difference between parental behaviour that puts children at serious risk of harm and behaviour that does not match up to attachment enthusiasts’ expectations.

The use and abuse of neuroscience

Invariably, neuroscience is used – and abused – to justify claims that we are determined by the type of care we receive in infancy. In a government report from 2011, Early Intervention: The Next Steps, Labour MP Graham Allen argues that neglectful parenting has a direct effect on brain development: ‘If the predominant early experience is fear and stress, the neurochemical responses to those experiences become the primary architects of the brain.’

In the 2012 paper, Blinded by Neuroscience, Professor David Wastell from Nottingham University and Professor Sue White from Birmingham University criticised Allen’s claims. They showed that the studies referenced in Early Intervention either had little connection to, or went ‘in the opposite direction’ from, what he claimed. ‘Although “journal science” is invoked [by Allen], he seems not much interested in what it actually says.’

The obsession with early-years neurodevelopment is not confined to policy circles. A thematic analysis of 505 newspaper articles in the first decade of the twenty-first century by University College London researchers shows that neuroscientific ideas ‘have taken hold in the popular press’. ‘Love was represented as a tangible resource that had a demonstrable effect on the child’s neurobiology’ and ‘families in poor economic circumstances [were] portrayed as providing an emotionally as well as materially deprived context for child development’.

While it is widely acknowledged that neuroscience is very much in its infancy, that doesn’t stop spectacular claims being made for its insight. In another government-commissioned report, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, Frank Field writes: ‘By the age of three, a baby’s brain is 80 per cent formed and his or her experiences before then shape the way the brain has grown and developed.’

Elsewhere, in Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt spells out how early experiences with a caregiver determine brain architecture and growth. Apparently, particular experiences result in specific neural ‘pathways’ that can affect ‘the way we respond to stress’, leading to conditions such as ‘anorexia, addiction and anti-social behaviour’.

In Blinded by Neuroscience, Wastell and White demolish these claims, stating: ‘[T]he infant brain is not readily susceptible to permanent or irreversible damage from psychosocial deprivation… plasticity and resilience seem to be the general rule’.

In this regard, Wastell and White are following the work of John Bruer and his important 1999 book, The Myth of the First Three Years.

Bruer explains that the brain produces an immense number of synapses (neural connections) in the first few years of a child’s life, after which there is a prolonged period of ‘pruning’ of synapses. Bruer explains that infant determinists use this neuroscientific finding to claim that this period of high synaptic-density is the critical period for brain development. He then shows that neuroscience has not come up with any clear answers as to how – or even whether – 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 may take place regardless of infants’ experiences.

In a recent Centre for Parenting Culture Studies paper, Bruer reviews the evidence cited in contemporary policy documents. ‘For the most part, the authors and papers cited in the mid- to late-1990s are the same authors and papers cited in current policy reports’, he writes. ‘The same over-generalisation and over-simplifications that appeared then are appearing now. The evidentiary base for claims about early brain development does not seem to be expanding, the interpretations are not improving, and the same examples, phrases and images constantly recur.’

An experiment that is often cited to prove the existence of ‘critical periods’ for brain development is that of the Nobel prize-winning scientists, David Hubel and Torsten Weisel, in the 1960s. Suturing shut the eye of a kitten for two months immediately after birth, they discovered that even after the removal of the stitches, the cat never gained sight in that eye.

The only conclusion we can draw from this is that sensory input is essential for cortical development in the first months of life – for cats, at least. Sensory experiences in the first months may also be essential for humans, but these experiments cannot – and should not – be conducted on humans.

Moreover, as neuroscientist Stuart Derbyshire argues, it is possible that leaving an infant isolated in darkness for long periods during their first three years of life will result in deficits that cannot be rectified later. But outside of extreme and unusual cases, there is no reason to believe that the effects of a misfortune faced by a child in his or her first three years cannot be rectified subsequently.

The reality is that we cannot predict with any certainty how someone is going to turn out on the basis of their childhood. It is possible, of course, to gain insights into how some things are likely to influence our lives, but we are not able to predict exactly how any of us will turn out as adults.

Yet increasingly, neurobabble dominates the training given to most professionals working with young children and expectant mothers. Health visitors are shown brain scans to demonstrate the long-term effects of neglect, and Family Nurse Partnership practitioners are told to read Sue Gerhardt’s book, Why Love Matters, as part of their training.

Maybe some parents do not engage with their children as much as the government wants. But so what? The idea that the way parents smile at, talk to and generally interact with their baby reflects how much they love their baby, and that these interactions will have a lasting impact on their child, is based on prejudice not ‘science’. We all have our own way of showing our love for each other. We don’t need a handbook or intervention from a health visitor to learn to express our love ‘in the right way’.

Infant determinism needs to be challenged, not only because it is a simplistic interpretation – and in many cases, a distortion – of the data, but because of its consequences. This pessimistic view of human beings allows the state to meddle increasingly in family life.

Furthermore, the argument that we are dominated by forces beyond our control – past infant experiences – is a very negative message. If children and adults are told that particular experiences in infancy are likely to damage them for life, will they not be more likely to grow up thinking of themselves as ‘victims’ of past experiences? It does us no good to blame our parents for difficulties we experience in life. We cannot change the past. But we can change the future, and we will be much better placed to do that without infant determinism.

First published on spiked, 31 July 2013