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Toddling Towards Gomorrah

The dangers of the myth that a child's first three years are the most important

Nov 29, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 11 • By ROBERT M. GOLDBERG
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In Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock complained of parents who "transmit their excessive competitiveness to their children. An extreme example is the attempt to teach reading to two-year-olds and, in general, to create 'superkids.'"

What Spock saw back in 1985 as the extreme has now become the norm. Across America there's a push to educate children earlier and with greater intensity than ever before. Child-development experts such as T. Berry Brazelton are prescribing pre-school to insure kids do not become "stupid, violent or drug abusers or produce stupid children." Packing children off to school while they are still teething is being promoted as the way to boost performance and social competency in the later grades. Over a million videos that teach infants foreign languages (Baby Einstein), music (Baby Mozart), and words (Baby Shakespeare) have been sold since their rollout in 1997. Anxious parents are starting toddlers in on academics, music, dance, art, and language lessons before they enter kindergarten in hopes of getting better test scores and a shot at more prestigious colleges.

This preoccupation with how baby is doing is nothing new. Child-development theorists have long argued that secure attachments in infancy are the key to emotional well-being later in life. Now this same cause-and-effect relation is being extended to brain growth, with proponents claiming that neuroscience proves a connection between how children are reared, how well their brains develop, and how successful they are in life. But there's a difference from the old Freudian analysis, for the new child-development theory asserts that unless you nurture a child's brain properly, it is almost impossible to undo the original pattern of growth after the first three years.

This is the thesis fueling the rapid explosion in parental priming of the early developmental pump, and it is at the heart of what John Bruer calls in his careful and calm new book, The Myth of the First Three Years. And it is a myth, as Bruer notes, precisely because there is, in fact, no neuroscience to support the claim (as the New York Times editorialized) "that the way in which billions of brain cells make connections and develop into networks that enable children to become smart, creative and adaptable depends, to a remarkable extent, on how an infant is nurtured."

The origin of the myth of the first three years lies in a 1987 study that showed rats grow more brain cells when placed in cages with interesting (to a rat, at least) environments. Of course, the scientist who ran the experiments never claimed that toy-filled rat cages are equal to Baby Einstein videos. Neuroscientists at Rockefeller University have also found that rats learn faster when confined to narrow cages for short periods, but no one seems to be recommending confining children to their cribs to stimulate learning.

It's true that the time from birth to three years old is a critical period, but advocates of the myth -- a well-meaning mixture of Hollywood types, child-development experts, and activists -- have either misunderstood or misrepresented the brain's plasticity during this critical period. Armed with a collage of brain scans and one-shot studies with results that have never been reproduced elsewhere, let alone published in peer-reviewed science journals, the actor and director Rob Reiner established the "I Am Your Child" organization to mobilize the media and politicians.

Reiner is fond of telling audiences that "by age ten, your brain is cooked, and there's nothing much you can do." That's simply wrong. Recent research suggests that brain cells are generated all the time, that the plasticity of our brain is greater than imagined. Scientists have even found and grown neural stem cells: master cells that can generate any kind of brain cell. They have transplanted them into animals and seen them grow and function. Similarly, the aging brain appears able to compensate for age-related deficits. This finding came one week after the announcement that new, growing cells have been found in aging monkeys' cerebral cortex (the most complex region of the brain).