Last month we celebrated the “Month of the Young Child”. It is a wonderful thing that we do this because no time in a child’s life is more important. When parents’ time, energy, and money is invested in children when they are young the payoff for the children, their families and our society is huge. According to the “Investing in Children” report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, investments in children under the age of five show a 400% – 800% return, based on increased individual earnings, decreased government spending on special education, remediation and welfare costs, and those costs related to criminal activity!
Why are the early years so critical and how can parents best meet a child’s needs at that time?
[callout title=Let’s get real]The biological and anthropological reality is that parents play a pivotal role in who their children become because how they parent affects the developing brain.[/callout]
More than any other stage of development, the early years of a child’s life will, to a large extent, determine who that child becomes as an adult. There is a very simple reason for this fact – the biology and physiology of the human brain. When we look at early brain development in children, two factors stand out. First is the fact that the brain of a young child develops at an absolutely extraordinary rate. Fact for fact, a child learns more in the first year of life than he or she will learn in all of the years to come! Second is the extraordinary adaptability of the young brain. The reason for this adaptability is a phenomenon called brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity is the ability of the human brain to modify its structure in response to sensory stimulation, the use of motor function, and the presence of adequate nutrition. Sensory stimulation means everything that the child sees, hears, feels, tastes, and smells. Motor function means movement, speech, and manual function. Adequate nutrition means a complete diet appropriate to the child’s age, with breast-feeding being the ideal way to nourish very young babies. Depending on how these three criteria are met, the human brain responds by literally changing its physical structure in much the same way that a muscle does in response to physical exercise!
The good news is that the way in which we, as parents, interact with our children has a direct impact on their development. But that is also the bad news. Many studies have shown the negative consequences that neglect and abuse have on the developing brain, particularly with regard to emotional and social development. So, the biological and anthropological reality is that parents play a pivotal role in who their children become because how they parent affects the developing brain.
While brain plasticity remains a phenomenon throughout life, the best time to take advantage of it is in the early years. Doing this is not as complicated as it might seem. After all, parents have successfully raised children since the Stone Age. But it does require that the needs of the child be placed first and that all other needs follow. And that is something that is not always easy or common in our modern society.
Little children are completely dependent on their parents for the fulfillment of all of their biological and physiological needs. This means all of the basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, as well as needs like comfort, attention, a stimulating environment, and the opportunity to move, communicate, and use their hands. What makes this so important is the now indisputable fact that the way in which these needs are met has a direct impact on the way in which the child’s brain develops and becomes organized.
Professor James McKenna, former head of the Anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame and a leading expert on SIDS, has spent a lifetime trying to understand the biological and physiological needs of human infants. His conclusion is simple – “Selecting a pattern of social care for a baby is essentially selecting a pattern of physiological regulation for the baby. They’re one and the same thing. There is no distinction.” Which is Dr. McKenna’s way of saying that the child’s needs come first and that how parents meet those needs matters.
The most effective way for parents to meet all of these needs is to be there for their child. What children want more than anything else is the attention of their parents. When parents are there to pay attention, it says to the child “you matter to me, you are important”! The younger the child is, the more important this principle is. While the quality of a parent’s interactions is important, it is not a substitute for time spent with the child.
We will look at how parents can improve the quality of the time that they spend with their children in future posts. For now, be in awe of the amazing miracle that is your young child and be thankful for the opportunity to play such a key role in his or her development. Nothing that you will do in your life is more important!