The myth of ‘infant determinism’

Despite claims, science does not prove that our adult lives are determined by infant experiences.

Dr Helene Guldberg

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Did you know that there is no such thing as a ‘difficult baby’, only ‘difficult parents’, who are either ‘neglectful’ or ‘intrusive’? And that the consequences of poor parenting can be dramatic, making a lasting imprint on our emotional wellbeing and central nervous system?

So argues psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt in Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. She warns 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. Her discoveries lead her to the conclusion that ‘parental misinformation or lack of ability to cope with caring for an infant could set up lifelong handicaps in their offspring that would inevitably harm others too’. 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.

The idea that we are determined by infant experiences – which can be described as ‘infant determinism’ – is increasingly being promoted on both sides of the Atlantic. 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 are responsible for the development of ‘capacities that will shape the entire rest of their lives’, and will ‘determine how their brains are wired’. Experiences in the first three years ‘can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves’ (1).

Current First Lady Laura Bush has followed in Hilary Clinton’s footsteps. At a White House summit on early childhood cognitive development in 2001 she remarked: ‘If you have children, then like President Bush and me, you were probably not surprised to learn that science now confirms some of the hunches that parents have had for generations. One thing we know for sure: what a child experiences from day one to grade one has a direct and profound impact on his future, and on our future.’ (2)

In the UK, front-page newspaper headlines in July 2004 claimed that day nurseries for children under two are turning kids into ‘thugs’ (3). It was reported that research from around the world demonstrates that infants need one-to-one care rather than group care, in order for their emotional needs to be met. ‘New evidence’ was cited of nurseries increasing the incidence of ‘antisocial behaviour and aggression’ in young children (4).

These claims are premised on the idea that there are ‘critical periods’ for emotional and social development, which draws on work by the UK psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s and 60s (5). He argued that an important difference between ‘vulnerable’ and ‘resilient’ children is found in the quality of their early relationships, particularly attachments to a mother figure. So children who develop confidence in a parent being there for them when needed, repeat this confidence in their relationships with others. A secure relationship with their caregiver 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.

Oliver James, clinical psychologist and author of They F*** You Up: How to survive family life, similarly sees people as the victims of their childhood experiences. He argues that everything from addiction, personality disorder, violence and criminality, neurosis and hyperactivity can be traced back to the type of care received by children between the ages of six months and three years.

The evidence from neuroscience

In Why Love Matters, Gerhardt presents a wealth of research from neuroscience, which appears to make a persuasive case for brain development being shaped by the type of attention we receive as babies. Unless we are cared for by people who love us and are sensitive to our unique personalities, she argues, the development of the ‘social brain’ will not be triggered. But what do we know about the link between early experiences and neurological development?

It is true that 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.

In 1999 the US National Centre for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL) convened a working conference, Critical Thinking About Critical Periods, bringing together recognised experts from the fields of neuroscience and early child development to evaluate the evidence for ‘critical periods’ of early life. In the book of the same title that came out of the conference, Donald B Bailey, professor of education at the University of North Carolina, argued that ‘parents, educators, policy makers, and early childhood advocates share, with greater or lesser understanding, the concept of critical “windows of opportunity” early in development’ (6). However, he argued: ‘we have too much evidence about the remarkable ability of humans to change and learn from experience at virtually every age to conclude that the early childhood years are necessarily more important than other years.’

It was also clear from the conference that although the general pattern of neurological development is well established, our understanding of how synaptic circuits are shaped and altered by experience is limited (7). There is no firm evidence demonstrating that the type of care received in infancy has an effect on synaptogenesis – the creation of new synapses – nor on synaptic pruning. These processes take place regardless of infants’ experiences.

It does seem to be the case that for some things – such as seeing and hearing, and maybe even first language acquisition – there are ‘critical periods’ for development. But they are only ‘critical’ in the sense that a complete absence of stimuli during this period could have irreversible negative consequences. As John Bruer, president of the James S McDonnell Foundation and author of ‘The myth of the first three years’, said on FRONTLINE, the US flagship public affairs series: ‘what we have to realise is the kinds of experience we need during that critical period is everywhere around us. It is not something we have to go out and provide children.’ (8)

Similarly, neuroscientist Steve Petersen at Washington University argues that the environment would have to be very bad to interfere with a child’s normal neurological development. His tongue-in-cheek advice to parents is: ‘Don’t raise your child in a closet, starve them, or hit them on the head with a frying pan.’ (9)

Attachment theory

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’, as a test of children’s attachment security. In the Strange Situation test, children are subjected to a number of mild stresses in order to assess their feelings towards their caregiver. Ainsworth claimed that the data showed children could be categorised into three basic attachment types: secure; insecure/avoidant or ‘indifferent’; and insecure/resistant or ‘clingers’. The differences between the attachment types was seen to be influenced by the caregiver’s sensitivity during interactions in early infancy. Also, the attachment types were seen as relatively stable, and to have some predictive power with regard to children’s future emotional development.

When we look at the empirical research, though, it is far from clear-cut. Some studies have indeed demonstrated that attachment classifications in very young children – between 12 and 18 months of age – are relatively stable (10). Other studies have found that just over 50 per cent of children obtained the same attachment classification before their second birthday as they obtained at 12 months (11).

However, when investigating longer-term stability of attachment security, the link between the attachment types and later outcomes is very unclear. As Rudolph Schaffer, professor of psychology at the University of Strathclyde, said, ‘prediction over a period of several years is always hazardous, and especially so because of the uncontrolled influences of intervening events’ (12). Having carried out an extensive review of the attachment literature, Schaffer concludes: ‘Children no doubt differ in the quality of the attachment relationships they form; however, the issue of the antecedents of such differences and their consequences is nowhere near as straightforward as has been suggested by many attachment enthusiasts.’

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 type of 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 irreversibly shaping the rest of our lives.

Infant determinists adopt the worst of both sides of the old and tired nature-nurture debate. On the nature side, biological determinists claim that it is our evolutionary history and our physiology that explains why we behave the way we do. On the nurture side, we are seen as the victims of our childhood experiences. Infant determinists argue for the determining effects of both nature and nurture, leaving little to individuals’ free will. Gerhardt says that the attachment relationship between mother and infant ‘indelibly imprints the baby’s early developing right brain and thereby impacts all later stages of life’. In fact, the damage can even be done before birth, she argues: ‘the baby’s vulnerability to mishandling can start earlier, in the womb. As early as pregnancy, the stress response is already forming within the developing foetus and can be affected by the mother’s state of health. This means she can pass on – by non-genetic means – her own oversensitised stress response to her baby’ (13).

Proponents of ‘critical periods’ will often draw on examples of children who received no empathetic care during early infancy to demonstrate the importance of early emotional engagements. Studies of children reared in Romanian orphanages and adopted by US parents first appeared in the scientific literature in the early 1990s (14). It was found that children reared in Romanian institutions and adopted after their first birthday were less likely to recover psychologically than those adopted at a younger age. In addition, as Gerhardt points out, researchers who studied the brains of young children in the orphanages found a ‘virtual black hole’ where the orbitofrontal cortex – an area of the brain involved in the regulation of emotions – should have been.

Although these studies have some shortcomings – such as the problem of bias in choosing cases, and the difficulty of isolating relevant variables – it may well be the case that extreme emotional deprivation in the first two years of life has devastating, irreversible consequences. However, it is exceptionally rare to see children subjected to the anything like the appalling treatment of the Romanian orphans. There is a world of difference between being completely starved of human contact, as were many of the Romanian children, and having parents who do not match up to attachment enthusiasts’ expectations – being continually loving, caring, expressive and encouraging. The mistake often made is to conflate occasionally clumsy or unresponsive parental behaviour, with systematic abuse and neglect. Emotional engagement in infancy does matter, but extreme conditions of emotional deprivation may be so exceptional that they tell us absolutely nothing about the situations where there is engagement between the adult and the child.

In his perceptive book The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the origins of thinking, psychotherapist Peter Hobson reviews an array of clinical and experimental studies looking at the role of early emotional engagements in our development. He argues that it is out of the cradle of these early emotional engagements that the ability to have thoughts emerges. Once emotional engagements have developed into symbolic communication, the child leaves infancy behind, Hobson argues, and ’empowered by language and other forms of symbolic functioning, [the child] takes off into the realms of culture. The infant has been lifted out of the cradle of thought. Engagement with others has taught this soul to fly’ (15).

Attachment theorists are right to recognise that emotional engagements in infancy are important. But in seeing such engagements as determining our future development, they are way off the mark. Instead, engagement between the adult and the child should be seen as a stepping-stone to the future transformation of the child. Where the engagement is completely absent, the consequences can be devastating. But the vast majority of adults will be emotionally sensitive and responsive to their children. Extrapolating from cases of extreme neglect only serves to guilt-trip parents into believing that if they should mess up – even temporarily – there will be no second chance, and their children will be on the fast track to failure.

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, Hobson 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’ (16).

Much research contradicts the pessimistic belief in irreversible influences in early childhood, showing instead that children are pretty resilient psychologically. As professor of ethology Patrick Bateson and behavioural biologist Paul Martin point out in Design For a Life: ’The grounds for optimism are in fact considerable, and evidence for sensitive periods early in development may be readily reconciled with evidence for subsequent changes in behaviour.’ (17)

The day-care scare

Nuanced analysis was sorely lacking from the recent UK debate about the problem with nurseries. Writing in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting claimed that ‘instinctively’ it does not ‘feel quite right’ to place babies as young as four months in a nursery, and argued that ‘research on both sides of the Atlantic has reached remarkably similar conclusions; namely, that large quantities of care in nursery before the age of three increases the incidence of insecurity and aggression in children’ (18). Bunting was referring to two large-scale longitudinal studies: one in America by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) called ‘Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development’; and the other in the UK, ‘The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education’. But neither shows evidence of long-term deleterious effect in children attending day-care from an early age.

The NICHD has carried out one of the most comprehensive studies of children’s development to date, involving research teams from universities across the USA. It has been following 1364 families from their infant’s birth in 1991 through to 2004. The data for the first two phases of the study are now available (19). The children’s development is assessed using a multitude of different methods, including: observations by trained researchers; face-to-face and telephone interviews; standardised tests of cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development; and questionnaires.

Contrary to what Bunting implies, the NICHD study has not found that childcare disrupts children’s attachment relationships with their mothers – children who spend long hours in nurseries were not found to be more ‘insecurely attached’.

The NICHD claimed a link between the time spent in day-care and behaviour problems at four-and-a-half years old. The percentage of children who spent 30 hours or more in childcare with above-average ratings of ‘aggression’, ‘disobedience’ or ‘assertiveness’ was 17 per cent. However, as was indicated by other US researchers, the percentage of children with above-average ratings of behaviour problems in any normal sample is 17 per cent (20). So the sample of day-care children was actually no different from the norm.

The UK study ‘Effective Provision of Pre-School Education’, which investigated the progress and development of 3000 children in various pre-school educational settings, found that ‘high levels of “group care” before the age of three (and particularly before the age of two) were associated with higher levels of anti-social behaviour at age three’ (21).

But this doesn’t mean that these children were damaged by ‘group care’. Just because children are found to be more aggressive at a particular stage in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they will continue to be so. It could be the case that children in day-care from an early age exhibit more ‘problem behaviour’ (which includes normal childhood behaviour such as demanding attention, arguing and getting into fights with other children, or talking back to adults) earlier than children who have not spent their early years in nursery.

Children’s behaviour changes as they grow up. As Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, points out, measures of behaviour in young children are a poor predictor of later outcomes. A four-year-old may be ‘disobedient’ and ‘difficult’ today, but it isn’t necessarily clear what that means for the child’s behaviour tomorrow. The meaning of much social and emotional behaviour may not become apparent until the child is older. Behaviours that observationally look very similar can have very different meanings for different children. Answering back when spoken to may be a sign of disobedience and insularity in one child, and a sign of self-confidence and inquisitiveness in another.

In addition, the measures for social and emotional development used in these large-scale nursery studies have their limitations; they have not been standardised to the same extent as measures for cognitive and linguistic development, partly as a result of having a much shorter history of use.

Training parents

Policy advisors have rejected recent calls to discourage parents from sending their young children to full-time day-care. But this is less a result of accepting that day-care is unlikely to do children any lasting harm, and more a result of not trusting parents themselves to meet children’s emotional needs. Today’s cultural outlook increasingly views adults as ‘emotionally illiterate’ and in need of a constant helping hand from professional advisers.

We are told that parenting is too important to be left in the realm of the private and personal. Gerhardt, for instance, argues that government initiatives should be targeted ‘at the point where it can make the most difference’ – ‘during pregnancy and in the first two years of life’ (22). Similarly, in July 2003 the leading UK think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) called on the government to do more to support mothers through pregnancy and the early months of family life. Liz Kendall, co-author of the report An Equal Start and IPPR associate director, said: ‘Any government serious about giving children an equal start in life cannot overlook the significance of the parenting role…. The lack of practical, social and emotional support for most parents undermines other attempts by government to reduce childhood inequalities.’ (23)

But there is no shortage of government initiatives to promote intervention in the lives of parents – particularly those parents the government deems doomed to failure. In August 2004, Britain’s policing minister Hazel Blears put the case for a scheme to prevent children of burglars, muggers and gangsters from breaking the law by ‘tracking’ and ‘targeting’ them from birth (24). Children should be ‘tracked’ from the time they are in nappies to their teenage years, she argued, in order to keep them on the right track and nip disruptive behaviour in the bud.

Child protection measures proposed in the government green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ are less about protecting a few children from serious neglect and abuse by their carers, than ensuring all parents measure up to the government’s prescribed standard of parenting. Children’s minister Margaret Hodge recently stated: ‘we want to shift the balance to prevention by providing greater support to all families.’ (25) Her proposals include drawing up plans for government helplines for parents to seek advice on anything from changing nappies to dealing with the issue of drugs; and organising classes that encourage parents to take their responsibilities more seriously.

In early October 2002, the National Family and Parenting Institute launched a pamphlet – with the help of government funding – entitled From Breakfast to Bedtime: Helping you and your children through the day! (26). Much of the pamphlet is basic common sense, such as: ‘Children’s needs and levels of understanding change as they grow and what might be expected of a four-year-old can’t be expected of a two-year-old’, or ‘let children sort out their own squabbles as long as no-one is getting hurt but do separate them if they hurt each other’ (27). Parents don’t need the advice of an army of government-sponsored child-rearing experts in order to appreciate these self-evident truths.

But the pamphlet goes beyond preaching mere common sense. Its overriding message is that if parents do not seriously consider the way they discipline their children, they may end up subjecting them to unintentional long-term damage. So parents are told not to shout at their children, but instead to ‘try and give five times more praise than criticism’ (28). Maybe the institute should have included warnings about dangers of locking children in a cupboard, starving them or hitting them over the head with a frying pan?

The more parents are led to believe that they need this kind of prescriptive advice about how to relate to their children, the more stilted and insecure they are going to become in everyday interactions with their kids. Love is based on, and expressed through, spontaneous emotional interactions. If we are led to believe that we need to follow a set script in order to engage with children in a non-destructive way, then ultimately we will be held back from expressing loving, compassionate and empathic feelings.

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 parents 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. It will also be bad for all of us if intervention into our family and private lives is made the norm.

Dr Helene Guldberg has a PhD in developmental psychology and is an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University.

(1) See press release, April 1997

(2) Whitehouse press release, 26 July 2001

(3) Evening Standard, 8 July 2004

(4) ‘Fear on nursery care forces rethink’, Guardian, 8 July 2004

(5) John Bowlby, on Psyche matters

(6) Critical Thinking About Critical Periods, (ed) Donald B Bailey et al, Paul H Brookes, 2001 p xiii

(7) ‘Mechanisms of Postnatal Neurobiological Development’, Developmental Neurobiology 19(2) 147-171

(8) Interview, John Bruer

(9) Baby steps, Malcolm Gladwell

(10) ‘The reliability and stability of individual differences in infant-mother attachment’, Waters, Child Development 49, 483-494 (1978)

(11) ‘Temperament and follow-up to adulthood’, Thompson et al, in R Porter & GM Collins (eds) Temperamental differences in infants and young children, 1982

(12) H Rudolph Schaffer, Social Development, Blackwell, 1996, p147

(13) Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain, Sue Gerhardt, 2004, p67

(14) Benoit TC et al, ‘Romanian Adoption: the Manitoba experience’, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 150, 1278-1282

(15) The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the origins of thinking, Peter Hobson, Macmillan, 2004, p274

(16) The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the origins of thinking, Peter Hobson, Macmillan, 2004, p148

(17) Design for a Life: how behaviour develops, by Patrick Bateson & Paul Martin, Jonathan Cape (1999), p184

(18) ‘Nursery Tales’, Guardian, 8 July 2004

(19) ‘The NICHD Child Care Study Results: What do they mean for parents, child-care professionals, employers and decision makers?’, National Network for Childcare

(20) ‘The NICHD Child Care Study Results: What do they mean for parents, child-care professionals, employers and decision makers?’, National Network for Childcare

(21) ‘The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: findings from pre-school period’, Institute of Education

(22) Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain, Sue Gerhardt, 2004

(23) Fear of ‘nanny state’ means government neglects children’s early years, IPPR, 4 June 2003

(24) ‘Children of criminals to be “targeted” and “tracked”’, Independent, 16 August 2004

(25) ‘Every child matters’, Department for Education and Skills, 8 September 2003

(26) ‘From Breakfast to Bedtime: helping you and your children through the day’, National Family and Parenting Institute, October 2002, p13

(27) ‘From Breakfast to Bedtime: helping you and your children through the day’, National Family and Parenting Institute, October 2002, p4

(28) ‘From Breakfast to Bedtime: helping you and your children through the day’, National Family and Parenting Institute, October 2002, p11

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