I dropped in on my old friend Denise for a cup of coffee. What I saw was a marvellous example of human nature. She was looking after her grandniece, a child under two. I simply watched. In between our conversation Denise, almost without a conscious thought, was constantly aware of the child. She was tempting her into new experiences and new initiatives, accompanied by new words – related to the child’s curious exploration. I remembered the importance of those early years. And this was confirmed by a study this year which charted the effects of family environment on adult self-esteem.
Good parents have always behaved like Denise, but now we have a much better understanding of how the young child’s experience affects the infant brain. The human brain – infant to adult — has approaching 100 billion neurons, but what matters here is not the number but the connections between them. A baby has, of course, been born with some vital connections, enabling it to survive, but it is over the first two years that a great mass of the connections are established. After that, the brain, guided by experience, starts to prune this superfluity of possibilities down to a more useful number. The quality of that experience is vital to the future of that child.
Sadly, we have the evidence from the orphaned Romanian children discovered after the collapse of its communist government in 1989. Following a state-sponsored baby boom, the crowded orphanages were filled with some 170,000 children kept in the most cruel conditions. There was no opportunity for personal relationships, discipline was maintained by punishment regimes and the level of general care was appalling. The children were denied the opportunity to edit their neural connections in the ways we take for granted. The result was underdeveloped brains, low IQs, reduced neural activity, language difficulties and, of course, attachment problems. While some of these outcomes have improved to a degree over time, the relics of such experiences remain in adulthood. The separation of children from their parents – as we have seen in the issue of Mexican immigrants in the US – may well lead to some degree of long-term damage.
But, prior to such evidence, the importance of the first few years of life was generally accepted. This was associated initially with the writings of the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby on the subject of attachment and loss. He had noted, as result of his research, the importance of a continued and secure relationship – normally with the mother. Later studies have extended and confirmed the general importance of relationships in the early years.
It would seem that the way we are treated by others, and the ability to relate to others, gives us at this volatile stage an internal picture. We see ourselves as acceptable and worthwhile persons – or indeed the opposite, with gradations in between. And it is this picture that we take into life. A single example proves nothing, but I put my inbuilt sense of happiness down to the richness of my childhood in a large family. And I believe I detect the same pattern in the three generations which now follow me.
This raises an important social question. We are aware that our society is uneven: stretching from the poor and often under-educated to the relatively wealthy and well-schooled. While some will surmount social barriers, we know which group is most likely to succeed. And this is another form of inheritance since the condition, positive or negative, of each generation tends to be passed on to the next generation. Half our measurable intelligence level is genetic, and this is then strongly influenced by the home environment. Britain broadly stands well on social equality in comparison with many other countries but it is by no means the best.
While we can to some degree reduce inequality through social changes such as quality nursery education, it is not going to disappear. Fortunately the remedy, respectable a hundred years ago, of preventing the poor from breeding through sterilisation has been abandoned. But our changing social mores are not promising. The Marriage Foundation (well worth Googling) summed up one change: “There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over ￡43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under ￡16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor dont.”
To this we may add the understandable wish of mothers to get back to work – perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for career development. I have three millennial granddaughters facing exactly this issue. While we might like to think that both genders are equally able to care for children in the early years, evolution would suggest that, over the millennia, women would have developed the higher inborn skills. As James Fordyce said in his 18th-century Sermons to Young Women, mothers “can diffuse virtue and happiness throughout the human race”