Family Issues

Soundbite: Parental Leave

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Hillary Clinton, among many others, has claimed that the first three years of a child's life "can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves." In The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning (The Free Press) John T. Bruer–president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which issues grants for biomedical and behavioral sciences research–argues that this increasingly popular view is wrong. Brain science, Bruer says, shows that the brain is capable of lifelong learning, an optimistic message that somehow escapes the ken of early-intervention advocates. Freelance journalist Jonathan Ellis recently spoke with Bruer, the father of two adolescent boys, via telephone.

Q: If very young children aren't stimulated properly, are they disadvantaged for the rest of their lives?

A: There are some aspects of early development that require certain kinds of stimulation: development of the visual system, development of first language skills, maybe some social and emotional skills. But the kinds of experiences neurologically normal children need are everywhere around them. The stimulation just occurs. The kind of development that requires early stimulation is quite limited, and it doesn't extend to the kinds of things we learn later in school. It doesn't extend to music. It doesn't extend to sports.

Q: Why do so many people increasingly believe that zero-to-three years is the key to healthy development?

A: It's a long story that goes back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe, when the belief about the importance of early childhood and the role of parenting arose. We incorporated those assumptions into our theories about development. We are also fascinated by what the brain does, and we seem to have a cultural predilection for biological explanations. On the surface, the emphasis on zero-to-three years appears to provide a brain-based biological explanation for some very cherished views about child rearing. But generally, the brain science does not actually support those views; it just cannot say anything about that at this time.

Q: What steps did you take to stimulate the cognitive development of your own kids?

A: I let them be. My wife and I have been very careful to let our children pick and choose what they want to do. One kid's a pilot and a computer expert. The other's a tennis player and mathematician and kind of a natural historian. They really have their own intellectual interests–even to the extent that they make fun of mine. I came home one day after I read a book challenging the nurture assumption, and I said, "Well, Jake, I got some really good news today. I'm not responsible for what happens to you down the line." He said, "That's OK, Dad. But when I go to Stockholm to get the Nobel Prize, don't be sitting there saying, `That's my boy.'"