Civil Liberties

Scatterbrained Child Rearing

The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning, by John T. Bruer, Reclaiming Our Children: A Healing Plan for a Nation in Crisis, by Peter R. Breggin


The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning, by John T. Bruer, New York: The Free Press, 244 pages, $25

Reclaiming Our Children: A Healing Plan for a Nation in Crisis, by Peter R. Breggin, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 340 pages, $24

When it comes to raising children, there is no such thing as too much good advice. So when accounts of neuroscientific advances in our understanding of child development began to appear in the popular press a couple of years ago, it sure sounded like good news. Parents could now raise their children in line with the hard facts about the relationship between human growth and brain development.

Don't rejoice just yet. In their complementary books on human development, psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin and education expert John T. Bruer warn us not to believe what we have been hearing about the new neuroscience of child rearing. They point out that the media's version of brain-based child development bears little resemblance to the real thing. Even worse, those same wrongheaded theories have landed on the desks of policy makers. The result, as Breggin and Bruer describe in grim detail, is policy initiatives that can be very dangerous to children.

The mangled accounts of brain science that Bruer and Breggin want to debunk begin with the assumption that brain development is crucial to child development. So far, so good. It is the more detailed claims, or "myths," as Bruer calls them, about the relationship between brain maturation and a child's maturation that can lead to trouble. The Myth of the First Three Years focuses on three such myths, which will doubtless sound familiar to most readers—though most Americans would probably consider them rock-solid facts about how the brain works. Although Bruer is not himself a neuroscientist, his discussion of where and how popular brain science has gone wrong accurately reflects the current neuroscientific literature.

Bruer's three myths are that learning is limited to "windows of opportunity," or critical periods; that these windows of opportunity occur only as long as there is a significant growth of connections, or synapses, between brain cells; and that children require enriched environments for optimal learning to take place during these windows of opportunity. As there is substantial evidence of an explosion in synaptic connections during the first three years of a child's life, the conclusion from popular neuroscience is that development is basically over by the end of the third birthday.

Many recent public policy initiatives have been based on the "vital first three years" vision of brain development. For instance, the frantic push toward universal preschool from the Clinton administration follows logically from that vision, as does the loony notion from Georgia Gov. Zell Miller that state legislators should distribute CDs of classical music to newborns to give them an intellectual head start. This notion causes many parents to believe that the early experiences of their children will seal their fates forever, and to worry that a single parenting mistake will doom their youngsters for life. Bruer argues that all those ideas are based on fantasy.

The myth that learning is limited to the first years of life is based on the finding that the density of connections among brain cells increases very rapidly during the second and third years of life. After that, the number of connections begins to stabilize or to actually decrease. This is a correct description of brain maturation. But as Bruer explains, it's not correct to assume that the brain is gaining connections during the first years of life because children are cramming their skulls with learning.

The "Mythmakers" of popular neuroscience, as Bruer calls them, suppose that brain growth means that learning is happening, and that the subsequent decrease in synaptic density must mean that learning is no longer happening. While that sounds logical, no neuroscientist believes this is an accurate description of the relationship between brain maturation and development. Indeed, it would be more nearly correct to posit the opposite relationship between children's learning and what the brain is doing.

The consensus among neuroscientists is that the explosion of connections among neurons that we see in early life merely sets the stage for the acquisition of knowledge. It is as if nature is preparing the canvas on which the world subsequently paints. The decrease, or pruning, of connections is what seems to coincide with actual learning. Ironically, then, the brain is most prepared to begin learning at just the point when popular brain science says it is too late for learning to take place. After the synaptic explosion happens, children become newly capable of learning things that they could not learn before.

The idea that there are critical periods is similarly wrongheaded as a general theory of how children develop. There are certain skills that are most easily learned early in life—for instance, seeing or talking. But as Bruer points out, we are dealing here with abilities that all normal human beings acquire. Psychologists call these "experience-expectant traits" to underscore the plain fact that the kinds of experience required for their proper development are so basic that virtually no child can help but be exposed to them. It is as if the neurophysiology underlying the trait "expects" to meet up with the needed experience. And indeed, the number of children who are not exposed to language, or light, is vanishingly small. Experience-expectant traits, Bruer observes, are acquired "easily, automatically, and unconsciously."

Not all traits are experience-expectant. My brain did not expect to meet up with algebra in the environment. Nor did it expect to encounter writing. Or the piano. But the skills of math or reading or playing music are just the sorts of skills for which there are no critical periods. They are experience-dependent traits that can be learned at any point in life. These, ironically, are also the very sorts of skills on which popular versions of brain science focus when they warn us about critical periods. Children in our culture do tend to learn particular skills, such as reading or adding, at predictable ages. But "we should not confuse this kind of learning with the existence of critical periods for those skills," Bruer writes. "What is culturally normal is not biologically determined."

Bruer also debunks the idea that enriched environments are required for optimal development. This notion originates from a misunderstanding of decades-old rat studies in which the learning of rats placed in a so-called enriched environment was superior to that of rats placed in less enriched environments. From this we are to conclude that human children should be exposed to as much stimulation as possible. This is in spite of the fact that the rats in the original experiment were adults and that their enriched environments were still deprived in comparison with what any rat would experience in the wild.

Bruer assures us that all kids need for normal development is exposure to very basic experiences, like ambient light to see, a language to hear, gravity with which to interact, and so on. Thus, his advice is that parents should make sure that their children's sensory systems are in good working order—not too tough a challenge.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that children can't make use of all the enrichment we offer them, as they tend to develop according to their own timetables regardless of our ambitions. Try to correct the grammar of a young child who is not ready to learn the lesson. Janie comes home bursting with excitement. "My teacher brought a rabbit to school and I holded it," she gushes. "You held the rabbit?" you say. "Yes, I holded it." "Did you say you held it tightly?" you ask. "No, I holded it loosely," she responds. Janie will learn about irregular verbs on her schedule, not on yours.

Contrary to the almost blatant idiocy of the "first three years" myth—clearly, most useful human learning happens long after age 3—brains are always changing, which is another way of saying that people are always learning, regardless of their age. The greatest surprises from the laboratories of neuroscientists come in the form of evidence that the brain is far more plastic than we used to think. Since the 1980s neuroscientists have demonstrated that adult brains are extremely malleable, so much so that areas of the adult primate brain originally responsible for one function can change jobs. For instance, adult primate brain cells once receiving input from the animal's arm will subsequently reorganize to receive input from the chin and jaw if connections from the arm to the brain are interrupted. If adult brains seem stable, that's only because their experiences have been stable.

This isn't just of interest to academic neuropsychologists. Bruer's Mythmakers have a message that can hurt kids: that we should try to cram all of life's lessons into the first three years of development and then call it quits. This would clearly be fatal to any child's development, as anyone familiar with how brains—or children—actually function will plainly see. If we followed the advice implied by this version of brain development, we would be trying to teach children at exactly the time in their lives when their brains are not yet ready to learn and then stop teaching them at precisely the time that their brains do become ready. Bruer tells us that public policy is in fact heading in this direction. For instance, state legislatures are already considering bills that would decrease or eliminate support for later child interventions to invest those funds in birth-to-3 programs in the belief that this is the only time during which brains are capable of learning.

The public policy implications of popular versions of brain development also motivate Peter Breggin's Reclaiming Our Children. Breggin writes in opposition to "biological psychiatry," which "has convinced a great portion of the public that psychosocial and spiritual suffering has no psychological or spiritual meaning whatsoever but emanates instead from abnormalities in the physiology of the brain."

Biological psychiatry says all the traits that children display are determined by brain activity. It is trivially true that all of a person's thoughts, emotions, and behavior are a product of what is going on in the brain. But when people begin to see every inconvenient behavior as a disorder, and when they then propose, on the basis of the so-called new brain science, that we fix the child by fixing his brain, we have got a problem. Breggin targets this recent tendency on the part of educators, psychiatrists, and policy makers to view children's behaviors as dysfunctions when they depart from the norm and then to advocate medical treatments for those supposed dysfunctions.

Biological psychiatry poses threats to children for a number of reasons, all detailed effectively in the first two chapters of Reclaiming Our Children. Placing blame for personal suffering or misconduct on brain disease, Breggin writes, "disempowers parents while sapping family life of meaning." If parents are convinced that the source of a child's problems is brain chemistry gone wrong, then they will also become convinced that there is nothing that they can do to change the child's circumstances beyond taking him to a doctor to be medicated. As Breggin observes, biological psychiatry disempowers not only parents but also the child himself. Thus, "to the extent that individuals believe they have 'mental disorders' or 'brain diseases' that are causing their emotional suffering, they become dependent on experts rather than upon themselves for the 'cure.' "

Breggin further explains that rampant diagnosis and drugging of some children is likely to have a bad effect on other youngsters. The message to children is "conform or you are in danger of getting diagnosed and drugged, so sit down and shut up or else." Children soon learn that they had better be quiet, well behaved, submissive, and dutiful.

In a chilling scene, Breggin describes the role of biopsychiatry in last year's White House Conference on Mental Health. Tipper Gore, who chaired the conference, set the tone for the proceedings by announcing during the president's weekly radio address that mental disorders are biological in nature and can be effectively treated with new drugs. In keeping with that theme, Hillary Clinton declared at the conference that the goal of public policy respecting children should henceforth be, in her words, to "identify and get help to children who need it, whether or not they want it or are willing to accept it." This would be accomplished, according to Bill Clinton, through a new national school safety training program for teachers, schools, and communities to help identify troubled children and provide them with better school mental health services. As Breggin sees it, the conference was pushing an agenda to encourage more American kids to take psychiatric drugs.

The medicalization of children's behavior may be lethal in ways that Breggin does not mention. As Bruer tells us, children respond to the environment at their own pace. Some psychologists have begun to suggest that this allows youngsters to fine-tune basic competencies before taking up the challenge of developing more sophisticated ones. We see this self-pacing in the way that children naturally regulate the amount of stimulation to which they will respond. Babies turn their heads away if you try to get in their faces. When there is too much going on around them, infants will go to sleep on you. Basically, children tune out stimulation for which they are not ready.

This is consistent with the observation that children have shorter attention spans than adults, and some psychologists think this is not a design flaw. Rather, it may be a limitation that allows children to eventually become smarter adults. Now, think of what drugging children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may do. You've got a child who doesn't pay attention as much as adults would like, so some educator decides to drug the kid up so that he will sit still and tune in for a more sustained period of time. If psychologists are right in saying that tuning out is the child's way of regulating his own orderly acquisition of competencies, then artificially tinkering with the child's attention span could be disastrous.

Psychologists have also lately been emphasizing the degree to which different children reach the same developmental goal in different ways. Policies that medicate children so that they will better approximate the ideal child pervert these differences and could seriously interfere with the unique solutions to developmental tasks that different children are in the process of discovering. Never mind the irony that a government that sells diversity as the greatest virtue seems to be doing everything possible to stamp it out in children.

Breggin's preferred way of responding to children's problems is sane. He reminds us that children need to form meaningful relationships with adults and that they need to have their views respected. There's nothing wrong with that advice. But Breggin also commits sins of his own, which derive from his unsubstantiated, inaccurate perception of children as fragile. Thus, in Breggin's view, "If you assume that every child is sensitive, vulnerable, readily injured, and easily broken, then you will never be far from the truth."

Breggin also sees threats to children everywhere. Moving is a trauma. Witnessing the illness of a sibling is a trauma. Competition is a trauma. Unmade beds are a trauma. Being teased is a trauma. Homework is a trauma. Because life is so filled with potential assaults on children's psyches, all children are suffering or may soon be suffering. "As children," Breggin writes, "we suffered every time we were exposed to irrational discipline, every time we failed to receive unconditional love, every time we were bored in school, and every time we didn't get to play enough. We suffered as well whenever we were hurt, threatened, treated unfairly, or otherwise made to feel unsafe." It is not just some children who are vulnerable, Breggin insists. "Identifying children who are at risk is an easy matter: All of our children are at risk."

Contrast Breggin's china doll with Bruer's robust child, as illustrated in his example from rural Guatemala, where children spend the first 18 months of life in circumstances that we would call severely deprived. Nevertheless, these kids perform at the same cognitive level as middle-class American children by the time they reach adolescence. Neuroscientist Steve Peterson, quoted by Bruer, captures the meaning of this anecdote when he observes that "development really wants to happen. It takes very impoverished environments to interfere with development because the biological system has evolved so that the environment alone stimulates development." How does this translate into advice for parents? "Don't raise your children in a closet, starve them, or hit them in the head with a frying pan."

I recommend Breggin's book to anyone who wishes to be educated on the dangers of biological psychiatry. I also recommend that Breggin read The Myth of the First Three Years. It is a fine rebuttal to the claim that children are fragile and a vindication for those of us who have always suspected that we were still capable of growing and learning even though we were well past 3 years old.

Gwen J. Broude ( teaches developmental psychology and cognitive science at Vassar College.