Imagine that in the future we could determine exactly what is needed to make your child an Olympic swimmer, a member of Mensa, or simply a law-abiding citizen. Some believe that future is here.
In the early to mid 1990s, a series of articles began appearing in newspapers and magazines, claiming neuroscientific evidence revealed the first months and years of life to be the most crucial in determining an individual’s future success or failure. A report by the Carnegie Corporation entitled Starting Points, a Newsweek article called “Your Child’s Brain,” and a series of articles in The Chicago Tribune combined to capture the attention of eager parents, followed by media elites and, ultimately, lawmakers.
Then, in 1997, the White House officially chaired a conference on “Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children.” And when director Rob Reiner created his I Am Your Child Campaign (complete with matching foundation), the issue of childrearing metastasized into a matter involving millions of dollars from corporations with a potential impact on public policy, welfare, and education.
Reiner has long been active in politics. While still known to many as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law (and to younger people for his role in the film This is Spinal Tap), his wealth and clout among others with similar wealth and clout invest his views with more heft than those of a typical member of the Hollywood glitterati. Reiner has already pried millions of dollars out of large donors like the A. L. Mailman Family Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, AT&T, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Freddie Mac.
Going to www.iamyourchild.org, you can read his welcome page and learn of his obsession with good parenting (“Being a parent is the best role I’ve ever had and my family is the best work I’ve ever produced”) and his determination to increase funding for projects he believes will improve children’s welfare. Other groundbreaking insights from the site: “Be warm, loving, and responsive; talk, read, and sing to baby; use discipline to teach; be selective about TV watching; choose quality day care.”
Reiner’s agenda is that of a liberal run amok: “Policy makers must increase investment in affordable quality child care; expand pre-school programs; increase commitments to early intervention programs for families at risk; and provide more resources for health programs that address not only children’s nutritional and physical needs, but also their emotional needs.”
With “investments” like these in the balance, there could hardly have been a better time for The Myth of the First Three Years. Author and neuroscientist John T. Bruer searches for the hard evidence behind the hype of early brain development—and comes up with nothing. All the talk about the wonders of neuroscience are in fact based on dubious experimental data and other weak foundations. In Bruer’s words, this new brain movement demonstrates “how science is used and abused in policy debates.”
According to Bruer, the new brain movement consists of three elements that comprise the “myth” of the first three years.
The first is synapse formation, or brain connectivity, in children. Proponents of the myth of the first three years think the more synapses, the better the connection, the better the ability of a child to absorb lessons of affection, and so on. The second element is that a child undergoes “critical periods” of learning, specifically between the ages of one and three. As Reiner said to the National Governors Association, by age ten, “the brain is toast.” Did you know, for instance, that in an experiment involving kittens blindfolded at birth, their eyes failed to regain sight when those blindfolds were lifted months later? And children suffering from ear and eye infections at birth can sustain permanent damage if not treated immediately? Hence, if you don’t teach your child to read early on in life, he may never get a chance to do so capably in the future. Or so the logic goes. The third element is that an enriched environment will shape the child, that a nurturing household—or even better, a nurturing day care center—will contribute greatly to the positive development of an infant’s brain.
Bruer punctures the three “strands” of the myth using hard data and by consulting with real neuroscientists. One of Bruer’s counterclaims is that, contrary to popular opinion, large numbers of synapses do not always reflect proper brain development. He shows that “as early as 1975, neuroscientists also found cases of human mental deficiency, where the patients’ brains had abnormally high synaptic densities.” Individuals who suffered from fragile-X syndrome (a form of mental retardation) showed synaptic densities higher than normal. Bruer explains that “losing synapses is also part of the maturation process for our brain circuitry and such loss is normal, inevitable, and beneficial.”
What about the critical periods in a child’s life, as in the first three years? Again, Bruer explains how “the genuinely new insight from brain science—that the brain remains highly plastic throughout life—is rarely mentioned.”
Yet Reiner, using his mythical talking points, will be able to convince many legislators to increase funding for a vast array of pet projects. You can’t help but think if more people listened to Bruer, we wouldn’t be wasting our time or millions of dollars in untested programs.
Victorino Matus is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.