Saturday, 2 October 2010

Brave New World and the Epsilon Minus babies

The last time that I posted on the subject of the influence of a baby's environment upon her subsequent development, several people said that they assumed that I had been talking only of home educated children. Frankly, this is a bit weird! Precisely the same processes operate upon all babies, even those who go on to attend school when they are five. I cannot make out whether or not all home educating parents are aware of this though. Some commented that 'We get it', while others denied that it was so and claimed that pre-verbal babies were capable of aiding their parents in reaching common preference decisions about environment and other matters.

Let me try once more and see if I can put into in plain language exactly what I was driving at a few days ago. If a baby is born into a house where the television goes on in the morning and stays on all day without a break, then the baby will take this to be normal life. Having known no other life, this will become her yardstick for normality. Visiting a house which is completely quiet might make her feel uneasy, because it is so different from what she is used to. A child, on the other hand born into a home without a television, radio or computer, might grow up finding silence the norm. She might become distressed if taken on a visit to a house where a loud television is blaring out all the time. That's because she has formed a different idea of what constitutes normality. There is nothing we can do about this; there is no such thing as a neutral home. However, these initial conditions will affect the child. If a child grows up in a home with no books and sees nobody reading for pleasure, then she is hardly likely to ask to read a book. She might not even be aware that such an activity as 'reading a book' even exists. One seldom sees characters on the television reading a book and so the activity would be unknown to her. She may in theory be able to express her wishes and make the choice of being read to by her parents, but she might lack the very words to make the request, to say nothing of the mental concepts which would make asking for the thing possible. Similarly, a child who grows up in a house without a television is unlikely to ask to 'watch television'. Again, she might not even be aware of this as a choice. Both children have been stunted in a sense and their very ability to make a choice restricted. This has happened as a result of choices made by their parents before they were even born. The environment which they first encounter has been chosen for them.

What is important is that these first two or three years of life in an environment devised entirely by others will have an effect upon the way that the child's brain develops. When she is able to express choices, the range of her choices will be dictated by the conditions in which she spent the first few years of her life. Since as we agree, she had no say at all in these conditions, it follows that her parents have, perhaps unwittingly, affected her ability to make a free choice. This happens in all families. I would be very interested to hear of any way of avoiding this, a method for creating a neutral background upon which the child can express her opinions without being predisposed by her early months and years. Every home in Britain either has a television or does not have one. Similarly, every home either contains books or does not. We all have Internet access or do not have it. We have a radio on during the day or we do not. We play music sometimes, often, all the time or never. Each of these choices, choices made by us as adults, will affect our baby's view of the world, help them to decide what is a normal place and what is strange and unfamiliar. In other words, it will tell them how to view the world and give them a mental framework within which to think, work and make decisions. This seems so self-evidently the case, that I have been a little surprised to find that some parents are denying that this is so.

By the time a child is old enough to start making choices about how she wishes her environment to be, the wiring in her brain is already in place, the neural arrangements which might guide her towards the flickering coloured lights of the television or computer screen or in the direction of the black and white pieces of cardboard and paper which we call books. Those first few years are crucial in this and for those years, the child has been conditioned, one might almost say brainwashed in a Pavlovian way, by her parents. This is true in the homes of home educated children, just as it is in the homes of children who will later attend school. Somebody commented here a few days ago claiming that a pre-verbal child could express wishes and thus lead to her and her parents finding a common preference. This is a grotesque notion. A baby in a home without books could not possibly indicate at the age of six or nine months that she wished to have a book; the very concept would be absent from her brain. Similarly a baby of the same age would be quite unable to let her parents know that she wished them to disable their Internet access or sign up to cable television. All these choices are made by the adults without any reference to the child. These adult choices have a profound effect upon the baby and in turn decide the nature of her choices as she grows older; dictate what she is even capable of choosing and asking for.

The truth is that all parents are as ruthless in conditioning their children to make certain choices about their future lives as the most fanatical behavioural psychologist! The conduct of the parents, what they do in front of their babies and small children, how they speak, their leisure activities, the extent of their social lives, the type of sleeping arrangements; all these give an enormously powerful message to the developing child about what constitutes 'normal' behaviours. By the time the kid is old enough to ask questions and make choices, she will already be doing so from a predetermined position; a position predetermined by her parents. I make no comment on whether this is a good or bad thing; that it happens, both with autonomous and more traditional families, is indisputably true.


  1. I understand what you are getting at, I think. But it's also important to know that people can rise above their circumstances.

    Back in the 50's when I was born, my parents had no books. OK, maybe not none, but probably less than 10. ( A couple of cookbooks, car repair books, a family Bible, which was never read.) I grew up with very few books in the house. It was a working class home and books were expensive. My parents did not read for pleasure, they read for brief bits of information which they then used.

    Yet every one of my siblings is an avid reader (4 of us have degrees and postgraduate degrees, one is a professor at a university.)

    I wouldn't have thought this was uncommon for kids growing up in the 60's, when books were too expensive to be prioritised over food and clothes.

    We were taken to the library, but not particulary encouraged to read. In fact, I was frequently told off by my parents for always having my nose in a book. People were expected to gather round the tv, as a family, in the evenings. Reading a Noddy book from the library in the corner was considered anti-social and even anti-family. LOL!

    It wasn't particularly hard for us to break the mould, though. I wonder why that was? Most friends' houses didn't have books either back then, either. Maybe there was just more social mobility generally? With free uni education etc? Not sure.

    However, as we didn't go to nursery until age 4, that meant my sibs and I spent our 'crucial years' without books. Yet it didn't hamper our love of reading later, or our eventual educational trajectory. So, I don't think we can be too dogmatic about these things.

    Mrs Anon

  2. Reading books for pleasure is a hobby, no more nor less. In that respect alone, it's no different to playing badminton, playing computer games, white water rafting, or train spotting. While these examples may seem an odd assortment, what links them is the fact that they are all HOBBIES.

    When people (as is so popular nowadays) proclaim reading as some kind of culturally and intellectually *superior* pursuit, it makes me feel ashamed that I do it! It takes away from me some of what is a private and individual pleasure, because it turns it into a social and political statement. And, personally, I don't play politics to relax.

    I used to be The Kind of Person Who Likes Books. That was part of my personality, my identity. Now that society has decided to make liking-books *aspirational* I no longer have that. It is no longer viewed as a hobby. We book lovers can no longer recognise kindred spirits because everyone is now claiming to be one, because it's been set up as a status symbol, big book collections replacing big cars...

    I find this very sad, and feel as though I have lost something precious.


  3. "By the time a child is old enough to start making choices about how she wishes her environment to be, the wiring in her brain is already in place, the neural arrangements which might guide her towards the flickering coloured lights of the television or computer screen or in the direction of the black and white pieces of cardboard and paper which we call books. Those first few years are crucial in this and for those years, the child has been conditioned, one might almost say brainwashed in a Pavlovian way, by her parents."

    Not quite. By the time a child is born, the cellular architecture of her brain is more or less complete, in the sense that biologically pre-determined cell layers are formed and neurons have migrated to their final position.

    What isn't in place is the synaptic connections between neurons. The process of synapse formation, pruning and myelination (the 'wiring') occurs in response to stimuli from the environment. Children's choices, and how parents determine and respond to them are part and parcel of that neuronal development.

    Although it appears to slow down gradually, this process continues well into adulthood. The human brain is very plastic and perfectly capable of continuing to acquire information and new skills into old age.

    Of course a child's early environment will influence the choices she makes, but we all know how a single experience can change a child's life. A child in a home without books one day finds out what a library is and eventually becomes an author. A child hears a street musician and ends up a member of a local orchestra. A tv travel documentary sparks off a lifelong interest in language etc...

  4. 'By the time a child is old enough to start making choices about how she wishes her environment to be, the wiring in her brain is already in place,'

    Yes, I didn't put this very well, suzyg. I meant to suggest that a lot of synapses connect up in the first few years and that in the first year of life apoptosis takes place, a mass culling of unused neurones. These processes are aof course linked to what is happening to the body and brain during that time. This is waht i meant to say when i said that the wiring is in place by the time the child is able to make choices. I meant by the time that sentences and questions were being constructed when the kid is two or so.

  5. What happens during the period you refer to is the acquisition of very basic skills; sensory processing, basic motor functions, rudimentary language. Obviously having the tv on all day or having books read to her is going to shape a child's development in some respects, but these skills develop significantly in later years. Only children kept in the dark or in silence or physically constrained or abused are likely to have their capacity to make choices disrupted by the way their parents' choices have shaped their brain wiring. Whether or not a home has the tv on, or books in it during the first couple of years of life is likely to make little difference to most children later on.

    No foreign languages were spoken in my home, but I started teaching myself French at 6 from one of my father's old schoolbooks. I discovered, later, that I also had an 'ear' for languages and became a regular listener to France Inter and BBC language courses. Obviously I couldn't have done that if my dad hadn't kept his old textbook or we didn't have a radio, but it was something I chose to do well after toddlerhood and clearly my lack of exposure to languages other than my native tongue wasn't enough to stop me.

  6. This is a continuum, not a binary situation suzyg. It is true that certain neurones of a child raised in complete darkness will not develop properly after a certain age, but I did not have in mond such extreme circumstances, as perhaps you knew. Your mention os learning french is interesting. A child who is raised in a bilingual household, or a trilingual one for that matter, will learn the languages perfectly with a native accent. This ability fades after a certain stage in childhood, never to return. This was more the sort of thing which I had in mind.

  7. It was an extreme example, but I used it to make a point. Certainly a child raised in a trilingual household would acquire a native accent in all three languages. But unless you have some reason to teach your child to speak another language like a native, why would you do it and where would you start? French, German, Arabic? What if you played your baby cds in French or ported in a French au pair and then found that they chose to learn Spanish instead?

    Parents cannot possibly expose their babies to every possible stimulus that might lay the foundation for a future career, which is why human beings are so good at adapting to the constant stream of novel experiences they are likely to encounter throughout their lives.