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.