If you were able to listen in on a conversation between seasoned researchers, including neuro-biologists, developmental psychologists and medical doctors, what would your guess be as to what their number one piece of parenting advice would be? Together these scientists represent the pinnacle of what we know and understand about human development and brain science at the cellular level. They have spent years of research, mining data troves of information and logged countless hours of work studying in their fields of expertise. As a result of all their knowledge, what do they value in terms of child rearing and parental behavior? One might venture to guess that they would stress cognitive stimulation and linguistic and academic learning and the development of grit and motivation to strive toward great achievement early on.
Journalist Charlie Rose of PBS recently held a round table discussion with a group of scientists representing the disciplines described above. Throughout their hour-long discussion, these researchers’ overwhelming recommendation for parents was this:
Offering care, affection and one-to-one social interaction and responsiveness is the single most important thing a parent can do to impact a child’s future brain development, behavior and learning. Caregiver investment (into infants and young children) both socially and psychologically is paramount.
Scientists have learned that the first two years of a baby’s life are a critical period for learning and bonding for babies. Catherine Dulac of Harvard University maintains that nurturing infants is essential to their development. The bond between a baby and his or her primary caregiver is the strongest and most enduring bond that baby will have through his or her entire lifespan.
As children learn, the connections between their brain cells strengthen and in the long term, growth of new synaptic connections becomes evident. In other words, learning and acquiring new information makes the brain grow bigger.
What may not be immediately apparent however is that social bonds and interactions play an important and direct role in learning and brain development. By studying children who have experienced profound neglect scientists have learned that the lack of social interaction and neglect causes the brain to LOSE connections and pathways.
Dr. Charles Nelson, also from Harvard University, has spent many years working with and studying children in Romanian orphanages who despite receiving basic care of food, safety and shelter suffered profound neglect in terms of never receiving nurturing response, love and affection. Dr. Nelson and his team found that these children experienced significant developmental physical and cognitive delays.
Dr. Nelson offers the following advice to parents:
“Parents worry too much. Spend time talking to and being with your baby. Do all the things we are biologically programmed to do. Having an IQ of 150 and getting into an Ivy League University is irrelevant. Invest in your child socially and psychologically.”
According to the scientists featured on Rose’s panel, the first two years of a child’s life are critical for laying the foundation for all future learning and the most important connection an infant can make is the social bond between the baby and his or her primary caretaker. As we become parents, our brains produce hormones that drive bonding and nurturing behavior (oxytocin and prolactin in women and vasopressin in men). However, the vital significance of this bonding behavior for the future psychological and cognitive functioning of the child is not necessarily instinctual or entirely understood by parents.
Dr. Eric Kandel of Colombia University sums up the research in this way: “Find a way to connect to your child with love and nurturing (behavior).”
For more in depth information, view the hour-long conversation here.