Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Let's start at the very beginning

The Globe and Mail has started a series on early childhood development, Canada being a world leader in this field of research.

Believe it or not, there's new evidence that, umm, babies cry. Some more than others, and often for no reason. Ah yes, and they're capable of experiencing pain too.

"A computer-like brain" looks at the evidence for infants being hardwired not just for language per se, but for all the nuances of communication in general.

Infants, like little computers, learn by statistically analyzing the impressions they receive. In the case of language, this analysis allows them to distinguish what is variable and focus on what is constant.

Babies can detect nonsense, unnatural pauses, and minute differences in sound, as well as discriminating changes in and responding emotionally to music.

It seems parents are likewise hardwired for babytalk, to make it easier on the little ones to take it all in, as well as being biochemically prepped for parenthood in general.

A Canadian researcher has found the brain activity of new parents is strikingly similar to what is seen in patients who have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So far, there's been only one angry letter regarding the series:

They're everywhere these days, in the suburbs and the cities, in the parks and on the playgrounds, like a tribe that can survive only atop childproof rubber safety mats. I'm referring to modern-day parents of the upper and middle classes, so stylishly dressed, vigilantly tending their children as if never before in the history of civilization have there been such mommies and daddies. What makes these parents all the more unbearable is their smugness — that what they are doing is so ennobling that those who choose to not have children are to be dismissed smugly as idle, ignorant, selfish and less human.

Please do not give these people any more facts for them to marshal their arguments to support their moral superiority as they push their prams to some dreamed paradise.

"Trouble close to home" dispels the myth that "problem" children come from low-income families. They're as middle-class as white bread, or something like that.

In the same way that parents can make major differences in development by doing simple things like chatting a lot with their children, a series of small negatives can leave larger hurts.

What makes kids vulnerable in middle-class homes? Dr. Hertzman has a long list: Maybe their siblings mistreat them when the parents are away; maybe their boring nanny does nothing but babysit; maybe their parents are too strict and inflexible, or too permissive and indulgent, or working all the time; maybe their working parents are too tired to read to them each night; maybe their families are socially isolated from other relatives and adults who may understand the children better; maybe their neighbours, though middle class, aren't all that neighbourly.

The big problem, of course, is how one defines "problem" children: "short on the basic tools they need to succeed, from simple language to fine motor skills to co-operating with classmates."

Study after study shows that children who do not arrive "ready to learn" fall behind, are rejected by peers and sour on school, setting them on high-risk paths toward unhealthy, unhappy adulthoods.

Sure, let's all be the best parents we can be and give our kids the best start in life, but part of the problem would go away it the middle class would just relax a little on the need to succeed and let kids be kids.

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