Those of you who have followed my work through the years know that what I care about most, after my love for Jesus Christ and my family, is the welfare of children—yours and mine. I have been fascinated since my early twenties by kids at every stage from birth through adolescence. I still find it compelling to consider the marvelous way God created them. Every child on the face of the earth is unique, distinct, and precious.
It was this early interest that led me first to teach in public schools while I was doing my graduate work in child development at USC. What I was learning from my professors came alive every day in the laboratory of the classroom. When I finished my Ph.D., I accepted a research position and held it for the next 17 years at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and simultaneously, for 14 years in the department of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine. It was a wonderful ride.
Several years have passed since I have devoted my monthly letter to this first love. Let me return to that topic today by writing directly to parents, grandparents, teachers, and others who are giving their lives to the care and training of children.
We'll begin with a look at the first three years of life and why they are critical to everything that will come later. It is a period of remarkable change in all dimensions of development, especially neurologically. A newborn's brain is about 25 percent of its future adult weight. By the time he or she is three years old, the brain will have produced billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, that link them together. There appears to be nothing in the known universe as complex as the human brain.
This breathtaking increase in brain structure and mental capacity helps to explain why every experience in childhood is significant. A toddler takes in and tries to make sense of his or her bewildering world. Watching the "mantle of humanness" descend on a baby is awe-inspiring to those who are paying attention. A newborn who was hanging by his or her heels in a delivery room shortly after birth will quickly gain 15 or 20 pounds and develop a sparkle in the eyes, a sense of humor, a unique personality, a curiosity about everything he or she can grasp, and an independent streak that will surprise even his or her 200-pound father. There is nothing like it in all of nature.
When Ryan and Danae were babies, I would frequently leave home for a short speaking engagement. By the time I returned three days later, I could "see" tiny changes in a flash that had occurred in my absence. Within a few seconds, I could no longer recognize them. They were changing that fast. My kids were developing right before my eyes.
It is very important to understand that during this period of rapid development, there are certain opportunities that must be experienced or they will be forever lost. For example, babies require normal visual input, or else permanent impairment of the eyes can occur.1 The rudiments of language skills also occur in a critical period, which is why it is so beneficial to talk, talk, talk to your baby. And when you are not talking, you should be listening. Hearing your baby imitate your vocal sounds, coos, and laughter makes caring for an infant so rewarding. One of my grandson's first spoken phrases was, "That's cool." My daughter's first phrase referred to the name of a cereal, "Apple Jacks."
I have striking memories of my first two years of babyhood. Believe it or not, I remember lying in a bassinette and looking up at my great grandmother. She was wearing a wool knitted cap, and hanging from it on both sides were strands of yarn that had furry balls at the end. I recall reaching up and playing with those pretty balls. Nanny thought that was charming, and she talked about it for years. I also remember the smell of a baby food called pablum, which was a staple for infants at that time. I'm glad I don't have to eat that stuff today.
The point is that babies are far more than passive little creatures that coo and giggle. They are complex individuals who are watching, listening, and learning at a rapid pace. Once again, they encounter critical periods along the way. If these opportunities for learning and observation are missed, it will have consequences for future development. It is one of the reasons why children raised amid deprivation, abuse, or poverty are often intellectually and emotionally impaired.
Here is the nub of it: in a sense, all of a boy's or girl's childhood should be thought of as a "critical period," especially in the relationship with his or her mother. If a proper bond fails to develop between them, the son or daughter will be affected negatively, some more than others.
Two researchers named Bowlby and Ainsworth were the first to recognize that infants are highly vulnerable and easily wounded by anxiety, fear, and confusion.2 Elaborating on a previous point, children who are subjected to prolonged periods of emotional trauma experience surges of stress hormones, principally cortisol, that flood through their immature brains, causing irreversible neurological damage.3 In extreme cases involving abuse or neglect, an individual may eventually lose his or her ability to "feel" for others, which has implications for violence in years to come.4 There are tragic cases on record of toddlers who have stood alone in cribs for hours, hungry, sick, and scared. Some of them have even grown up to become cold-blooded killers who murder strangers just for the thrill of watching them die.
By contrast, something wonderful happens when a nurturing mother intercedes lovingly on behalf of her distressed baby. Typically, she talks softly to her frightened infant, cuddles her, changes an uncomfortable diaper, sways with her gently, and sings quietly while providing a warm and nurturing breast. The child in her arms is calmed both emotionally and physically, and fears subside. From that deeply satisfying experience for mother and baby, a bond begins to form between them. It will establish a foundation for all that lies ahead. The relationship the mother and child forge will never be completely abandoned or forgotten, even though it may be severely strained at times. This is why wounded and dying men, hardened by combat on a battlefield, will often utter one last word through their tears, "Mother!"
Infants are like sponges soaking up the affection showered on them. They clearly prefer human stimuli above anything else. Girl babies more than boys are attuned to faces, touch, voices, and even smell. They are more sensitive to speech and singing than any other sound. Is this the origin of the lullaby? It must be. A newborn has been listening to her mother's voice from inside the womb for nine months, and the baby is comforted by it.
A classic study called the Harvard Preschool Project was conducted some years ago and is still quoted in pediatrics literature because of the importance of its findings. This exhaustive 10-year study was led by Dr. Burton L. White, and focused on children between 8 and 18 months of age. Every mother should be aware of its conclusions, as follows:
1. It is increasingly clear that the origins of human competence are to be found in a critical period of development between 8 and 18 months of age. The child's experiences during these brief months do more to influence future intellectual competence than any time before or after.
2. The single most important environmental factor in the life of the child is his mother. "She is on the hook," said Dr. White, and carries more influence on her child's experiences than any other person or circumstance.
3. The amount of live language directed to a child (not to be confused with television, radio, or overheard conversations) is vital to his development of fundamental linguistic, intellectual, and social skills. The researchers concluded, "Providing a rich social life for a 12 to 15 month-old child is the best thing you can do to guarantee a good mind."
4. Those children who are given free access to living areas of their homes progressed much faster than those whose movements are restricted.
5. The nuclear family is the most important educational delivery system. If we are going to produce capable, healthy children, it will be by strengthening family units and by improving the interactions that occur within them.
6. The best parents were those who excelled at three key functions:
(1) They were superb designers and organizers of their children's environments.
(2) They permitted their children to interrupt them for brief 30-second episodes, during which personal consultation, comfort, information, and enthusiasm were exchanged.
(3) They were firm disciplinarians while simultaneously showing great affection for their children.5
I hear within these conclusions an affirmation and validation of the concepts to which I have devoted my professional life. Discipline with love is a centerpiece of healthy child development.
To put it succinctly, Mom, you are indispensable. The start your baby gets in life is in your hands—and in your voice and in your heart. What a wonderful privilege and responsibility it is to welcome him or her with open arms. That little bundle arrives straight from the hand of the Creator as His precious gift.
But what about fathers? How do they fit into this attachment phenomena? His role is primarily to be supportive of the mother. He should also begin to connect with the baby in the months to follow. His masculine voice, size, demeanor, and gentle discipline provide the security produced by defined limits. In a permissive world where many parents have forgotten or never knew the importance of appropriate authority, it is the responsibility of a father to help guide behavior and teach self-control.
When my grandson, Lincoln, was 19 months of age, his mother and I were sitting at a table and he was in his high chair. He started to throw a cup on the floor when his mom, who had bonded beautifully with her baby, quietly said, "No." Her manner conveyed, "This is a suggestion." I could see that the toddler was going to ignore her, so I said with a little more force, "Lincoln! No!"
I wasn't gruff with him, but the tone of my voice said, "This is an order." It was the first time I had ever spoken to him in that tone. He instantly turned his head toward me and studied my face. We sat looking at each other for about five seconds without moving, and then we both smiled. He had examined my expression to see if I was angry and realized I was not. But he also recognized that I expected obedience. His smile said, "I get it," and he put the cup down. My smile said, "You're a good boy." This brief two-word interchange and the reading of faces between my grandson and me illustrate how a man typically handles matters of discipline more easily than a gentle mother does.
Here is another example of a father's role as related to gender. Boys are not born with an understanding of what it means to be male. It is a dad's responsibility to introduce that concept over time. Beginning at about 18 months of age and continuing over the next four years, sexual identity is being formed. During that time, boys need exposure to a loving father or father figure who will serve as a role model for masculinity. They still need their mom's affirmation, to be sure, but not in an overbearing way that prevents them from becoming the males they were made to become. Said another way, the mother is no less significant to her son during that period of identity formation, but something new is being added to the mix. A healthy boy will usually observe as time passes that, "Dad is different, and I should be like him." Hopefully, the mother will not be threatened by that realignment and, in fact, should encourage it.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where family breakup is a common tragedy. Boys, especially those born in the inner city or in poverty-stricken areas, often have little or no exposure to healthy male role models. Many of them grow up on the streets with older gang members as their only male examples. It is a recipe for violence, drug use, and illicit sex.
For girls, dads play an entirely different role. Most parents are aware that boys need their fathers and girls are dependent on their mothers. It is equally important to know, however, that the cross-sexual relationship is also of inestimable significance. Girls need their fathers as much as boys do, but for different reasons. Child rearing is a two person job, but many parents are handling it alone. They need all the love and care we can give them.
Time and space force me to close this discussion, although I could write endlessly about the magnificence of human development. In fact, I have been doing that since 1969 when I wrote a textbook for medical students. For now, let me conclude by quoting the words of King David from the 139th Psalm. He wrote therein an eloquent description of his own prenatal development, 2,700 years ago.
For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place; when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with You.6
The eyes of the Creator were also on you and me when we were being knit together in our "secret place." We owe Him our very lives.
As I close, let me add this final thought. Thank you for your generosity to this ministry as 2019 came to an end. Every gift represents someone's sacrifice, and we are very appreciative for your support.
1. Lucy M. Osborn, et. al., Pediatrics (Philadelphia: Elsevier Mosby, 2005), 494.
2. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss 1; Simpson and Rholes, Attachment Theory and Close Relationships, 167; Bretherton, "The Origins of Attachment Theory," 759–775. 5. C. F. Weems and V. G. Carrion, "The Association between PTSD Symptoms and Salivary Cortisol in Youth: The Role of Time since the Trauma," Journal of Traumatic Stress 20, no.
5. American Psychological Association Monitor 7, no. 4 (1976).
6. Psalm 139:13-18.
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