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Jewish World Review Sept. 22, 1999 /12 Tishrei, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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The myth of 0-to-3 --
REMEMBER THAT WHITE HOUSE conference in 1997 about the new brain research and what it portends for child-rearing? Educators and researchers from many fields chatted with the president and first lady about early childhood. The message was loud and clear: New brain research reveals that the ages 0 to 3 are critical for a child's development, and without an enriched environment and maximum stimulation, children will never develop their full potential.

Well, now comes the debunking. John T. Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, argues in "The Myth of the First Three Years" that we have been way oversold on 0-to-3.

The popular understanding of the first three years of life has come from a variety of sources, including a Carnegie Corporation report titled "Starting Points," the Rob Reiner Foundation's I am Your Child campaign and a thousand articles in parenting and general-interest magazines about these "critical" years.

Rob Reiner spoke for the establishment when he warned: "If we want to have a real significant impact, not only on children's success at school and later on in life, healthy relationships, but also an impact on reduction in crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child abuse, welfare, homelessness, and a variety of other social ills, we are going to have to address the first three years of life. There is no getting around it. All roads lead to Rome."

But do they? Bruer reviews the neuroscience and begins by noting that very few of the studies that form the basis for claims about 0-to-3 are new. Many are 25 or more years old. It is true, Bruer writes, that the young brain experiences a "fit of biological exuberance" in the early years after birth.

Babies' brains create trillions of synapses during this period; by age 2, a child has more synapses than an adult does.

But many journalists and advocates have misrepresented the meaning of this research. They have jumped to the conclusion that more synapses are better than fewer, and that synapse creation is dependent upon environmental stimulation.

In fact, Bruer says, synapse creation seems to be governed by our genes.

Following the burst of synapse creation, there is a pruning phase during adolescence when the brain eliminates a great many. Neuroscientists are not sure why this happens, but they do find in monkey experiments, for example, that some skills are not mastered until the pruning process is complete.

The care that all but the most abusive or neglectful parents give their offspring is more than sufficient to provide the kind of stimulation the developing brain requires. Hanging interesting mobiles over the crib won't hurt, but it won't help either.

Is there anything parents should be particularly careful about in their infants and toddlers? Yes. Make sure your child's senses are working properly. There is research to suggest that if a child is hard of hearing, or having vision problems, his brain may have processing difficulties that can last a lifetime. Beyond that, affectionate attention is wonderful for many reasons, but it will not create super-brains.

Why debunk the myth of the first three years? Bruer explains that unnecessary guilt is being foisted upon conscientious parents, and perhaps unwise government programs are being funded. Learning is a lifelong process.

Our brains are capable of great resilience. If policy-makers become convinced that most important doors slam shut after age 3, we may be giving up on millions of children who are fully capable of overcoming a poor start. Or we may divert resources from programs for older children or adults.

Bruer does not explore the question of why this myth caught on so readily.

But perhaps the myth is comfortable for a society that engages in widespread child neglect. After all, there are many parents who take time off to be with their infants and toddlers. If virtually all important stimulation happens by age 3, parents can breathe a sigh of relief and head off to the office. (Bruer, by the way, is not against day care.)

The intersection of science of journalism is often a bloody crossroads. The best reason to debunk the 0-to-3 is not because it may lead to bad policy, but simply because it does seem to be a myth. "It isn't what we don't know that kills us," Mark Twain once remarked, "it's everything we know that ain't so."

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate