Years ago, I saw an interview with a rockstar where he confessed that all of his songs were about what happened in his life from birth until age twelve. He may not have known it, but he was hitting upon a hot debate embroiling researchers and experts from across a variety of fields. That debate concerned the importance of our early experiences and just what causes some people to go on to illustrious success while others languish, why some people seem to defy all odds and excel, while others, despite one opportunity and benefit after another, never seem to get off the starting block.
More to the point, what I have learned as a human behavior expert and child development specialist is that our interactions with our parents form the crucible for our growth. Through these interactions, we learn what is good and bad, right and wrong, who we are and who we are to be.
So, although your genes lay out a blueprint for your potential development, they do not determine the way in which you will grow. Instead, it is the environment your parents create that instructs and directs your genes by enhancing some and turning off others. In other words, parents are the true gene therapists.
Now, as a parent yourself, the baton has passed to you. And who your baby will be and how he will grow subsequently is up to you. After all, in these critical first few years of life, your baby isn’t just building language and communication skills – he’s building his very personality. This means that your choices – what you say (and don’t say), what you do (and don’t do) – strongly influence who your child becomes. You are a key co-author in the book of his life.
This is a heavy responsibility that can cast fear into the hearts of even the most confident of parents. So when people learn of my background, I tend to hear the same three questions again and again:
- What can I possibly do as a parent to influence my child’s I.Q.?
- How can I raise an emotionally well-adjusted child?
- What influence can I possibly have on my child’s moral growth?
My answer always begins the same way: parents have the power. As mother or father, the ultimate responsibility for the trajectory your child takes in life is yours. But the good news is, you have everything you need to give your baby what he needs.
Moreover, contrary to what you’ve been told (or sold), your child doesn’t necessarily need special teachers, lessons, or flashcards. But what he does need is a supporting, stimulating environment: objects for manipulation and observation (pots, pans, balls, and Baroque music, to name a few) and, above all, specific bonding experiences with you, his parent.
Why are these important? Because an environment that is deliberately filled with warmth and stimulation fosters the neural connections in his brain responsible for thought, emotion, and behavior.
Meeting your child’s needs, soothing him with your voice and your touch, reading a book, cuddling, or any activity that involves nurturing, will do much to enhance your baby’s emotional well-being, temperament, personality, and ability to cope with stress, and whether he reaches his overall potential.
Consider the case of a boy I’ll call Sammy, younger brother to Anna and son of Maria and Leo, a successful musician. Like many other kids, Anna started piano lessons at age 7, taking them from her dad, while Sammy looked on. Sammy couldn’t wait to start lessons, so Leo started teaching 3-year-old Sammy too. Leo was pleased to see how quickly Sammy caught on.
Leo went to great lengths to make the piano lessons fun. But he also had high standards for his children, making sure they practiced daily and also learned to play correctly, with the right fingers on the right keys and with the right tempo, among other things. The kids also learned composition, music theory, and other instruments, as their abilities allowed.
What was the secret to Sammy’s success? Surely he had a natural aptitude for music. But that was not the only ingredient, by far. His father’s attention and careful tutelage also played a critical role. That is what made “Sammy” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as we all know him.
Mozart’s story (along with the stories of many other masterminds and miscreants alike) demonstrates the answer to the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate: we are all the products of both our genes and our environments. So, even as you gaze at your sleepy newborns placid face, know that inside, his brain is constantly developing, influenced almost equally by both the genetic codes he received from you and your partner as well as by the experiences you provide him, which affect the expression of those genes.
Although there is nothing you can do at this point about the genes your baby has inherited, there is much you can do to provide the nurturing he needs and an environment that fosters his growth. When you use your parental power to do so, you can help your child become the best that he can uniquely be. But to do that, first you have to understand how your baby’s brain develops.
In my next blog post, we’ll explore how your baby’s brain is hardwired to learn.