When it comes to analyzing child development and behavior, science does matter. Everyone has an opinion it seems about how the environment affects young children—that is, how the events in early childhood lead to the social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual development of our children. Yet often those opinions are based on supposition rather than a sound understanding of the various factors at hand. Supposition can come in handy for dinner table, backyard or political conversations but does little to advance the needs of children overall.
Let me be clear—it is very difficult to predict the outcomes of our children as they progress through childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and into “full” adulthood. There are so many variables to be identified and analyzed. These variables are essentially the pieces of the “jigsaw puzzle” of life but do not in and of themselves dictate the future. But these variables can help us anticipate certain issues, be proactive as needed, be reactive when needed and intervene with support when it is needed.
The science of early brain and child development has shown how all of these variables actually affect the wiring in the brain, the expression of certain genes that deal with stress responses and the ongoing dynamics of the interpersonal relationships between children and their caregivers. These connections provide some insight into activities in childhood and oftentimes predict a variety of health conditions in adulthood. So yes, circumstances in early childhood can profoundly affect how children develop and progress. The net effect is that biology and ecology (the multiple factors in the environment) are intertwined and both need due consideration as we seek to optimize the conditions for the nurturing of our children.
I take exception to those folks that chose to ignore solid evidence for the various factors that affect children now and in the future. This evidence has helped, when used appropriately, provide sound advice for programs that can be used by parents, pediatric providers, educators, business leaders, civil servants, and policy makers. This evidence is based on years of evolving research that goes beyond the behavioral psychology (based mostly on animal studies) that I learned back in college over 50 years ago. A variety of studies confirm the sometimes immediate and definitely long-term effects of what are oft referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are broadly characterized into the categories of abuse, household dysfunction and neglect. ACEs are certainly more likely to have occurred in the situation of adoption, for example.
I recently read a syndicated column by a family psychologist. His article about adopted children (who are certainly at risk for ACEs) implies that events in early childhood do not necessarily put these children at high risk for behavioral issues. He uses this argument to imply that early deprivations that might have occurred in these children should have no bearing on their behavior, that they will essentially have forgotten those early experiences. He further argues that discipline and punishment should not take any of that into account.
I could not disagree more strongly. My arguments are based on science. We know that ACEs put the children at risk for emotional or attachment concerns. They do need extra attention. The safe, stable nurturing relationships that adoption can bring do not provide complete protection to some of the lasting effects of early difficulties. Adoption is a great blessing to the select few but ignoring the possible ill effects of past experiences is to ignore the extra support or intervention that might be needed at times. Discipline might need to be adjusted accordingly.
The above example of using the science of early brain and child development is just one of many as we move to improve the lives of our children and their families. Old-fashioned beliefs and suppositions should be replaced with sound policy and advice that can make a difference. We have to continually do better as the evidence shows us the way.