Write What You Don’t Know
I have no children (entirely by choice). So when I decided to set my next book at a juvenile detention facility, I knew I was taking a chance. Could I pull this off? Could I make this remotely convincing? Could I stay interested in a topic—childhood development–that had never particularly interested me? Could I write in a milieu (teenagers) which I had always found uncomfortable (even when I was one)?
The result is Suffer the Children, in which I tackle the eternal task of trying to use all, dammit, of the research I so painstakingly accumulated. Without, I hope, either making my readers feel they are in the midst of a textbook for Elementary Education 101 or putting them to sleep outright.
Children, it turns out, are amazing creatures. That isn’t so surprising considering that human beings are amazing creatures—so incredibly variable and yet we mesh into a society that somehow manages to lope along from century to century without completely self-destructing. The variability is frightening and freeing at the same time. We only have to look at our siblings—beings with the same DNAsource, brought up in the same house, and yet completely different people. In my own group I see so many similarities and yet there are still hidden beliefs and attitudes that seem alien. (My brother Michael, for instance, voluntarily eats Brussel sprouts. Whaaaat?)
Recent research has indicated that just because we can’t remember much before age two doesn’t mean those events don’t affect us. Strong emotional events will be learned from and retained, even if subconsciously. When a baby cries and a parent comforts it, the baby eventually learns to self-soothe and self-regulate their emotions. They don’t get too concerned with momentary discomforts because they know a parent will show up to take care of them. If a baby’s cry is ignored or met with abuse, this isn’t learned. The orbital frontal cortex, which acts as a control center over sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves, may not develop properly—leaving the child with a lifelong inability to regulate these primitive emotional states. They may truly not‘be able to help it.’
When the brain is forming (which continues after birth), both the quantity and quality of tissue and chemistry can be changed by incidents of trauma. Infancy and toddlerhood is when it’s at its most malleable, and if attention and capabilities intended for learning have to be redirected to bodily defense, there is less available for higher functioning. Researchers found that when deprived children didn’t get intervention until after age five, their I.Q. stayed below eighty-six. But when they began to receive services at four months, their I.Q. had moved into the normal range by age three.
Chemical effectors such as legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and malnutrition can have the same effects. There is a window of opportunity for many functions which we take for granted—if certain basic capabilities such as speech and even vision aren’t developed by age two, they may not, ever. In the real world, Tarzan would never have learned to say “You, Jane.”
The good news for parents is that you don’t have to play Mozart to your baby while still in the womb or ensure that they’re bilingual by age three in order to raise an intelligent, well-rounded child. Just talkto them. Show them things. Interact with them. The most important base for your child’s life is a secure attachment to a primary caregiver. This gives them the foundation to learn empathy, control and balance their feelings, and develop cognitive processes.
And a little Mozart can’t hurt either.
What did you find most surprising about your little one(s) during the first few years of their life?