Write What You Don’t Know

by | Jul 1, 2018 | Lisa Black, On writing | 11 comments

            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?

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    I'm not sure I found anything all that surprising. But my favorite thing about having a small child is looking through the world with a small child's eye. Everything that had become routine and even a little boring as an adult is suddenly fascinating – because a child is exploring it. Holidays that I barely noticed anymore – Halloween, Thanksgiving – became rich with new wonder because I was sharing them with a child – who was not jaded by time or cynicism or bad experiences.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    All of the new science is fascinating, Lisa, and disheartening, too, because I suspect most people have no real understanding of the importance of giving a child attention, security, and love … and the good that can result. Thank you for a thought-provoking blog!

  3. Robin Burcell

    So true! Looking at the world through my children changed everything! I found that when I included characters who were children, they were often the age of my children at that time. I could relate better.

  4. Robin Burcell

    (I so want to think that most people do know this. Please tell me this is true! That it's a typo and really a LOT of people don't know this…???)

  5. Robin Burcell

    The world of child psychology is a fascinating subject. I took a course before I had kids, and after my first daughter was born, saw some of it in action–textbook behavior. For instance, baby/toddlers aren't dumping their food on the floor to be bad. They're exploring their world like little scientists and trying to see what happens. And when you talk baby talk back to them, they think you're nuts. They understand you, even if you don't understand them. (I experimented with my oldest daughter, Cara, whom we nicknamed Pumpkinhead. At the age of two, she called herself "Cawa" because she couldn't pronounce her Rs. So, recalling my class, I called her Cawa. She would correct me, saying, "No, mom. I Cawa." And I repeated her exact pronunciation, Cawa. After several back-and-forths, with her correcting me with I Cawa, she gave a frustrated sigh and said, "No, mom. I Pumpkinhead." (As a result, to this day, we affectionately call her, "I-Cawa."

  6. Robin Burcell

    And to be sure this wasn't a fluke, we did the same thing when she was talking about our dog's collar, which she pronounced, "dog cawa." (Ls gave her trouble, too.) So back and forth we went, me pronouncing it the same way she was. Finally, that look of exasperation, and she said, "dog weash."

  7. Karna Bodman

    A very interesting post! I've seen first-hand how paying attention and "interacting" with a baby and very young child pays great dividends. I remember never using "baby talk" with my little boys — and turns out that they both started speaking quite "fluently" early-on. I have a vivid memory of my 2-year-old staring out the window as rain poured down for several days in a row. He turned to me and said, "Mommy, I know what to do. Let's build a stair all the way up to the sky and put in a wall to stop the rain." Then he thought a moment and added, "But we'd have to put in a door so God can come down." I was astounded. I'm sure others will remember equally mazing "observations" by little ones. Thanks for a great post!

  8. Lisa Black

    I love these stories! Children are so endlessly unique!

  9. Katie

    Identical twins are , well, identical, but they definitely are not. Yes, they have different personalities, and of course, they conspire against everyone and "speak" in some unknown language. Some things one just cannot teach. For example, when each is given an Oreo cookie, one eagerly crunches into it immediately, loving the crunchy cookie and squishy filling. The other carefully separates the cookies, licks the frosting, and only then crunches the cookies! Who knew!

  10. Chris Goff

    I have to say, I have six kids–one boy and five girls–and all have incredibly distinct personalities. I will never forget the day I heard Mardee as a very young baby, calling out "Hi" from her bassinet in the living room. She had heard one of the older kids come in from school. The door opened and banged shut, and before either Cherie or I could greet each other, Mardee started calling out. I don't know if she knew what she was saying, but she clearly had identified the sound of the door meaning someone who might pay her attention coming in, and "Hi" as a greeting to get attention. Even more interesting is, she is the one who grew up more extroverted than any of the others. She is a social diva.

  11. Jamie Freveletti

    Time spent with children is wonderful. However, I was having breakfast with my kids and we were discussing those childhood "enrichment" classes we all signed our children up to take. I asked them, "Do you remember wiggle worms? We'd sing and play music at the old town school?" Blank stares. "Do you remember the art class we took together?" Blank stares. Finally, in desperation I said, "well what do you remember?" They thought a minute and said, "When we were eleven and twelve and the car got stuck in the snow and you said the "F" word for the first time in front of us. We didn't even think you knew that word!" Not my finest moment. Ah well, they're fun and interesting people and doing very well so I guess it all worked out! Great post.