Since women were ‘liberated’ decades ago from the traditional role of homemaker, an internal tug-of-war was declared on parents, especially mothers. Should I stay home with my child or return to work? Can I do both? Unlike many other species biology has created a long dependency period for maximum development of humans.
Margaret Mahler, a psychoanalyst and co-author of the book, “The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant” (1975), tells us, “The biological birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual are not coincident in time.”
She says infants gradually begin to differentiate from the mother in a symbiotic psychological process she refers to as ‘hatching.’ This process begins about the fourth or fifth month to the 36th month and involves the child’s achievement of “separate functioning in the presence of, and with the emotional availability of the mother”1 (my italics).
Not to diminish the significance of early education in a child’s future, academic performance alone should not be considered in isolation from, or at the expense of other developmental needs. In fact, Dr. Peter Cook in “Mothering Matters, The Natural Child Project” (2002) says that, “sensitive, responsive mothering through the early years was the best predictor of social competence at six years, which in turn predicts schooling success.”2
Drawing on a database of more than 75,000 assessments from 2011-2013, a global sample was created by EQ, an organization dedicated to increasing emotional intelligence around the world. The report, The State of the Heart (2014),3 also noted emotional intelligence that encompasses empathy and compassion in young people, is declining in comparison with people over 40 years of age.
Is academic achievement our ultimate goal or is it to raise a happy, healthy adult who is a contributing, compassionate and self-disciplined member of society? Parents are the first teachers and a nurturing home is the classroom from which they will emerge from their cocoon into the world with fewer stunted or broken wings. Yet we scratch our heads and ask ‘WHY’?
It begins with understanding the first bond is the foundation for caring about others throughout life. A safe, secure and stable environment with a consistent caregiver is the necessary prerequisite to a successful learner. John Bowlby with Mary Ainsworth in ‘Attachment and Loss’ (1969-1982),4 have shown, through extensive studies, that attachment in our first relationships is essential in the ability to develop empathy- understanding others’ thoughts and feelings. This lays the foundation for meaningful relationships with others.
And, according to Daniel Goleman in ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’ (2006),5 children learn fundamental lessons in the family unit that will last for a lifetime. He notes emotional intelligence has proven a better predictor of future success. It profoundly affects all other abilities and is the most critical element in learning how to learn.
The explosion in neuroscience research over these past few decades can now show that these early discoveries in child development are neurologically and biologically based. The Canadian Institute of Child Health in Ottawa in ‘The First Years Last Forever’ (1999, 2008),6 reports the brain at birth is highly underdeveloped. While billions of cells are built into the physical structure, the ‘wiring’ between them will be laid out by environmental stimulation, which triggers a cascade of biochemicals that affect everything from emotions to movement to memory and learning.
Simple interactions like a mother’s touch trigger the neurons to grow and connect into complex systems, and with repetition, become well defined. It shows that our early connections actually change the physical structure of the brain and are the major source of development that includes not only the cognitive part of the brain but the emotional and social as well.
Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of “Mindsight,” (2010) says, “who we become as adults is shaped by many factors – including genes, chance and experience – in addition to our earliest attachments to our caregivers. But anyone who doubts the influence parents have on their children must deal with these extensive studies of attachment. They clearly demonstrate what parents do matters enormously.”7
Parents share not only their time. They share themselves in their thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and love. These are conveyed during the formative years through the parent-child relationship, both directly and indirectly and continue through the years. Development unfolds as nature dictates and no amount of hurrying will change it. The “emotional overload”8 will result in stress, which creates childhood anxiety that can become a permanent part of the brain structure.
Parenting may seem like an ominous sense of responsibility. Many guilt-ridden parents are frequently bombarded by conflicting information about what is best for their children. Guilt is only a symptom that parents care very much about their children, but it also offers opportunity for change. As Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better.”9
Parents matter “…because psychic structure must always be passed from generation to generation through the narrow funnel of childhood… .”10 (Lloyd de Mause)
- Mahler, Margaret; Pine, Fred; Bergman, Anni (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Basic Books, New York, (3,4) (xvii)
- Cook, Dr. Peter, Mothering Matters in ‘The Natural Child Project’ (2002) http://www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/mothering_matters.html
- Bowlby, J. (1969-1982) Attachment and loss.Vol.1: Attachment (2nd Ed.) New York: Basic Books
- Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence (2006). Bantam Dell, New York, New York (80).
- Canadian Institute of Child Health. (1999, reprinted in 2008). The first years last forever. Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Child Health. Retrieved from http://www.cich.ca/PDFFiles/FirstYearsEngWEB.pdf
- Siegel, Daniel J., (2010). Mindsight.New York: Bantam Books: (171)
- DeMause, Lloyd, The Evolution of Childhood, First Rowman & Littlefield, Inc. (2006, Lanham, Maryland 20706 (35).