Neurotic Neurons

A review of John T. Bauer’s The Myth of First Three Years.

We don’t yet have the kind of long view of a period that historian needs, but the Nineties are emerging to be a very silly decade. I am glad that my twenties fell on the Nineties; it’s like being young in the Twenties, minus the music. Our nation was preoccupied with a chunky girl whom our President briefly fancied as our enemies were stepping up their attacks around the globe. We put our prestige on the line brokering peace between a long-suffering nation and a band of terrorists as the terrorists were announcing in Arabic that they would not honor any agreements. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan characterized our economic activity as irrational exuberance.

John T. Bruer tells us that the Myth of First Three Years was another Nineties folly. According to the Myth, the first three years of life are detrimental in child’s intellectual development. During these years synoptic density is high and intensive learning takes place. Allegedly cutting edge research in neuroscience confirms this assertion. Politicians (Clintons and Kerry are among the most high-profile on the list) were most imptressed and invested millions in early childhood educational facilities, research programs, etc.

But, Bruer tells us, no responsible neuroscientist connects synoptic density to intelligence, and human beings are well capable of lifelong learning. Two experiments (not conducted by neuroscientists) put low income at risk babies in high quality ($15,000/year/child) day care against a control group of low income at risk babies who did not receive the same kind of care. During the first years of life kids in high quality day care scored higher then their control group counterparts on IQ and other tests. But the gap in scores between the two groups closed to less then 5 IQ points by the age of 15. Turns out, the best predictors of kid’s IQ are mother’s IQ and “time on task”, i.e. the time kid spent studying. And check this out; “McNamara’s Moron Corps” (recruits who joined the armed forced during the Vietnam War when intelligence qualifications were lowered) showed similar gains in IQ once the military provided relevant training at a later stage in their lives. (Let’s not get into discussion of what IQ measures, I am well aware of the limitations of this test).

Neither Bruer nor I am for that matter is against investing in day care. It’s just that given our limited resources we might need to consider making daycare a bit less expensive and more accessible. High quality daycare doesn’t seem to yield intended results in at risk youth.

And what about your middle class kids? High quality day care is just as good as mommy, they say. But what the Myth does to mothers, it makes them feel very, very guilty for not buying that magic rattle that will make your baby extra smart. Bruer doesn’t name names, but I think it’s pretty clear that he’s talking about Baby Einstein here. Speaking of which, my coworker’s son is working on his PhD in developmental psych. He says that Baby Einstein is poison, and that kids who play with Baby Einstein show symptoms of ADD on average something like 5 years earlier then non-Einstein kids.

Bruer seems to suggest that Dr. Spock with his advise to trust common sense is still the best way to go in raising your baby. Unfortunately, not all people are gifted with common sense. I know some young parents who spent their whole lives so far trying to prove that they know better then everyone. They treat child rearing as some elaborate exercise in radicalism. To me the bottom line is this: If you want to bring up your children with good middle class values such as family, education and community, raise your kids like middle class families did. And yes, I am aware that this changes overtime as well…

And by the way, I don’t suggest reading this book unless you are interested in particular examples, of which there are many of neuroscientific experiments. The book is not that well organized and can be summarized in a short brochure.

January 23, 2007 update:

George Bush mentioned Baby Einstein in his State of the Union Address today.  To be fair to him, he only touted it as a great business venture…

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January 14, 2007. Breedosaurus, Random thoughts.

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