Escaping the parent trap

It's easy to get wrapped up in being the perfect parent. But as Carl Honor tells us, it's all about following your instincts.

When my wife announced that she was pregnant with our first child, we did what parents all over the world do when a baby is on the way: We headed to the local bookstore and started assembling our own library of child-rearing manuals. Like everyone else, we wanted to give our baby the best start in life.

I remember one book in particular. It charted month by month the developmental milestones for newborns: moving head from side to side, smiling, tracking objects with the eyes, grasping hand toys, experimenting with cause and effect, and on and on and on. I kept a close eye on that graph. If our son fell behind schedule, it was panic stations. What’s wrong with him? Are we failing as parents? Should we consult the doctor? By the same token, nothing made my day more than finding my son ahead of the curve, especially if another parent noticed. (“He rolled over very early, since you ask.”)

Our ancestors would have been amazed. Through most of history, infant development was not a pressing concern. Newborns were often farmed out to wet nurses or simply strapped to their mother while she went about her work. The death of a baby was often considered less tragic than that of an older child. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the great Renaissance essayist, famously wrote: “I have lost two or three children in infancy, not without regret, but without great sorrow.” OK, Mrs. Montaigne probably felt a little more strongly, but all the same, such talk today would be enough to trigger an investigation by Social Services.

That is not to say that our ancestors did not feel the temptation to make infants grow up just a little faster. Some parents in medieval Europe used strings and wooden frames to encourage babies to walk earlier. From the late 17th century, European surgeons tried to hasten the arrival of speech by cutting the ligaments in infants’ tongues. But even a hundred years ago, most parents were still more worried about whether their baby would survive than whether it would clear developmental hurdles ahead of schedule. As infant mortality fell and expectations soared, however, the emphasis gradually switched to getting babies off to a flying cognitive start.

Live and learn

Today, the pressure to hit the ground running is stronger than ever. Science has shown that a baby is the world’s most powerful learning machine — even more powerful than was thought a generation ago. Using puppet shows featuring vanishing ducks, researchers have shown that infants can grasp the idea of “object permanence” — that when Mom leaves the room she does not cease to exist — as early as 10 weeks, not at nine months as previously believed. A 2007 study concluded that babies can distinguish between languages simply by looking at the speaker’s face. In a Canadian experiment, four-month-old infants watched a video of an adult speaking English or French with the sound turned off. Each time the speaker switched languages, the babies perked up and paid close attention.

Every infant experiences a neural Big Bang that establishes the network of synaptic connections which will then be ordered and pruned over the coming years. To make the most of this early phase of brain construction, babies need stimulation. The same holds true in the animal kingdom. In one series of well-known studies, rats raised with other rats in a large cage filled with toys developed brains of greater neural richness than those reared alone in small, empty cages.

The problem is that this type of research has entered the cultural bloodstream in the shape of a stark diktat: The more stimulation your baby gets and the earlier he gets it, the smarter he will be. And if you fail to make the most of this early neural development, the window of opportunity will slam shut at the age of three and you can forget about college. From there it is a short step to hand-held tummy speakers that fill the womb with “neurally enriching” music or to the I’coo Pico stroller whose built-in iPod dock allows baby to listen to songs or Mandarin vocabulary on the move, turning that stroll in the park into a “multi-sensory experience.”

Whether this barrage of stimulation actually works is less clear. The latest neuroscience suggests that all the enrichment the human infant needs is built into the everyday experience of your average baby — and that instead of being a tabula rasa waiting passively to be filled up by adults, babies are programmed to seek out the input needed to build their brains. That is why mankind managed successfully to rear children for thousands of years without electronic mobiles and Baby Einstein DVDs. What about those clever rats raised in enriched environments? Well, before you race off to fill up the nursery with flash cards and plasma screens, consider the least-reported finding from that research: No amount of enrichment ever produced rats with better brains than those raised in nature.

Of course, some children grow up in a family environment that leaves them under-equipped for school. A major study by the University of London tracked 15,500 children born between 2000 and 2002 into a range of social backgrounds. By the time the kids turned three, the offspring of graduate parents, who are more likely to fill the home with books, stories and conversation, were 10 months ahead of those of less-qualified parents in vocabulary, and a year ahead in their grasp of shapes, sizes, colours, letters and numbers. Early enrichment programs can help children from less-privileged homes bridge that gap. But that does not mean everyone else needs to sign up too — or that piling on the stimulation can upgrade the basic wiring of the brain. John Bruer is the author of The Myth of the First Three Years and president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds research into brain science. He dismisses outright the belief that more stimulation yields a better brain: “The idea that you can provide more synapses by stimulating the child more has no basis in science.” That does not stop us trying. When researchers found in the 1990s that listening to Mozart enhanced college students’ spatial reasoning, an entire industry sprang up based on the claim that flooding the nursery with piano concertos could boost a baby’s brain. So alluring was this idea that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, hospitals in the state of Georgia sent every newborn home with a CD entitled Build Your Baby’s Brain Power Through the Power of Music, featuring works by Bach, Handel and Mozart. Today, you can still buy albums and DVDs trumpeting the so-called Mozart effect. The only problem is that the Mozart effect is nonsense. In 2007, the German research ministry finally commissioned a crack team of neuroscientists, psychologists, educationalists and philosophers to investigate all the research done on the phenomenon. Their conclusion: Even if listening to Mozart does boost spatial-temporal reasoning (and not all studies have shown this), the effect lasts no more than 20 minutes. What’s more, the German team found zero evidence that listening to classical music does anything at all to hone the infant brain.

The bottom line seems to be that infant cramming is often pointless, and may even backfire. Skills gained through force-feeding often have to be relearned later. One London, England, music teacher tells of a girl driven by her parents to master the violin from the age of three. She surged ahead of her peers, yet by the age of six her technique was so distorted that she had to spend months relearning the basics. “The worst part was that the other children, who had been playing to their ability level, hit their stride and left her behind,” says the teacher. “It was a classic case of the tortoise and the hare.”

Too much stimulation can interfere with sleep, which babies need to process and consolidate what they have learned during the waking hours. When parents get anxious about milestones, when they spend more time cultivating than comforting their baby, the infant can get stressed too. If a baby’s brain becomes flooded with stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, the chemical change can become permanent over time, making it harder to learn or to control aggression in later life and increasing the chance of depression.

Bringing up baby

So what is the right way to treat an infant? Well, the question itself is flawed. However much we may want science to provide a step-by-step guide to the early years, our patchy knowledge of brain development makes this impossible. What’s more, every child and every family is different, which means that there can never be a single recipe for raising a baby.

Yet there are some clear guidelines. One is that all infants thrive on one-on-one interaction with plenty of eye contact. Study after study has shown that babies are fascinated by strong contrasts and colours, which is precisely what they get from the human face, with its complex, shifting landscape of wrinkles, curves, crevices and shadows. A baby scrutinizing her parent’s face, deciphering the emotions and expressions flickering across it, is doing the neural equivalent of the Jane Fonda workout. An educational video, an electronic mobile with flashing lights, or a poster with white, black and red patterns simply cannot compete. Just look at how, in the absence of gadgets and gizmos, a parent interacts with her baby: gazing into his eyes, smiling, nuzzling, adopting exaggerated facial expressions, tickling, pronouncing words v-e-r-y slowly, kissing, imitating sounds back and forth. This may not look like much compared to the showier thrills of baby sign language, but it is actually a rich and stimulating conversation — and you don’t need a specialist to teach you how to do it because it comes naturally to all of us. As well as being a source of joy and wonder, this elemental chat, this loving interplay, between parent and infant helps to build the latter’s prefrontal cortex, the “social” part of the brain that governs empathy, self-control and the capacity to read non-verbal signals from other people — the very skills that teachers identify as the most important for thriving in kindergarten and beyond. Experts agree that forming a strong bond with one or more carers is the cornerstone of all child development and all later learning. It can also immunize children against stress throughout their lives. And perhaps this message is slowly starting to sink in.

Around the world, child-development experts are issuing the same advice to anxious, impatient parents: Every baby develops at a different speed. The early years are important, but they are not a race. Spend less time trying to enrich your baby and more time getting to know her. Trust your instincts instead of mimicking whatever the alpha mom in the playground is doing. Some parents are learning those lessons the hard way. June Thorpe spent more than a decade as a high-flying events planner in Miami, Florida. After giving birth at the age of 36, she tackled motherhood as if organizing a conference. She devised a rigid schedule of eating, sleeping, yoga, massage and interactive play for her baby, Alexia, and pinned it to the fridge door. “I wanted to get her into a routine as soon as possible to get her off to a good start,” Thorpe remembers. The problem was that the routine did not suit Alexia, who carried on waking up several times a night and took longer than usual to sit up by herself. At coffee mornings, Thorpe felt like a failure listening to other mothers boast about how well their children slept, how early they had started crawling or how well they were taking to solid food. She began to regard motherhood as a dreary, demoralizing, dead-end job.

Then everything changed when she discovered the blogosphere. Thorpe found writings from scores of moms caught in the same rut — and many who dug themselves out by forging their own path. The message she took away was that mothering comes in all shapes and sizes, and that trying to follow someone else’s rules or timetable can make it tedious and frustrating and, ultimately, crowd out the most fascinating and rewarding part of being a parent: getting to know your own child. In other words, you don’t have to rush off to that baby yoga lesson or spend hours making the house look like a photo spread in The World of Interiors. To hell with the Joneses. It’s OK to spend the afternoon lying together on the bed, cuddling, breastfeeding, drifting in and out of sleep. Sometimes you’ll spend most of the night failing to get your child to stop crying, and that’s OK too.

“When I looked outside my own social circle, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling that the pressure to be a so-called supermom was making motherhood a chore,” says Thorpe. “And I think that Alexia was probably picking up on my anxiety too.” So she changed tack. She decided to go with her instincts. That meant putting away the schedules, the developmental charts and the interactive DVDs, and letting Alexia breastfeed and sleep whenever she felt like it. Instead of baby yoga classes, mother and daughter now take a nap together on the large sofa in the sitting room, surrounded by soft cushions and stuffed animals.

Thorpe loves the new regime. It seems less like work, and she feels much closer to Alexia, more able to read her moods and needs. Alexia has started sleeping through the night. “She seems more contented now that I’m not trying to force her into being my idea of what a baby should be,” says Thorpe. “And I’m more contented knowing I don’t have to fit into someone else’s idea of the perfect mom. The most important thing is what’s right for Alexia and me.”

Excerpted from Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-parenting. Copyright © 2008 Carl Honoré. Published by Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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