How much do parents influence their children’s future?

The fact that parents influence their children’s development is nothing new. It is clearly the case that we are formed during our childhood by the way our parents brought us up. More importantly, we also inherit our parents’ genes, which greatly determine what kind of person we become. But does it stop there? Can our parents influence us beyond making sure that we get the right education and the appropriate social skills necessary to find our place in society?

New research
The main factors that influence our physical and psychological profile are divided into nature and nurture. For some time now science has favoured nature over nurture, arguing that genes determine almost everything about us, down to behavioural patterns such as alcoholism, eating disorders, kleptomania etc. But recent brain research has begun to show a different picture, swinging over from nature to nurture. That is to say that there is now a growing understanding of how much the childhood environment influences us as adults, both physically and psychologically.

Premature birth
A price we pay for our extraordinary brain power is that we need to be born much too early. This is partly because our head would be too big to pass through the birth canal if we were born later, but more importantly because we need the environment to ‘programme’ our brain properly after birth. Human beings are like flock animals, who can’t really manage very well on their own. Therefore we need to learn social adaptability - to learn to live together with others. The way we learn social skills is to study and copy others. Therefore we need to be around others for the twenty or so years it takes (i.e. our childhood) to complete this programming task.

Pre-programmed by nature
The fact that our genes influence our behaviour does not mean a direct transfer. Instead the genes provide a pre-programmed tendency, or preference for development in a certain direction. But a lot can happen during childhood that will take us in a different direction. In order for us to develop according to plan we need the right stimulation at the right time during childhood. Therefore the environment during childhood is what ultimately determines our psychological and physical profile as adults. With the right input from environment, our genetic pre-programming will make sure we develop into harmonious adults. If however the child gets a less fortunate start in life, it will have to compensate as best it can to make up for what it was missing from the environment. As adults this often leads to psychological problems of varying degrees.

What is expected of parents?
Giving the right kind of support as a parent has nothing to do with finding the right schools, ballet classes or teaching good manners. On the contrary too much structure may have a negative effect on the growing child unless it matches the child’s different development phases. What is needed is rather to understand the child’s needs, to give the child the attention and support it needs to develop in accordance with its individual pre-programming. That is to say, simply things that parents tend to do instinctively.

Sadly though, if the parents themselves did not get the right start in life, they may struggle to provide the correct parenting and repeat the mistakes their parents made. So rather than inheriting through the genes, we ‘inherit’ through a repetition of the behaviour we were exposed to as children. This transfer of ‘bad’ behaviour is in fact so common that it is a major cause of psychological problems. Lack of confidence as adults, for instance, is usually linked with lack of attention as a child. Not being seen and heard sufficiently as a child is also a major cause of shame in adults: the child grows up believing that there must be something wrong with them since they are not getting the attention they need/deserve.

The importance of eye contact.
To be seen and heard, to establish eye contact with another human being is so important for a newborn child that it will do what it can to achieve this. The reason is that eye contact will trigger a new developmental phase of the brain. If for some reason it is not possible to get eye contact with someone this activation of the brain will be delayed for a week or so until the pre-programming will make a new attempt to kick-start this phase.

Vision is extremely important for the continued development of the brain and it is essential that it gets the right prerequisites to develop. One such prerequisite is a stable focal point that will act as a reference point for the child. In the pre-programming the mother’s face has been chosen to fill this function. To make absolutely sure that her face will be available often enough for the child’s vision to develop, newborn children can’t digest ordinary food for the first six months or so – the time needed to develop the vision sufficiently. During this period the child will be fed from a place that has the important face at the right distance. In addition the environment is as familiar and secure as it can be for the child outside the womb. To make absolutely sure the learning is pleasant, the child is also rewarded in the form of food.

Not just play
A clear indication of how important vision is for the small child is every child’s favourite game – peek-a-boo. It does not matter where on the planet you are; all children love to play peek-a-boo. One reason is that the child learns a very important lesson – that the face will return after disappearing behind the hands for a while. This is reassuring. But even the scary moment when the face has disappeared has its importance. Just as in other situations, a slight increase of the adrenaline level has a positive effect in so far as it sharpens our senses.

Chemical transmission
One of the functions of the brain is to interpret chemical messages that are circulated throughout the body. They carry important internal and external information that we need to keep the body and mind activated on an optimal level. The messages contain a mixture of current information and memories and act as a kind of ‘snapshot’ of information. The chemical messages also act as a source of information for the newborn child to picks up via the mother’s milk.

So along with the food, the child gets a basic idea of what the world is like, or rather the way the mother perceives the world. This is one reason why it is preferable to breastfeed. But even if the child has to get substitute food, the close contact to the parent holding the child on its arm has its importance for the child’s development. Among others things, it helps the child develop language skills later on in life.

Brain functions
One of the most important ways in which the brain interprets what happens in the external world is the activities of a structure called the amygdala. It acts like a scanner monitoring what is happening in the external world, mainly in search of potential dangers. In order to ‘calibrate’ the amygdala, i.e. to set the correct response levels against potential dangers, it needs a reference point. Usually the mother supplies this. That means that if the mother is stressed or prone to overreact the child will establish the same raised level as its norm. When the calibration process is completed the brain will stabilise it (myelination) so that it will remember the ‘right’ level for the rest of its life, which unfortunately may mean that the person will remain prone to overreact throughout life.

Early outlook on life
The majority of our outlook on life is determined in similar ways during the first year of our lives. After that many brain functions will be stabilised and be more and more difficult to change as we grow older. Because this takes place before we have developed sufficient self-awareness to understand how this is done, we find it difficult to realise our own role in this programming later on in life. This is why we find it difficult to see that the world around us, which we experience as the same for everyone, is, in effect, very much influenced by what we learnt from our parents. It usually does not matter how much we learn in life, we tend to maintain this basic sense of right/wrong for how the world is. Until we realise that what we compare with is just our own programming, this sense of how the world is may be a source of negative feelings, and even psychological problems.

Fixed schedule
Some of the brain functions we need to develop as children can only be activated during a certain period. After that we lose the ability altogether. On such example is learning to speak. Language has a unique place ’outside the brain’ in so far as it only exists in the interaction between human beings. Nobody can learn to speak without the help of others. If we are not exposed to language during a certain period in childhood we lose this ability forever. Studies of feral children (children that have been totally deprived of human contact during their childhoods) have shown that despite expert teaching they have not been able to develop language later in life.

Because the foetus goes through all the evolutionary stages from unicellular organisms to human beings, we are born with a number of functions that will never be activated. This is simply because we don’t need them anymore and is part of the normal development process. Children that grow up in difficult circumstances can also develop an imbalance in the different brain functions. Studies have shown that children growing up in violent environments get an enlarged hindbrain. This is one of the areas that handles self defense. Often these children also have underdeveloped frontal lobes. This is one of the areas that deals with social interaction and other ‘higher’ positive emotions.

Not just violence can cause imbalance. Children who spend a lot of time playing computer games tend to develop enlarged areas that handle hand/eye coordination. More importantly, parents that use the TV as babysitter for their children may find that the child has bonded with the TV-set rather than with the parents. This may mean that the child may develop a strong dependency on TVs and computers later on in life, usually in combination with difficulties in making contacts with other human beings.

Hope for the future
In summary, over the last decades brain research has been able to establish just how important our childhood is as to how we develop in life. The positive effect is the increased ability it gives us to change the way we bring up children in the future.
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