John Bruer
The Myth of the First Three Years

The policy and popular articles assume that if early experiences during the critical period sculpt the brain for life, then rich, complex early experiences will sculpt rich, complex brains for life: 'Research bears out that an enriched environment can boost the number of synapses that children form.' Based on a conviction that the early years are the most crucial learning years, these articles argue that early enrichment is particularly powerful; 'In an environment rich in all sorts of learning experiences, the growth of synapses—the connections between nerve cells in the brain that relay information—is more lush, and this complex circuitry enlarges brain capacity. Infants who are not held and touched, whose playfulness and curiosity are not encouraged, form fewer of these critical connections.'

Neuroscientists who have done research on the effects of enriched environments on brain structure take a different view. In 1997, William Greenough, one of the most prominent researchers in this area, wrote a short piece for the APA Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association. He stated that despite the claims of children's education organizations and articles in the popular press on how early childhood experiences can enhance children's cognitive development between the ages of 0 and 3, the neuroscience used to support these claims is not new. Furthermore, he continued, careful examination of the evidence does not support a selective focus on the first three years. Experience plays a major role in brain development, but claims that it plays a more important role in the first three years than at other times need to be assessed carefully. He emphasizes that his own, oft-cited research on animals raised in complex environments indicates that the brain continues to be plastic—modifiable by experience—throughout later development and into adulthood. According to Greenough, the existing neuroscientific and behavioral evidence do not support an exclusive focus on birth to 3 to the relative exclusion of older age groups. If so, we should be wary of claims that the only, or the most important, time to provide enrichment is the early years.

At this early point in our exploration of brain science and child development, what these neurosciendsts are saying should serve to heighten our skepticism about what we read in the papers and see on the Internet. Their comments should at least prompt us to take a more careful, critical look at brain science and the merits of viewing the world through the prism of the first three years. Of course, by themselves the neuroscientists' assertions bear no more weight than do those of the most fervent birth-to-3 brain advocate. However, the neuroscientists have reasons for saying what they do, reasons that derive from their weighing and consideration of the existing scientific evidence. So, rather than merely listing authorities and assertions pro and con, it is time that we look carefully at that evidence. After we review the evidence in the subsequent chapters, we will see that we do not have a revolutionary, brain-based action agenda for child development. What we have instead is the Myth of the First Three Years. And, looking through this mythical lens gives us a highly distorted view of children, parents, and early childhood policy.

Some might ask, 'Why should we care whether what we have is a research-based agenda or a myth? We need better programs and policies for children and current programs are underfunded. Any argument that would lead to improved opportunities and outcomes for children is a good argument.' One could take this position and many well-intentioned early childhood advocates do take this view. It's the hard-nosed but often realistic view that everyone knows that policy arguments are merely exercises in political rhetoric. Sophisticated citizens (usually those making the arguments) know this and the argument is intended only to sway the emotions of the unsophisticated. On this view, science, as such, and the evidence it might bring to a policy discussion, do not matter. Science is just another rhetorical tool that happens to elicit a strong emotional response in the public, like God, the sanctity of motherhood, the innocence of childhood, and the flag. Some might then say, 'It's a myth and I know it. But by God, given what I want to do, it's a useful myth.' If this is the stance we wish to take, then we should also admit that our arguments about what to do for children and families and why we should do it carry the same weight as the blustery, staged debates from the left and right that entertain us over dinner on Firing Line. On this view, although science and scientists might have a place at the policy-setting table, others at the table do not take the science seriously if it conflicts with their policy goals.

On the other hand, if we do take the science seriously, then we have to care if we are acting on a science-based agenda or a myth. What a science-based policy argument should do is add some evidence and factual basis, beyond our own biases, prejudices, and ideological tastes, for what the preferable policy might be. Science should inform us of what the optimal strategies might be to reach a policy objective. What the science can add to the policy debate are insights about the causes, mechanisms, and leverage points that we could most effectively exploit to reach our goal. If the science is wrong, misleading, or misinterpreted, then we are trying to achieve our policy, and parenting, goals by pushing the wrong, ineffective, or nonexistent buttons. We are wasting time and resources attempting to bring about change via causes, mechanisms, and leverage points that do not exist.

The brain and early childhood literature appeals to neuroscience to argue for the unique importance of the first three years of life. According to that literature, seeing the world through the prism of birth to 3 is the key to improving opportunities and outcomes for children, families, and the nation. If this view is accurate, then Early Head Start, removing children from violent inner-city neighborhoods, and applying a full-court developmental press are good ideas. But what if, as our current grounds for skepticism at least suggest, brain science does not support that key claim? We might want to find other and better reasons to invest $4 billion in Early Head Start or to consider other ways, using other leverage points, to expend that money to help young children. We might be reluctant to transform our culture and change our views about who children belong to. We might question the prudence of decreasing expenditures for adult education or special education on the grounds that a person's intellectual and emotional course is firmly set during the early years. We might be reluctant to tell parents to apply full-court pressure during the early years and to suggest to parents that early learning problems will leave their children at a permanent disadvantage.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.