September 29, 1999
BETTY ANN BOWSER: At four years of age, Aspen Clark can count to ten in four languages.
ASPEN CLARK: (Counting in German)
JULIE AIGNER-CLARK: Good. How about Spanish?
ASPEN CLARK: (Counting in Spanish) Uno, dos, tres...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several years ago, her mother, Julie Aigner Clark, became fascinated with new scientific research about the development of babies' brains.
JULIE AIGNER-CLARK: What color will I get if I mix blue and red paint?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The research she read said that the first three years of life may be the most crucial in a child's development. So the Clarks decided to expose both Aspen and her two-year-old sister, Sierra, to an enriched learning environment.
JULIE AIGNER-CLARK: Look at the snake. What does a snake say?
JULIE AIGNER-CLARK: (Hisses) oh, you scared me.
JULIE AIGNER-CLARK: I've read a lot of research, but I'm not a scientist in a lab. I'm a mom in a home. And so I think I can expose my kids to really wonderful things for a very short period of time before they are hit with a lot of things from the outside world and peers. And I like to believe that this exposure to classical music, poetry, and language will have an impact on them and hopefully help them to develop an appreciation for these kinds of things.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But now, a new book called "The Myth of the First Three Years" throws cold water on what parents like Clark have been doing. Indeed, author John Bruer questions basic conclusions that have been made by early childhood development experts.
JOHN BRUER, "The Myth of the First Three Years:" The advice parents are getting based on neuroscience, they should be highly skeptical of. And although the first years are very important, they are not highly deterministic in the way the public understands. Simply by assuring a wonderful environment for a child, you're not going to inoculate it against all sorts of problems and bad experiences and bad outcomes later. Conversely, given what we know, bad experiences during the first years of life are not forever going to emotionally or mentally cripple a child.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yale University child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett not only disagrees with Bruer, he thinks the book is dangerous. The father of a seven-month-old Olivia, and president of a child development organization called Zero to Three, he is furious with Bruer.
YALE PRUETT, Yale Child Psychiatrist: He chose a title that I think is toxic, because it confuses parents yet again, and says, you know, what you do really isn't all that important. You have plenty of time. Just give them reasonable daycare and you can read to your children or not. It's really not going to matter.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the past decade, the importance of zero-to-three brain development has been widely reported.
MOTHER: Oh, I don't think I could guess that, said Big Nut Brown Hair.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Massive media coverage inspired American parents by the hundreds of thousands to read to their young infants, and to enroll them in music classes. Some parents even play Mozart for their babies because of research that claimed people who listened to classical music increased their IQ's. While nobody really knows exactly how babies learn, neuroscientists have shown that a baby's brain makes important neurological connections at a furious rate. Those connections begin about a week after birth and continue for the first few years of life before tapering off.
HARRY CHUGANI, Wayne State Neurologist: The frontal lobe has filled in.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Harry Chugani is a pediatric neurologist and a leader in this field of research. Chugani uses a scan that measures brain activity in infants by measuring glucose consumption. The more activity, the more glucose consumed.
HARRY CHUGANI: By three, the child's brain is using over double the amount of glucose as an adult. And interestingly, those high levels are maintained from age three all the way to puberty. What we're looking at is the increased energy demands by the brain, because there are more connections in the brain. And then with puberty, we prune away connections.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bruer doesn't deny that there is tremendous brain activity in young children. But he questions the conclusions drawn from that.
JOHN BRUER: Although this synaptic burst, this burst in brain connections does occur during the first three years of life, we're not at all clear what environmental input has to do with that. That seems to be primarily under genetic control, so the idea that by stimulating your baby more, you're going to make more connections go is really not supported by the science.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Chugani argues that not only is environmental input critical to babies, he says that without appropriate stimulation, young brains may be permanently affected.
HARRY CHUGANI: I would venture to say that in the areas of interaction and bonding, it probably is... I hate to use the word "over," but I think significant damage has been done if by age three there hasn't been the appropriate kinds of interaction.
SPOKESMAN: Feels okay, Joel?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Jerome Kagan says that is bunk. The Harvard scientist has also done extensive research on the brains of young children, and he says Bruer is right, that a child's brain is much more resilient than zero-to-three proponents would have one believe. Kagan uses a hypothetical example.
JEROME KAGAN, Harvard Child Psychologist: So here's a child who's had an anxious two years. Maybe the mother was ill. Maybe there was some quarreling. Maybe the father was at war. And then the father comes back, and the mother recovers, and the child does well in school. And the girl is a great tennis player and the anxiety gets conquered and now she's 20 years old and she's perfect. That's why it's a myth.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kagan, like Bruer, thinks the importance of the first three years has been oversold to American middle class parents, who have helped create an entire industry of early learning products. In fact, Julie Aigner-Clark was inspired by Chugani's work to form a company that makes videos for babies. First there was Baby Einstein, then there was Baby Mozart, and soon, coming to a TV set in your neighborhood, Baby Shakespeare. Clark's company has been so successful, that this year she expects sales of $4.2 million.
Last year, her tapes were given the Video Magic Award by Parents Magazine. But Clark's company isn't the only one in the business of selling Mozart and Shakespeare to the parents of three-month- olds. Most record stores have an entire section devoted to CD's for babies. And the state of Georgia now gives every new mother a CD of classical music to play for her baby when she leaves the hospital. Kagan thinks parents are being fooled into thinking all of this is necessary.
JEROME KAGAN: The brain doesn't need Mozart. The brain doesn't need
you to read to this child 20 hours a day. But our society has created
artificial conditions, so that if you want your child to be in the top
half in kindergarten and in the top third in eighth grade and in that
top 20 percent in high school, so that child will go on to a good college,
then reading to your child, playing Mozart, all of that will help calm
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Psychiatrist Pruett agrees there has been a lot of hype aimed at parents, but he's concerned that if parents believe the first years don't matter, they will stop being so involved with their babies. He also worries that ultimately it could have a negative impact on such public policy issues like funding for childcare and early Head Start programs.
KYLE PRUETT: There is no myth of the early years. And to suggest it is mythology is irresponsible scientifically; I'm afraid it's got the potential for some very destructive policy decisions and implications, and it is going to further confuse the mothers and fathers of America who are trying to do their very best for their particular son or daughter.
JOHN BRUER: My fear is that by reporting science inaccurately, abusing the results we have, that we can put policy and even investment in even greater danger. And we have to ask ourselves some serious questions if we're going to spend you know $4 billion or whatever on a new childcare program. ..what's the best way to spend it? And we should not just assume that the best way to spend it is earlier is better.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: While the debate over early childhood development continues, 42 states are experimenting with educational programs for pre-kindergartners, and one state, Georgia, offers universal pre-kindergarten schooling.
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