The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning
Why are adults half-blind to the ways of the child’s mind? Equally puzzling, why are they so gullible about fashionable dogmas on that oddly vexed subject? Years ago I was stunned to hear Anna Freud declare in a lecture at Harvard that if a three-year-old wandered unrestrained from Central Square to Harvard Square, he would likely commit every crime in the statute books on the way. How had psychoanalysis managed to displace Rousseau’s Emile or William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” from mythological center stage so quickly?
The usual explanation for adult incomprehension of the child’s mind is, of course, that we are all victims of infantile amnesia and, having forgotten what our own early childhood was like, we must learn about it again from scratch and from the outside. Yet there is something a bit fishy about this standard account. For, in fact, we are the only species where parents really teach their young—and we are astonishingly adept at it. It is remarkable, for example, how human adults talking with young children simplify their syntax and lexicon to match what the kid can understand.1 And we talk cute “Motherese” without instruction, and without even realizing how crucial it is for modeling the prosody and sound structures of a language. So, though we may be half-blind about the child’s mind, we obviously know far more about it than we realize, know it (as some seem to draw comfort from saying) unconsciously.
But what about our gullibility in accepting fashionable dogmas, particularly gloomy ones? Are we so anxious about our parental duties that we attend only to those things kids do that tell us whether we’re succeeding or failing as parents? Does that blind us to the ordinary day-to-dayness of how young children’s minds work? We seem even less curious about the “mental processes” of young kids than we are about our own.
An example. There’s no other species on the face of the earth whose young point to things to bring them to the attention of an adult, even looking back from the things pointed out to see whether the adult “got it.” Not even our closest primate cousins do it. Even blind human babies do it in response to strange sounds, also at about eight months, though their pointing usually disappears a month or two after it starts, unrequited by feedback from adults. It is an evolutionary miracle. But parents, generally, just take it for granted, pay it no heed—unless it fails to appear, as in autistic babies.
Then gullibility sets in. Despite having witnessed this wizard act of “intersubjective” sharing right there at cribside, parents (educated ones especially) are fully prepared to buy a wildly exaggerated dogma of “egocentrism”: that young children in their first few years are incapable of recognizing or appreciating another human being’s perspective. Even psychologists went overboard on this one. And it has taken the last two decades of research to shake a belief that should have been seen as absurd from…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.