Teach Your Parents Well

FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS IT HAS been Dr. Benjamin Spock's mantra to new parents: "Trust your own common sense." In slightly different forms the advice is about as old as the human species: follow your instincts with your baby. Last week, as the morning news programs featured segments on how early experiences wire a child's brain, at least one interviewer ended the chat with some version of "But Doctor, in the end, what's really important is that you love your child, right?"

If only it were so. For more than a year now scientists have been trying to educate parents, teachers and public officials about how the foundations of social, emotional and intellectual development are all laid early, in the first 10 years of life. Whether a child learns how to soothe herself when she's distressed or needs the comfort of others, whether she learns to think abstractly or is mired in the concrete, whether he learns to empathize or never opens his heart to friendships--all are influenced by early experiences. At first glance that message is powerfully optimistic, since it means that a child's potential is almost unlimited. But there's a catch. A stream of new research suggests that, for the majority of fathers and mothers, doing the things that maximize a child's potential is not intuitive.

Despite the media attention given to research on how early-childhood experiences determine the brain's wiring, many parents have not heard the message, or are confused by it. "There is a wide gap between scientific knowledge and the public's," said David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, at last week's much anticipated White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. And instinct alone does not guide most parents to teach their children well. "Parents have to learn to read their child's temperament, like a language," said pediatrician and best-selling author T. Berry Brazelton. "They have to learn how to follow a baby's behavior and adapt the tone of their interactions to the baby's capabilities."

At the White House conference, which was beamed by satellite to almost 100 sites in 37 states and presided over by President and Mrs. Clinton, scientists and physicians summarized research demonstrating beyond doubt that "the minds of infants are active from the time they are born and are shaped by their early experience," as Donald Cohen of the Yale Child Study Center put it. None of this was new, as even the First Neuroscientist realized. How, Clinton asked, can we educate parents and others so they take advantage of the findings?

It won't be easy. According to a report released last week by the national research and advocacy group Zero to Three, 25 percent of parents of young children do not know that what they do with a child can affect his intelligence, including increasing curiosity, confidence and problem-solving ability. And 87 percent think that the more stimulation a baby receives, the better off he will be. In fact, talking, reading, singing and playing must be carefully matched to a child's level of development, temperament and mood, or the child will tune out or even cringe from the interaction. "Only 20 to 30 percent of parents know how to do this instinctively," says child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan of George Washington University.

One scientist has documented how the size of a toddler's vocabulary reflects how much her mother talked to her; the conclusion was possible only because hundreds of children in the study had parents who did not speak to them much and who had small vocabularies. Another team of researchers found that children of professionals heard 75 percent more words per hour than did the children of working-class parents, and more than three times as many words as did the children of welfare parents. The privileged kids got positive feedback two to five times as often. Tested at the age of 3, children who heard many words and had more positive experiences scored higher on standardized tests. Yet there is no reason to believe the welfare and working-class parents loved their babies any less than the lawyers.

Opening the conference, Clinton announced several modest initiatives to bridge the information gap between science and those who care for children. He is asking the Pentagon, whose child-care facilities are considered among the best in the country, to train civilian day-care workers and, working with local governments, to make its child-care facilities training sites where people being pushed off welfare can learn to care for children. Perhaps the Pentagon can fight a couple of land wars and simultaneously save the nation's children. It will take all this and more. For love, sadly, is not all you need.