The short answer is: a lot, surprisingly!
When we think of science, a picture of a scientist in a white coat may come to mind, in a lab conducting research. Many scientific discoveries are arrived at in such environments. However, there is an abundance of research into early childhood development – or we could say into human happiness, success and emotional health – which is developed in rather different settings.
As with any science, a huge amount of progress within the field of developmental psychology has been made over the past two hundred years. To help us to imagine the scale of progress in this field over time, let’s use means of transport as an analogy. In the 1800s most people travelled on foot or, if they were particularly well off, they would be driven around in a horse-drawn carriage. Today, most of us drive cars – although we do have to pass a driving test first!
Significant progress was made in this field thanks, to a large extent, to the ground-breaking pioneering discoveries about the human mind that emerged from the advent of “talking therapies” at the end of the 19th century, which laid the foundations for subsequent research and theorising. Revolutionary discoveries in this field – which relate to all of us whether we are parents or not – were arrived at by pioneering psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, as part of their pursuit to ease the mental suffering of people who asked them for help.
These pioneers, who included Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, gradually started to develop – through scientific observation and out of their own professional intuition (both of which are essential components of scientific discovery) – new models of the mind and to make discoveries about how emotions affect human development and functioning. What is interesting for us in particular is that, as these pioneering scientists studied disturbances in human mental development, initially in adults but later also in suffering children, they also started to build normative models of childhood development.
How are the two related?
These researchers started to notice that their enquires consistently lead them to the importance of formative influences in the individual’s, then still a baby, environment in combination with their inherent constitutional factors.
Their scientific enquiries led them to amass a field of knowledge concerning the minute understanding of how a human baby and child develops his personality, and the role the environment plays in the process of forming who we become as an adult.
Today, debates about the relative importance of these two factors are conceptualised as “nurture vs nature”.
Sounds complicated? Let us try to explain!
You may or may not know it, but the early childhood years of 0-5 are usually not remembered by most people, except perhaps for the occasional “screen memory”, which may loosely describe our actual experience. This certainly does not mean that the early period of life is not important. On the contrary, as these scientists were at the time intuiting, and as neuroscience is nowadays starting to confirm for us, this period is crucially important to human development in laying key structures in the brain and templating ways of relating, success, prosperity, and last but not least, happiness and mental health.
But what does “nature vs nurture” mean?
On some level, we all appreciate that we have different genetic potential. And whilst humans share approximately 99.9% of DNA, the remaining 0.1% determines not just our looks, which vary from person to person (with the exception of identical twins), but much more importantly, who we have the potential to become as a person. When a baby is born, it already has a temperament and unique personality nascent, still in a tiny seed form, which with nurture from his environment can develop fully. 0.01% may sound very insignificant, but this translates into approximately 3 million genome differences between two unrelated people*.
An interesting way to illustrate how critical a role the environment plays in moulding a child’s genetic potential is to consider how identical twins, who, in terms of nature, share exactly the same DNA, might turn out to have different skills, levels of achievement and health given the nurture they receive. A recent worldwide study of twins (‘Meta-Analysis of the Heritability of Human Traits based on Fifty years of Twin Studies’ Nature Genetics 2015) emphasized that any differences were due to environmental factors, not their genetics. This is because experience impacts the way that DNA comes to be expressed, explaining why genetically identical twins might progress along different developmental pathways.
What are the key factors needed for the nurturing environment, and doesn’t it just happen by itself?
To a certain extent, our genetic human potential is programmed to unfold by itself. However, as humans, our brains are bigger than other species of our kind (mammals) and so during our first months of life we are absolutely dependent on the care offered by the environment: most often upon our mother, but also on the environment supporting her, which in synchrony create the environment for the baby. We are not like a baby cow which can stand on its own legs within hours of birth. We need a lot of nurturing first!
Let’s use the metaphor of a seed. How a seed grows and if, at all, it sprouts and takes root, and gradually grows into the majestic plant it is destined to be, even inexperienced gardeners will know, depends on a combination of many factors and how they influence each other:
Has the soil got enough minerals in it? Is it the right climate? Is there enough water and sun? Not too much wind? Does it need a greenhouse? And finally, is there a gardener looking after it, making sure that the conditions are just right – not too hot or wet; not too cold or dry – for it to grow into the plant it is set out to be?
The seed would be our nature inherent to us at birth. As humans, our genetic inheritance will determine our potential to a degree, but this can only develop with good enough nurturing. The gardener is a mother, a father and in some instances a nanny or grandparents, who will be at the beginning absolutely devoted to supporting us in our growth, so that the roots of our unique personality can take hold. Often, as we explore in our blog post on Play & Creativity, it is not just one person alone but an interwoven network of loving attachments which nurtures a baby’s and a child’s inherent human potential.
Is love really a science?
We might say love is not a science, that love is natural to us all as humans. It is true that love is innate to human nature. But infants and children require a special kind of love: love that is devoted, consistent, nurturing, attuned and – in a certain way – it can help if this is informed in practice. As an example, what if someone is very loving but does not know how to put a crying, overtired baby to sleep? Perhaps they’ve been told it is best not to comfort the crying baby, or they use an approach someone told them about which worked for them, but no one is really sure how or why this worked, and the impact it had on the baby. Or perhaps the baby has colic and any efforts that would usually help are of no use.
Some of us are “naturals” with small babies and children, and have an intuitive way of finding their way in child care. Perhaps we were close to someone in our family who had a little baby, and we, as though through osmosis, learnt from them. Perhaps we intuitively, and unconsciously, remember how our mother, granny or nanny put us to sleep as a baby so, like when driving a car, we can recall this knowledge without having to think about it much. Perhaps we are just keen to learn and to work out the way that works for us and the baby. Or we might have one of the baby’s grandparents guiding us through the early days routines. But not everyone has or can access this kind of intuitive knowledge or these resources. And is there really someone who knows absolutely everything?
As women we are increasingly used to learning, following best practice and being experts in our professional lives. So, as new mothers, we might at times feel a bit overwhelmed, as it dawns on us that we have a vulnerable baby in our arms totally dependent on us, and wonder: why has no one taught us what to do? Anxiety might creep in through the sleep deprived nights, and unless we can draw on our inner resources, a strong support network or an experienced loving friend or relative, we may find it a struggle.
So, we believe that the love we offer to the infant, and later the child, has, on a certain level, a very practical dimension. It is knowing, intuitively and/or through learning, how to care for the new-born, how to handle the infant. But there is also need for some research-informed understanding about what infants, and later children, need and what might be best for them from an emotional perspective to nurture their growth.
Of course, we still want to keep the beginner’s mind and to seek, connect with and develop our own unique mothering or fathering style that makes us and our baby happy: one that builds, nurtures and strengthens our bond, and brings us joy. This will at times mean we have to be open to learning. This may partly be because the approaches that our carers might have used to look after us as a baby may have been since disproven by research. A friend told me once that her mother had been categorically told not to comfort her baby daughter when she was crying as it would have been bad for her development. Thanks to developmental neuroscience we now know not only that babies love to be held and comforted when crying by a sensitive attuned care giver (best of all mother!), but that excessive crying triggers the stress system in the baby that can alter the baby’s brain architecture for life. At times refreshing or reflecting on our intuitive knowledge might be helpful to us and our babies, and the bond we build with them.
But how do we do it?
This is where we can use the science of childhood to help us. Because some very loving and very caring people thought about this a lot. They also did a lot of research and observation within the field to be in the position to have expert knowledge.
This is why we created Kudos. Kudos offers summaries of the latest and most pertinent childhood development research to help parents to navigate their parenting journey, and for others (grandparents, teachers, carers) who play their own part in helping children to flourish. Kudos also offers a developmental knowledge base for our nannies, so they too know what it takes to create a truly nurturing environment for a child.
We have now begun to discover, thanks to advances in a new branch of science called “epigenetics”, that both nature and nurture are key influencing factors in the human baby’s development, and that the care-giving we offer to infants and young children may even influence their gene expression.
In the not too distant future, the cars we drive will be electric and, with advances of AI, will self-drive. However we, humans, will always have to embrace our dependent human nature at first as babies whose development asks for the help of a nurturing and supportive network of loving care-givers. We also may come to discover our own upbringing and that this influences who we are and how we parent. In this way, we realise parenting involves our own self-discovery; we may run into our own parental self-doubts at times and ultimately discover the wish to do the best for our children and to build our bonds with them for life.
To find out more about the nurture vs nature debate within developmental psychology and the evolving branch of science called epigenetics, you may like to read an article published by Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child, “Epigenetics and Child Development: How Children’s Experiences Affect Their Genes”, or follow the Kudos blog for more updates.