Posted by Karen O'Hanlon
Parenting can be one of those touch-and-go type jobs—frequently intimidating, and sometimes overwhelming. Like many parents, I was once caught up trying to find the perfect way to parent. I read a ton of books even before I had my first child. Then, once I had kids, the search felt more immediate and more intense. But I never found that perfect parenting strategy. Nowadays I think the stress of parenting is normal, or at least that there’s no magical insight that can relieve parenting stress completely.
That’s why I had mixed feelings when I read the article, Bringing Up Baby’s Brain on the Nova blog. The author, Kate Becker, also discusses parents’ search for the perfect parenting insight. Becker says that, ultimately, the research indicates early development is so affected by stimulation that just “showing up” may be sufficient enough to be a good parent.
Becker describes two different studies, each of which imply that “hard-wiring [of] our brains for success or failure” is established very early in a child’s life. The first study is a very famous one from the 1950’s and 1960‘s. You may have even heard of it. The study is about the effects on baby rhesus monkeys when they were taken from their real mothers and given “wire” mothers instead. The wire mothers were simply an apparatus that could dispense milk. These baby monkeys were isolated from other monkeys for twelve months or longer. As you can imagine, the effects were devastating, crippling any hope for normal monkey social behavior. These poor rhesus monkeys displayed neurotic rocking behavior, refused to eat, and had no idea how to play together. In the end, they were simply incapable of developing social relationships with others.
The second study Becker mentions is a little more recent. In this study, Harvard professor Charles Nelson studied the effects of institutionalization on children in Belgrade, comparing their development to that of children who were placed in foster homes. He found that, compared to institutionalized kids, the foster home kids had higher IQs and better social skills. His explanation? Institutionalized children don’t get enough stimulation. Nelson noted that the children who were placed in homes before the age of two years-old did even better.
Both studies seem to indicate that neglect (or rejection), characterized by lack of stimulation, are even more powerful than abuse in shaping children’s inability to develop and grow as human beings. Becker concludes that the most important part of parenting may just be “showing up." She leaves it up to the reader to decide what exactly “showing up” means.
I am definitely on board with Becker’s ideas when it comes to emphasizing the importance of sensory stimulation for a young child’s brain development. I do, however, take issue with Becker’s suggestion that “the better part of success [as a parent] may be simply showing up”. It’s catchy, sure, but leaves a lot unexplained. A large part of “showing up” means staying engaged. This means you can be in the very same room, but still be neglectful if you fail to interact with your baby for long periods of time.
We know that babies are born with billions of brain cells, far more than they will ever need. Through interaction with their environment, connections between cells are established. Cells that don’t get wired up become inactive and are pruned away as unnecessary. Thus, the more interactive stimulation babies get, the better their brains will function. When I oversaw an infant care program for teenage parents, the main disaster I witnessed was young parents who spent time 'around' their infants, but were still ignoring them. These teens would get so caught up in socializing with one another that teachers had to remind them to pick up their crying babies. They needed encouragement and direction about how to talk to, play with, and stay focused on their child's needs.
I am not saying Becker’s article isn’t accurate or useful. But if her goal is to alleviate parents’ stress, it should be more concrete. Showing up can consist of simple activities. As a new parent, one of the hardest adjustments I had to make was learning to interact with a tiny child that didn’t obviously interact back. For the days when I couldn’t leave the house or meet up with other parents and babies, I had an activity that I called “show her the walls”. I would hoist my baby onto my shoulder and walk from one room of the house to another, talking about the art on the walls, photos, flowers, trinkets on shelves, anything that might catch my baby’s attention. The sound of my voice mixed with movement through the house had a soothing effect for both me and my baby during the rougher parts of the day.