Academic journal article The Future of Children

Development in the First Years of Life. (Caring for Infants and Toddlers)

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Development in the First Years of Life. (Caring for Infants and Toddlers)

Article excerpt


Any discussion on how we care for infants and toddlers must begin with the interests and needs of the children themselves. Therefore, this issue opens with an overview of the dramatic development that takes place during the first three years of life, which turns the dependent human newborn into a sophisticated three-year-old who walks, talks, solves problems, and manages relationships with adults and other children.

This article explains the new understanding of brain development that has captured public attention in recent years, and links it to developments in infant behavior that are equally impressive and influential: the growth of the body (size and coordination), the growth of the mind (language and problem-solving abilities), and the growth of the person (emotional and social mastery). It emphasizes how much early experiences and relationships matter.

The article highlights themes that resonate across these aspects of development: A drive to development is inborn, propelling the human infant toward learning and mastery.

* The opportunities for growth that enrich the early years also bring with them vulnerability to harm.

* The experiences that greet children in their human and physical surroundings can either enhance or inhibit the unfolding of their inborn potential.

* People (especially parents and other caregivers) are the essence of the infant's environment, and their protection, nurturing, and stimulation shape early development.

The author envisions a society that stands beside the families and caregivers who nurture young children, equipping them with knowledge and resources, and surrounding them with supportive workplaces, welfare policies, and child care systems.

The mind and heart of the young child have captivated adults for centuries. Young children have been represented as many things: pure innocents, balls of clay, self-centered egoists, confused dependents, a cauldron of impulses and, more recently, information-processing machines and beloved suitors for affection. In their efforts to understand early development, scientists and parents alike have asked: Do early experiences leave an enduring impression on young minds and personalities? Do the first relationships--with parents and other caregivers--shape lifelong self-understanding and social relationships? Is the infant's world a "blooming, buzzing confusion" for which adults must provide clarity and organization? Are there truly windows of opportunity in the early years when critical environmental catalysts are required for healthy development? These questions endure because the behavior of young children is hard to interpret. What do the apparently aimless gazing of a newborn, the squeals of a baby's delight or distress, or the casual play of a toddler reveal about the workings of the mind?

The answers to these questions are important because they define the nature of early development and the responsibilities of adults. After all, the obligations of caregivers are established by the needs of young children. Thus, it is important to know if early relationships are formative or peripheral because the answer has implications for how much society values those who care for young children. It makes a difference if young minds are malleable and how they are shaped, because therein lies the importance to children of what happens at home and in child care.

Fortunately, developmental psychologists have devoted concerted research efforts to answering these questions about development in the first years of life. Recently, their efforts have been aided by developmental neuroscientists whose initial conclusions about brain growth complement the findings of behavioral scientists. Here is what they have learned. (1) The early years are important. Early relationships matter. Even in infancy, children are active participants in their own development, together with the adults who care for them. …

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