Many of us were raised with the notion that children were to be seen and not heard, which most often meant that one did not speak until spoken to. It also implied a certain behavior standard, especially in the company of adults.
In the '50s and early '60s, it was thought that a child could be emotionally damaged by receiving too much affection. This was probably related to the myth from that era that babies become spoiled if they are held too much. Modern psychology and contemporary knowledge of childhood development have debunked these myths.
The emergence of interdisciplinary field of infant/toddler mental health takes this one step further by revealing the science involved in the attachment and bonding process. What we now know is that becoming an emotionally stable person requires lots of holding, touch and nurturing during the infant and toddler years. The baby’s developing brain is learning how the world is and whether or not he/she is valuable.
The truth is that during the first year of life, a baby can’t be held too much. Engaging adults is the baby’s primary job. In order for the brain to get the right messages of its existence in the world, the baby needs care from attuned parents and caregivers.
In these early months, social/emotional development, learning and attachment are knitted together. Skin, being the largest organ of the body, is stimulated while being held. This in turn fires messages in the right brain, whereby the child learns to trust, which has to happen in order for the individual to be able to learn.
What happens early matters. Brain research in the last 15 years demonstrates that how we learn and relate to others is “biologized” in the attachment process in infancy. Early experiences affect brain development and lay the foundation for intelligence, emotional health and moral development.
Nurturing and dependable relationships are necessary for optimal early brain development. It is within the emotional relationship between child and caregiver that communication and language emerge. When there are disruptions in the consistency of this relationship, delays in language, play and healthy self-expression can occur.
It is critical that the infant have a strong relationship with at least one primary care giver or attachment figure in order for the brain to grow. When the child is able to express his thoughts, emotions, problems or conflicts in symbolic ways such as play, gestures and language, less acting out occurs.
The research on children from orphanages supports the notion that early disruptions in attachments, early instability, trauma and deprivation are likely to continue to manifest themselves as problems throughout life.
The structure of the brain and developed patterns of behavior are increasingly difficult to change as one gets older. It is best to get things right the first time than to fix them later.
One might think that raising children, as instinctual as it is, is just not rocket science. Well, maybe it is!