For as long as I can remember, I have believed intuitively that the first 5 or 6 years of a child’s life are tremendously important and have a lasting impact on the kind of adults they will become. I was not alone in these feeling but it is only in recent years that there has been verification from the hard sciences. Early on there had been studies by social scientists to show that there is a large difference in achievements at school between children from middle class families and those who are disadvantaged because of the emotional and deprivational stresses of living in poverty.
As far back as 1964 when Lyndon Johnson declared his war on poverty, there was enough evidence make him declare:
'Five and six year olds are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators. Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation like a birthmark.'
It was Johnson who initiated the ‘Head Start’ program. Children who attended 'Head Start' come from backgrounds that had the worst outcomes and the program soon confirmed that early childhood intervention was remarkably successful.
We are now living through a great era of advancement of medicine. Biochemists are now learning about organisms at the molecular level. They have found that your characteristics as a person, your looks, emotions, temperament and outlook are a result of the expression of specific pieces of your DNA that we call genes – right? Well no - it’s not as simple as that.
It turns out that the environment in which we find ourselves, especially when we are very young, has a very important influence on the way our genes behave - and that they can actually be very affected chemically by the emotional atmosphere we are experiencing at the time. The science that is concentrating on this area is called epigenetics.
Epigenetics explain why identical twins are often quite different in many ways. It also gives us an understanding of why those who have been abused, neglected or stressed by an unhealthy environment as small children, usually end up with poor academic records, and/or become addicted to drugs, get into trouble with the law or commit suicide. Statistics from the ‘Head Start’ program show that for every $1 spent on it, $9 is saved in the prevention of these outcomes.
When young children are given love, and are valued and encouraged, they gain the confidence, trust and courage to open their minds to new things and overcome their original anxieties, fears and attitudes. It has been shown that right up to the age of eight, the mind is so flexible and responsive that the effects of early abuse or neglect can be largely reversed. And these positive resutls tend to rub off on their siblings and friends.
The early years do last a lifetime! Rie