Building Strong Children Begins at Birth

The depth and breadth of human suffering occasioned by the recent earthquake in Turkey is, in a word, staggering.  Media reports have blamed much of the resulting devastation and loss of life on buildings and homes that weren’t properly constructed.  The shortsightedness and ignorance of a few builders produced an exponential loss of nightmarish proportions.

When I heard of the shoddy workmanship, I was reminded of someone who once compared a child’s development to a skyscraper: if the foundation isn’t properly aligned, no one really notices at first.  The untrained eye can neither appreciate the slight imperfection nor fully anticipate the consequences of an ever so slightly tipped foundation.  Yet without correction, the once minuscule flaw will produce a structure that leans precariously in one direction.

Far too many of the structures in Turkey did not have firm foundations.  Far too many children are victims of early childhood neglect or abuse.  While early signs of neglect are only apparent to a few, it’s not long before the resulting symptoms become apparent to most.

While there are clearly genetic, biological, and physiological antecedents that affect development, much of an infant’s firm foundation is provided by his caregivers, usually his parents.

Physical development is undoubtedly the first area we take note of.  Indeed, from the womb doctors are able to determine healthy versus unhealthy development, and what parent doesn’t do a quick count of fingers and toes once Junior exits his bedwomb?  From then on, motor skills are a primary focus, evidenced by many a proud parent throwing a neighborhood party when the little fella can hold his own bottle.

Cognitive abilities are evident early on as well.  Healthy development in the cognitive domain involves both attending to one’s environment as well as establishing relationships between two or more objects/actions (e.g., when I look at Mommy, she smiles; I learn about a shoe by putting it in my mouth; etc.).  Receptive and expressive language abilities virtually explode during toddlerhood, and written language and metacognition (i.e., realizing that you can think) aren’t far behind.

We need look no further than the “Terrible Two’s” to see early vestiges of emotional development.  In actuality, the foundation for emotional development is laid much earlier, when a child learns about emotional regulation from his parents.  Emotional regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s emotions – to express or subdue one’s feelings, to please or soothe oneself, etc.  Children, it should be noted, are far from perfect when it comes to emotional regulation, and they profit from consistent limits and loads of patience as they learn self-control.

Moral development grows out of a child’s need to identify with the values and beliefs of his parents.  Most children adopt views similar to those of their parents, and their conscience is in part a reflection of those of their parents.  A solid parent-child relationship contributes to a child’s ability to take perspectives other than their own, leading to the mature human quality of empathy.  One of the most serious sequelae of childhood neglect is retarded moral development, which is often manifest in out-of-control lying, stealing, and worst of all, sadistic behavior.

One of the last domains to blossom, social development gains preeminence for school-age children and reaches a crescendo in adolescence.  The seed for healthy social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, learning the right time for humor, balancing talking with listening, and respecting others’ property are sown early on.  The child’s ability to “fit in” is both a cause and a result of their developing self-esteem.  Due to deficits in, for one, self-regulation (i.e., the ability to regulate one’s emotions, behavior, and attention), children with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle in the area of social development.

The area of child development is both wide and deep, and I have but touched on a few of the most salient aspects.  A multitude of other factors relate to child development, including attachment, temperament, personality, and the plethora of genetic, biological, and physiological effects previously alluded to.

Suffice it to say that, like an edifice that is meant to withstand an earthquake, the building blocks of a healthy child begin with a firm foundation.  The difference between the two, of course, is that we can rebuild a building.

Don’t cut corners . . . “build” your child strong and straight, beginning today.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah