Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Are the first three years of a child's life "critical"?

Earlier in the week, Radio 4 broadcast an interesting discussion between Dr Stuart Derbyshire, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Birmingham University and Dr Samantha Callan, Chair of the Early Years Commission (from the government's favourite think tank, the Centre for Social Justice) about whether the first three years of a child's life are "critical".

Dr Derbyshire, if I can sum up his views rather crudely, thinks that there is too much loose talk about the perils of the first three years - most parents love and care for their children very much and could do with a little less state interference and exhortation. Rightly, he points out that a certain amount of scare-mongering goes on. For example, the much reproduced photo on the front cover of the Allen Report, showing the differences between the brains of an understimulated child and a normally developing child takes a very extreme case for understimulation, along the lines of a child subjected to extreme neglect in a Romanian orphanage.

This worst-case thinking is not helpful, I agree.

But I am not sure that merely taking the opposite approach and being completely laissez-faire is such a great idea either. In speaking on this topic, Dr Derbyshire is playing in the away strip- his speciality as a psychologist is "functional pain", not child development or early years education. His argument could practically be summed up as "everything will be okay" - but many of us know it will not, because we have worked with families struggling to care for and stimulate their children, because we have cared for and educated young children who have not had a particularly good start to their lives.

Personally, I prefer the term "sensitive phase" to "critical phase". Birth to three matters - but so does the rest of childhood, and the rest of life too. Bowlby's claim that the experiences of early infancy determined later life was proved to be too partial and too simplistic by Michael Rutter and others, who showed that all but the most damaging early experiences can be overcome by later nurture and love. I imagine that the excessive claims of the "critical phase" movement will be found to be similarly overstated.

And shouldn't academics like Dr Derbyshire pause longer and think harder before making strong claims about matters outside of their expertise?

Listen again to the debate on the BBC iPlayer here (for a limited period of time).