You've just been born. You're gazing into your mother's face. Contentment? Repose? Not hardly, says Ann Barnet '51, a pediatric neurologist. You're actually engaged in the most important work of your life.
In her book The Youngest Minds: Parenting and Genes in the Development of Intellect and Emotion, Barnet describes moments like this one as "critical for children." A baby's brain, she says, especially the parts he or she uses for thinking, is developing more rapidly during the first three to four years of life than at any other time. For example, take the studies that show how children respond differently to familiar and unfamiliar words and sentences—even before birth. In one such study, infants who were exposed in the third trimester of pregnancy to a nursery rhyme repeated daily by their mothers had heart rate changes that indicated recognition of the familiar rhyme.
But if you think the nature vs. nurture controversy is past—and that it's either all genes or all parental influence—Barnet cautions, "Think again!"
"The burning and controversial question concerns how experience fine-tunes innate capacities," she explains. "Do instruction and early environmental enrichment improve these functions? Or are the variations in human abilities and behaviors due to differences in genetic endowment?"
In other words, "does practice make perfect, or do you only need the right stuff?"
The answer that's emerging is not either/or, but both/and, says Barnet, now Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology Emerita at George Washington School of Medicine. Genetic endowment—the set of genes parents contribute to their offspring—accounts for only half of a child's behavioral tendencies.
"In infants and young children, the growth of skills and intellect are inseparable from the growth of emotion," Barnet says. "Curiosity, play and social learning supply the motivation, the energy and the fuel for thought." She receives plenty of anecdotal evidence for this theory at The Family Place, a community drop-in center she founded 22 years ago in Washington D.C. to serve low-income parents and their young children. "Children need love, language and relationships—not fancy toys," she says.