Today, more than ever before, most parents have accepted the notion that the first three years of a child’s life are critically important in determining whether or not the child will mature into an individual of high mental and cognitive abilities. Proponents of the ‘myth of the first three years’ argue that much of the child’s brain development takes place within the first three years and, therefore, parents need to utilize this time-frame to ensure their children gets the best start to life (Bruer, 1999).
However, controversy surrounds the issue, with current literature revealing that brain development does not shut at three years of age and that there is no objective evidence to indicate that the first three years are of critical importance in the development of various abilities that enhances individual success (Gormley et al., 2010). By relying on literature and practical experience, this paper purposes to demonstrate that there is no such thing as the myth of the first three years.
First coined by Bruer (1999), the myth of the first three years presupposes that “…the first three years of life determine, in an all-or-none, once-in-a-lifetime manner, the success of a child’s development across the lifespan” (Lerner, 2002, p.124).
The description implies that the first three years are critical in shaping a child’s cognitive and learning abilities to a point where this period in a child’s lifespan determines whether or not the child will succeed or fail in life (Gormley et al., 2010). As a consequence of this myth, many parents interested in the success of their children might believe that by the time the children enrolls in kindergarten and grade schools, all the brain developments critical to their success in life will be behind them.
The concept have received criticism from various quarters for putting unnecessary pressure on parents to utilize the first three years to develop their children’s cognitive and learning skills or else risk condemning them to a life of failure. However, neurobiological and behavioral studies conducted over time in addition to our own experiences demonstrate that brain development and cognition are not exclusively limited to the first three years of life.
Gormley et al (2010) notes that the first years of life are critical in the development of a child due to a number of varied reasons, which orients more towards attachment and emotional development than towards cognitive development. Indeed, the first few days are critical for the newborn to develop appropriate attachment tendencies to its primary caregiver.
A wealth of literature also demonstrates that significant brain development and cognitive growth takes place during the first years of life (Lerner, 2002), thus the years form a critical phase of the child’s overall development and growth. But the suggestion that the child’s brain development is exclusively limited to the first three years of life is, at best, an understatement that lacks scientific justification.
According to Lerner (2002), “…the brain remains an instrument for learning and development across life and, indeed, there are data pertinent to very old age that indicates that cognitive development and learning can occur in the ninth and tenth grade of life” (p. 124).
My own personal experience gained through rearing my first two children indicates that teaching kids in the first three years ultimately benefits them later in life, but it is not in itself a plethora of how successful they will become later in the lifespan.
Studies have found that the nature of synapse formation and the cultivation of some synaptic circuits depend to a large extent on the immediate environment and experience (Lerner, 2002).
An average child undergoes a multitude of experiences in his or her life time and, in deed, no single experience is likely to impose a domineering influence on the child’s development. As such, a child’s cognitive development and learning should be understood as a life-long process that is shaped by daily experiences not limited to the first three years of life.
Positive interactions in the first three years of life will inarguably aid the child to form sharp cognitive skills and mental capacities, but cognition and learning goes past the three initial years to encompass the entire lifespan. In this context, parents may use the first three years to jumpstart their child’s learning and cognitive development, but they should not lose hope that all is lost when the child fails to open up within the first three years.
The human race enjoys a long evolutionary history that is filled with numerous life experiences. Studies have revealed that “…many of the so-called enriched experiences some parents seem to intent on providing their children will likely not matter later in life” (Lerner, 2002, p. 125).
It is well known the education system changes with the needs of the society and, as such, it is only plausible to suggest that encouraging children in the first three years of life through providing them with enriched experiences is one among several ways that can be targeted on the youngsters to improve their mental and cognitive capabilities (Gormley et al., 2010).
Learning contexts automatically change as one progress through the lifespan, and early reinforcement assists the child to adapt adequately to environments as they change. In this context, it can be argued that the learning processes that takes place in the first three years offers the child a platform that can be used to relate to upcoming experiences as they continue to learn and develop cognitively.
From my own experience with children, I learnt that providing enriched experiences during the first three years offers the child a distinct advantage when it comes to learning and the development of trust and self-control components, but it does not imply that learning, cognitive, and mental development stops at the lapse of the first three years of life.
The fact that the brain develops dramatically in the first three years of life cannot be denied (Learner, 2002). However, parents should consider these years as comparable to erecting a strong foundation for a house. In this respect, the first three years, when well utilized, offers the child a solid foundation to base their further mental and cognitive growth and development. To suggest that development of these critical capacities stops at three years is analogous to arguing that the house is complete just because the foundation has been laid.
Building the house requires more time, resources, and energy, just as is the case with developing mental and cognitive capacities. Unless development continues throughout the lifespan, the child will obviously experience deficits in his or her mental and cognitive capacities.
This argument provides strength for the socialization process as a key determinant of the child’s mental and cognitive development. Various studies have positively correlated the process of positive socialization with the development of critical mental, emotional, and cognitive capacities, and there is compelling evidence that greatly socialized children are more likely to be successful later in life (Bruer, 1999).
However, socialization is a life-long process which cannot be limited to the first three years of life. As such, the first three years should be used to aid the child in developing behavioral patterns that may be critical in determining how well the child is able to socialize with peers later on, but the lapse of the three years should not be construed to mean the end of the socialization process or any other process that assist the child to grow mentally and cognitively.
Moreover, studies have revealed that “…even those systems whose development is tied to sensitive or critical periods (e.g. our sensory system) provide some flexibility both in the quality and timing of certain experiences” (Lerner, 2002, p. 125). This assertion implies that the quality and timing of certain life experiences is critical to the mental and cognitive development of the child rather than the bracketing of the first three years.
It would be impractical to expect a six-month old baby to master the alphabet just because he or she is in the first three years of development and the mother is engaged in exposing the child to the alphabet. In consequence, early reinforcement becomes a secondary but important component aimed towards the child’s mental and cognitive development, and the quality and timing of the life experiences exposed to the child will principally determine his or her mental and cognitive capabilities.
Various developmental theories such as Sigmund’s psychoanalysis view the child’s development as a process involving various interconnected phases (Lerner, 2002). Many of the theories adduce evidence to the fact that each of the phases of development is intrinsically important towards the holistic development of the individual.
Some of the phases of development occur when the child is past the age of three and, as such, it could prove difficult to tie the child’s mental and cognitive development to the first three years of life. The structural arrangement of most of these theories refutes the possibility of a myth of the first three years in as far as human development is concerned.
To argue that the success of a child’s development across the life-span is predominantly determined by the first three years is synonymous to adopting a largely mechanistic framework for understanding human development while it is known that development relies on a multiplicity of factors that may not necessarily interrelate in a mechanistic way (Gormley, 2010).
For example, my first-born child was discovered to have a learning disability when he was enrolled in a preschool program known as Head Start, but the child has risen against all odds to perform well in grade school. This example reveals that though the preschool learning assisted the child, his mental and cognitive development was not tied to these formative years of development. This is in line with the various theories of individual development.
Studies have also adduced evidence to the fact that some children may exhibit a specter of intelligence during the formative years of development only for them to become dull and unproductive later on due to indulgence in certain behavior patterns such as alcoholism and drug use and abuse (Gormley et al., 2010).
This line of thinking demonstrates that life-time experiences rather than the first-three years of life are critical in shaping the intellectual and cognitive life of individual. The world is full of examples of individuals who were bright during one phase in their lifespan only for them to deteriorate due to varied factors affecting their immediate environment. As such, the first three years of life must never be seen as the foremost factor in determining whether or not a particular individual will succeed in life.
Similarly, our life experiences have shown us that life is much more that the first three years upon birth, and everyday is a learning experience. The experiences we undergo on a daily basis helps to sharpen our mental and cognitive abilities, and no single study has ever mentioned a phase of active life where cognitive development and learning ceases to take place (Bruer, 1999).
From the discussion, it is clear that some of the arguments that perpetuate the myth of the first three years have no basis at all. Our own experiences reveal that learning and cognitive development cannot in any way be limited to the first three years as the myth suggests. Consequently, our responsibility to our children, particularly in efforts geared towards making them succeed in life, must be distributed throughout the course of their lives rather than focusing attention to the first three years of life.
It cannot be denied that the first three years can offer a solid foundation to a child’s further cognitive development and learning, but parents must also know that human development is a life-long process (Lerner, 2002). To limit our focus on the first three years would not only be short-sighted, but it would go against the rules of science.
Bruer, J.T. (1999). The myth of the first three years: A new understanding of early brain development. New York, NY: The Free Press
Gormley, W.T., Philips, D., & Adelstein, S. (2010). Head start’s competitive advantage: Myth or Reality? Policy Studies Journal, 38(3), 397-418. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database
Lerner, R.M. (2002). Concepts and theories of human development, 3rd Ed. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc