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Child Development

Review: The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life

Part 1: A new book highlights four decades of development research.

Annamarie McMahon Why/Harvard University Press
Source: Annamarie McMahon Why/Harvard University Press

The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life is a comprehensive report on forty years of carefully documented research on more than 4,000 children as they have grown through adolescence and into adulthood. It includes results of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, being conducted in Dunedin, New Zealand; the Environmental Risk Study, which has been following twins born in England and Wales; and the National Institute of Child and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which included children growing up in ten different locations in the United States.

The purpose of the authors—Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton—was to share their findings as broadly as possible, and the book has an accessible, conversational tone. The book is a treasure trove of information on child and adolescent development, with many important implications for parents.

Because, however, The Origins of You is a report on complex research findings from many decades of study with thousands of children, adolescents, and adults, it may be a frustrating read for parents and others who want immediate answers to the problems they are experiencing today. In order to address that concern, this is the first in a series of articles I’m writing in an attempt to translate the authors’ important findings into actionable recommendations for parents, teachers, and others who care about children’s development.

Throughout the book, the authors share in detail their various hypotheses and their approaches to hypothesis-testing, including specifics of the statistical approaches and methods they used to assess the possible impacts of their own biases. They share many of the questions and controversies they encountered among themselves, and with colleagues and others, as they addressed big questions like the relative impact of genetic inheritance and environmental influences on smoking, life success, violence, and depression; the strengths and problems of daycare, stay-at-home parenting, and early childhood education; and the ways young people are affected by bullying, cannabis use, and the neighborhoods they grow up in.

Throughout the book, Belsky, Caspi, Moffitt, and Poulton emphasize that genetic and environmental factors are probabilistic, and not deterministic. There are far too many complex interacting variables to say with any certainty that any one thing—childhood abuse, neighborhood violence, parents’ divorce, genetic markers—will lead to any particular outcome. It is useful to know how one approach to parenting is more likely to lead to happier outcomes than another, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the only approach that works well, or that a dramatically different approach will necessarily lead to problems. When risk factors are compounded, the probability of problems increases, but even then, some people prove resilient.

The authors use a variety of metaphors throughout The Origins of You, some of which work better for me than others. One that I like is the comparison of their work to weather reporting. Nobody suspects a weather reporter of having a bias toward winter storms when they announce that environmental conditions suggest it will probably snow tomorrow. Similarly, these developmental scientists’ observations do not reflect their personal bias when they show that heavy cannabis use in middle adolescence is associated with problems in early adulthood and beyond.

For me, some of the most important findings in this book concern protective factors that increase children’s resilience to life stressors. For example, the authors found that attachment security in infancy works to buffer and prevent many of the most problematic outcomes. That has obvious implications for parents of infants, but it doesn’t mean there is no hope for a child whose early attachment experience was insecure. Even then, the probabilistic (not deterministic) approach to understanding development means there are other supports that caring adults can provide along the way, to increase a child’s chances of making it through to a healthy and happy adulthood.

Belsky, Caspi, Moffitt, and Poulton conclude The Origins of You on a note of optimism, reminding the reader that development is open-ended, and that understanding what impacts a child’s development helps us identify effective interventions when things go wrong. They are continuing to collect data as some of their study participants approach their fifth decade, with emerging data showing what it is that leads some people to age so much more slowly—or quickly—than others.

This is the first in a blog series based on The Origins of You.

See also


The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life, by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton

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