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Genetics

Parents Are the True Gene Therapists

The biggest influence in your child’s life is you.

Key points

  • A parent’s loving presence in the early years is critical.
  • Research shows that early experiences may be even more important than a child’s genetic makeup in determining how a baby grows and learns.
  • It is essential for parents to show their child how to ease anxiety and stress as they go through life.

Do you remember that first moment when you cradled your newborn in your arms and saw her gazing back at you? It’s a feeling I will never forget; such overpowering love and such an awesome sense of responsibility.

In those first few days, when you learned how to hold, comfort, and feed your baby, it seemed very clear how essential parents are to the survival of their offspring. But you remain just as important to your baby even as she grows beyond that period of utter helplessness.

The benefits of bonding

Every hug you give, every lullaby you sing, every game you play is laying the groundwork for who your child will become. Your loving presence in the early years is critical. Technologies such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans of the brain demonstrate how the simple acts of cuddling, rocking, and talking to your child stimulate growth.

Children deprived of such attention—for example, orphans left untouched in a nursery for too long—do not develop critical areas of their brains. Even less dramatic examples of inadequate nurturing can result in disastrous long-term effects on a child’s mind and his relationships with others. These children are often unable to interact with others; they don’t like to be touched, they can’t sustain play, they have cognitive delays, and they often withdraw into the safety of silence.

The biggest influence in your child’s life: you

There is no question that the most important influence on your child in those early years is the parent. Scientists have discovered that early experiences may be even more important than a child’s genetic makeup in determining not only how a baby grows but how she will later be able to learn and reason. A couple of decades ago, neuroscientists thought that the structure of the brain was determined by genetics at the time of a baby’s birth. But now it’s understood that early childhood experiences potentially have even greater influence over how the neural circuits in the brain are wired.

It is a remarkable moment in human history. It’s clear that parents can do more than ever thought possible to expand a child’s emotional and intellectual development—and thus her successful performance in life. A parent’s influence extends beyond the chromosomes bestowed upon offspring in the womb.

Science has shown that parents may even be able to selectively override or activate certain genetic instructions by the way they behave with their growing children. The home environment and parental interactions can actually “turn on” or “turn off” some of those genes that determine a variety of important behaviors. Parents are so influential in a child’s development that I now think of them as true “gene therapists.” (More on that in a minute.)

An awesome responsibility, but it doesn’t require fancy toys, flashcards, or a degree in child development to properly stimulate a baby. Infants are born curious and ready to soak up information. They are tiny scientists, learning about the world through homegrown experiments—dropping their bottles or banging on pots and pans to see what happens.

All a parent needs to do is take advantage of a child’s natural curiosity, pay attention, respond calmly, and lovingly. Most of all, parents need to understand the developmental stages their child is going through.

The secret ingredient

There is one other critical ingredient for helping a child develop good self-esteem and the motivation necessary for reaching her full potential. It involves one area that parents and educators seem to know the least about but it may just turn out to be the single most important thing that a parent can do to help a child blossom fully and achieve future success and happiness.

A parent must be able to show the child how to ease anxiety and stress as she goes through life. By reducing anxiety, your child can enter that relaxed-alert state of consciousness that allows all humans to access a larger share of the brain’s creative resources.

Once a child knows how to attain that relaxed-alert state of mind, she’ll be well on her way to becoming a more secure child, being a better student, and finding the sense of self that leads to true happiness. On the other hand, the brain of a baby who is consistently stressed either by separation anxiety or the environment is bathed by stress hormones, including cortisol—changing brain architecture and impulse control.

Future posts will explore practical advice about what parents can do to create the optimal environment for a child.

References

EL Ardiel, CH Rankin. The importance of touch in development. Paediatr Child Health 2010;15 (3):153-156.

Jon Hamilton, “Orphans' Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child's Brain.” NPR. Feburary 14, 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/02/20/280237833/orphans-…

David Elkind, Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk (New York: Knopf, 1987), 55

Diane E. Papalia et al., Human Development, 20

Diane E. Papalia et al., Human Development, 21

Dr. Gail Gross, How To Build Your Baby’s Brain, 59-96.

Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine, 1972, p. 46.

Elkind, Miseducation, 51. 7 Ibid., 22.

Montessori, Absorbent Mind, 28.

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