Navigating the Boundaries of Identities

“If every path you take comes back to you, then you will never move ahead” (Kung Fu Panda)

A father bends over to look at his tiny newborn daughter, and his nurturing instincts stir inside. To give her a head start on a future career as an actress, he tries to teach her his favorite folk song. He barely looks at the infant in public, but in the privacy of his home, he plays age-old baby games, like peekaboo or clicking his tongue to get a reaction. If the baby should accidentally gurgle, he declares that she recognizes him. In his eyes, she is already the most intelligent child in the world–and she is only three days old. If this baby turns out to be a genius, her father will probably deserve some credit.

We used to think that children’s brains are genetically determined by the time they are born. Thanks to positron emission tomography (PET), which images the brain, it seems that nurturing activities, like rocking, singing, and talking to babies, actually stimulates the brain’s development. This development can start very early in life. Apparently, babies in the womb can recognize their parents’ voices. A child only four days old can tell the difference between the French “Bonjour, mon petit choux.” and English “Hello, my little cabbage.”

Some traditional childrearing practices in developing countries may even have unusually positive effects on brain development. For example, in most Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, there is prolonged physical interaction between parents and infants, particularly in poor households where mothers do not hire caretakers. In Latin America and Southeast Asia, many mothers carry children all day as they work. African families often sleep with children, so it is rare for a child less than three years old to be alone. From the Western point of view, this continual contact with the child might seem excessive. As one American woman said, “Doesn’t the baby need a break from all that attention? Maybe a little privacy?”

Knowing this, what happens to victims of domestic violence, refugees, or street children? Scientists report that trauma inflicts irreparable damage to the brain’s neurotransmitter and that stress hormones wash over the brain, contributing to the possibility of abnormal brain development. There are many questions. Does this mean that all children less than three years who have lived through wars will be intellectually disabled? What happens to those who are nutritionally deprived?

According to UNICEF, in Bangladesh, it is estimated that nearly one half of babies are born malnourished and with a low birth weight. We know that this puts them at a disadvantage for proper physiological development. However, does this also mean that these children will also have learning problems? Probably not. The truth is: we do not know. We don’t have definitive answers about how cultural differences in child-rearing influence the intricate interactions between social environments and childhood brain development. Until we have answers, we must avoid falling into the facile, cultural determinist view that a disadvantaged child is a lost cause because of poverty.

Even in extreme poverty, grandfathers, fathers, older brothers, and other male family members can help mothers with child development. Men can promote healthy intellectual growth from day one. This doesn’t mean that the men have to use flash cards or high-tech learning aids with their infants. It only takes the usual “goo-goo, ga-ga” fun, loving care, good nutrition, and…well…maybe more of that singing.