In childhood, time and experience are magnified, amplified, and empowered by the opportunity to express our genetic potential-or not. By age three, the brain is 90% of its adult size, and the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social foundation for the rest of a child's life is in place. During early childhood, the organizing neural networks that are developing require touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement in order to develop normally. When experiences of sufficient duration or quality are absent, some of the genetic potential of the individual will be lost. An infant born in a hunter-gatherer clan 20,000 years ago had the genetic potential to read and write, to play piano, to use a joystick, and to understand the double-helix of DNA. Instead, he learned to distinguish between two- and five-day-old antelope tracks, to throw a stick with incredible precision, and to read the visual-spatial cues of terrain.
Even Mozart could not have composed had he not heard music in the first years of life. Our hunter-gatherer infant would transition to the modern world with no problem, while the hunter-gatherer adult would never make the adjustment. Childhood experiences, therefore, truly create the person. These organizing childhood experiences can be consistent, nurturing, structured, and enriched, resulting in flexible, responsible, empathic, and creative adults. Conversely, neglect, chaos, violence, and threat can create impulsive, aggressive, remorseless, and anti-social individuals.
An appreciation of biological relativity and the crucial organizing power of childhood experience have never been more important. Human groups-family, clan, society-are, after all, dynamic interdependent biological units. The rate of change in these groups has been increasing dramatically. Indeed, sociocultural evolution has been accelerating so fast that humankind has changed more in the last 2,000 years than in the previous 90,000-and more in the last 200 years than in the previous 2,000. Humankind now lives in such a dynamic, human-modified world that in some areas (transportation and communication, for instance), more change takes place in a single lifetime than in the previous thousand generations!
The implications of this are sobering. We are changing so rapidly that the structures of our families, social systems, and communities are not stable from generation to generation. At the same time, the collective experience of our culture carried in the myths, values, belief systems, child-rearing practices, language, literature, laws, history, arts, and sciences are expanding explosively. Our modern society must face the difficult choices of what we value and pass on: elements of our history (social or military), the language we speak in schools (Spanish or English), belief systems (lying is OK sometimes), skills (football or dance), and actions that mandate instruction (driving a car or child-rearing). And, more importantly, how do we divide these responsibilities among the adults in a child's life-parents, grandparents, neighbors, child care worker, teacher? How should our modern society create and support stable systems to protect, nurture, educate, and enrich our children? More than anything, we must recognize that early childhood is a crucial time.
Time is short. Thoughtful dialogue about our society's values, beliefs, and child-rearing practices must take place now. The choices we make will have a profound impact on the trajectory of our society-and our species. If we choose well, untapped potentials will emerge. If we remain passive and let the momentum of our dissolving social structures sweep us into the next generation, we lose the creativity and productivity of millions of children. And we lose our future.
Reprinted By Permission of FORBES ASAP Magazine Forbes Inc. 1998.