October 2013

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development by Jerome Kagan

One hundred years ago social scientists were beginning to believe in the power of experience -- the promise of education and a positive home environment -- to uplift poor immigrant families whose innate biology was previously blamed for their children's school and behavior problems. Today, poor parents are blamed for not reading to their children or for feeding them the wrong kind of food. These things change. Rich people used to prefer formula and white flour because they were scientific and refined; now, breastfeeding and whole foods are the style. I read in Nancy Verde Barr's Italian cookbook, We Called It Macaroni, that social workers were horrified by the diets of Italian immigrant families. They allowed children to have coffee and alcohol. They didn't eat meat and potatoes like real Americans. Assimilation causes its own problems. Now there are news stories about immigrants becoming unhealthy as they discard their traditions in favor of the toxic mainstream American diet and lifestyle. Today's social workers would rather that immigrants didn't adopt American habits.

For a very long time we have had theories about schizophregenic (schizophrenia-causing) mothers, mothers who cause autism and eating disorders, mothers who overmedicate their kids' ADHD and depression. These and other pseudoscientific ideas appeal to sexism or classism. One of the lessons of Andrew Solomon's beautiful and compassionate Far From the Tree was that parents are not to blame. Parents are scolded for passing on faulty genes or for coddling their children too much or not educating them enough. It's generally an anxiety of too much or not enough. Middle-class parents spend a lot of time obsessing over how they're going to ruin their children. Attend a mother's group meeting, and you'll see. This is not to say that low-income parents don't worry about their children, but when one has real high-stakes stressors, there is less fretting over cloth diapers and sleep training and organic homemade baby food, and more fretting over survival. In the beginning of babyhood, there's a lot of anxiety but a lot of love, and instead of blaming well-meaning parents, we could stand to express empathy and blame the institutions that fail us.

Jerome Kagan is a longtime scholar of developmental psychology, and The Human Spark began as a continuation of his 1984 book, The Nature of the Child. The territory is vast and the book is presented as a Greatest Hits of sorts from a pioneer with a long career in a changing field. The way Kagan tells it, liberals wanted education to be powerful in a child's development. This suited their ideology and they looked for scientific support for it afterward. Behaviorism then reigned until the 1960s. Kagan was at first a believer in the environment determining a child's development but then started realizing that temperament was set from an early age.

If we don't believe that social institutions have positive effects, that a child's success will be determined from the start with little influence outside the family, then why bother funding them? Kagan writes about a North Carolina program in which poor African-American children had educational intervention from infancy to five years old. The program helped one in four of them; by thirty years old, these participants had slightly more education and slightly higher incomes. The results were not as dramatic as hoped. Kagan emphasizes that a child's temperament and socioeconomic class from ages five to thirty are more important than the preschool experience. Because education can be transformative, there are unrealistic hopes that early childhood education can save children in poverty, living in dangerous neighborhoods with struggling families. Unfortunately, the research shows that even a quality preschool experience -- which so many children are lacking -- isn't enough.

Both universal and unique, an infant's mind is still a mystery. There's so much extrapolating, projecting, and attributing to one thing or another. Anyone with a baby has been the victim of many platitudes: "It all goes so fast," "Every child is different," "Trust yourself." The ambiguity of an infant and the seemingly vast potential is what entrances us. Strangers and family make inane, though charming, predictions about a newborn's future. Culture and circumstance affect this potential.

Early on in the book, Kagan makes an important point:

Adolescents do reason and regulate emotion more effectively than infants, but they are also more often angry, suspicious, deceitful, depressed, and anxious. Psychological development should be seen as a sequence of additions, losses, and transformations in which new traits emerge, no-longer-useful ones are discarded, and some remnants of earlier phases are retained as elements in new patterns. A stairway to paradise is a poor metaphor for development.

We are not on a linear path to perfection. There is something a little haunting about thinking about the remnants of earlier phases returning in the teenager.

Worldwide, there are many cultural differences in child rearing. Kagan is an open-minded sort who believes in subjectivity and relativism. He mentions practices in Guatemala and Guinea that are unusual or disturbing, and differences, such as Japanese children noticing relationships and context, while four-year-old Americans notice subjects because of a cultural emphasis on the individual. The differences in child development are highly influenced by culture, but he seems to be saying that it shakes out in the end, or at least that there is undue attention paid to the first few years. I have heard judgments from middle-class Americans about practices ranging from infant ear piercing to the family bed to headbands on baby girls to extended breastfeeding. And really, who cares? This is the great question. Does it really matter? I think Kagan would say no, it does not. Or at least that all these practices are culturally bound and in flux and not static.

The subject of mental illness in young people is of great interest to Kagan and extremely important for people to read. As with childrearing practices, community ethics is deeply important to determining what it is and why so many children seem to suffer. Throughout history and place, mental illness has been defined differently. But it has always been with us, as has the more common malaise and slogging through life. He quotes the Samuel Beckett play Endgame: "You're on earth, there is no cure for that."

There are many parts of The Human Spark in which I disagree with Kagan, but I find that this is a useful, though sometimes depressing, book about development and what we call human nature.

The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development by Jerome Kagan
Basic Books
ISBN: 978-0465029822
352 pages