I've spent many years studying children's behavior, trying to better understand how "nature" and "nurture" impact human development and the role of social experience on brain development. Some of this science is featured in the upcoming PBS series, This Emotional Life (airing next week, January fourth through sixth on PBS).
In a relatively short period of time, our society has radically shifted our collective view of childhood--just over a generation ago, the maxim was that children "should be seen and not heard," reflecting relatively little interest in early childhood. Now a great deal of media attention, marketing, and adult conversation is centered about questions regarding the best approaches to parenting. This is a double-edged sword. In some ways, parenting has become a competitive sport, with adult's perceptions of their own competence too closely tied to their children's performance. On the other hand, it does appear to be the case that early childhood is important for human development, and adult attention to the needs of children has lead to improvements in children's health and education. As a scientist, I spend a lot of time studying how and what children are learning as they interact with their parents and others.
The hot button issue in child development concerns what is "innate" or what sorts of information, traits, and tendencies are already in our brains from the moment we are born. The idea that we enter the world with lots of skills and knowledge is an old and very attractive idea. But my own view is more of a vanilla ice-cream approach. Rather than lots of fancy features, it is likely that what humans enter the world with is a general ability to learn. We have an amazing ability to be able to pick up on various things that are happening in the environment and remember them and group them together. As a result of these very, very powerful abilities to learn, what we're able to do is master lots of different complex behaviors--reading emotions, understanding basic physics, decoding language. If human infants are indeed born with highly effective learning abilities, when we're interacting with our children we are teaching them.
When we are forming our earliest relationships, such as forming social bonds or attachments -- what we are doing is learning. We are learning how to signal to others when we need help for hunger or pain or fear; we are learning who responds to our needs, and how consistently those people respond. As we become older, we learn more complex social cues: what makes other people upset; what makes them comforted; what will result in punishment; what will result in reward. I believe that our brains are born ready to learn about emotional cues...but all that learning depends upon the kinds and quality of social experiences that we have had. These experiences turn on different sets of genes, tune our attention to different aspects of our social world, and imbue our experiences with meaning.
So as a parent I try and step back and ask myself whether I am making these learning experiences clear to my children. Am I being consistent? Have I tried to show my children a clear link between what they have done and why I am upset? Social life is very complex for young children. It can be very easy for adults to forget that they are trying to learn based upon very little information...sort of like trying to communicate in a second language: it helps when people speak slowly and clearly and simply at first.
The big picture is that children are very active learners. Learning does not mean just numbers and letters. It also means learning about relationships. We have to learn how to communicate to others how we feel, how to read the signals that others are sending to us ... and even more daunting, how to regulate our feelings and behaviors when interacting with others. The building blocks of complex emotions such as love stem from this type of back and forth between two people, parent and child. Being able to recognize what somebody else is feeling, recognize that your needs are met, recognize that you've met somebody else's needs. This interplay is really at the core of a reciprocal relationship.
As a parent, what I try to do is to use situations as moments to help children master social communication, love, understanding, empathy because these are not things we are born with, they are skills that emerge with practice. Do I do this all the time? When we are late for school, and the lunches are not made, and the kids want a cereal that we've run out of, no one is putting on their snow pants, and a glove is missing, and I have not had my morning coffee well, that's not so much a teachable moment as it is just trying to make it through the moment.