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Beginning of Life

Mary McIlrath

Just before this Thanksgiving, my family welcomed a baby girl into our hearts and home.  As I sat there holding my new niece, I couldn’t help but wonder what this experience of joining our world has been like for her and what I can be doing as an aunt to ensure she grows up with a bright future ahead of her. 

With the long Thanksgiving weekend and thoughts of my new niece, I finally curled up to watch a documentary that had been on my Netflix watch list for months.  The Beginning of Life is a film that documents the early lives of children and their families across the globe, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Italy, Kenya and the United States.  Through interviews with families and specialists from early childhood development, the film depicts how the earliest years of a child’s life may have more of an impact on their future than originally believed.   

Not only is it a beautifully shot film showing some of the most inspiring moments of children interacting with the world around them (I particularly loved the little girl talking to a flower and asking it its name), but it also shares important insight into how we as a society, whether a parent, aunt, grandparent, neighbor, company or organization, can help this youngest generation grow into fruitful human beings.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the film:

  1. It is often said that children have a hard time paying attention, but the opposite is actually true – they have a hard time not paying attention. They are very sensitive to all of the patterns of information going on around them.  From an early age, the brain is making between 700-1,000 connections per second. Within a baby’s brain, there are many pathways for these neural connections.  The pathways that are used at this age get maintained and strengthened, while the ones that don’t disappear.  We need to think about what we can be doing to make sure as many of these pathways get strengthened as possible.
  2. Children aren’t a blank slate that you just place your knowledge on; rather they learn best through co-developing their knowledge with the people around them. A process called “Serve and Return” is where a baby does something and the adult responds.  As the baby gets older they learn to respond back.  It is this back and forth that is critical for brain development.  Think of ways you can help parents turn these small everyday actions into meaningful experiences for growth.
  3. The best way to develop language is through conversation. Instead of answering a child’s question with a simple yes or no, ask them a question back to keep the child engaged in dialogue so their vocabulary grows.  Find ways you can keep conversations flowing, even when life is hectic and busy.
  4. Play is a child’s major vehicle for learning – it is their work and what they are supposed to be doing. But it is important to create interesting contexts for children.  Instead of always giving them a specific or staged setting for play, allow them to be inventive.  A child turning a pen and a ruler into an airplane does more for a child’s development than simply giving them an airplane to play with.  Consider how you can add a dose of inventiveness to your products. 
  5. Rooting is very important for children; they must feel they belong – to life, to a family, to a story, to a place. Grandparents in particular play an important role in rooting as they often are the storytellers, passing on stories of family memories and history. Stories are important as they broaden children’s horizons and give them a sense of belonging.  How can you help children feel more rooted in the world around them?

The best way to help today’s children is by also helping the adults raising them.  Children aren’t raised by social programs but by people.  By investing in these people and giving them the space to spend quality time with their children, that is how we can make sure we build a stronger next generation.

Image credit to The Bernard Van Leer Foundation