For children of all cultures, the care and nurturing available in the early childhood environment is significant and essential to biological and social growth (Berger, 2008). Family and caregiver involvement perpetuate neural processes, which may affect the lifelong cognitive processes of the human organism. Accordingly, styles of nurture and parenting have tremendous effects on the modeling of the child and contribute to the lifelong capacity to either flourish or simply survive. The prevailing perspective of the growing child is powerfully influenced by the environment, especially that of the family and those who have an intimate relationship to the child. Research suggests as the child moves into early education, appropriately organized programs are likely to advance both cognitive and social skills, although there are a variety of ideas regarding the appropriate educational experience. There is, however, consensus on the ability of the early environment to exert tremendous long-term influence on the growing child.
Effect of Families on Development
The stunning growth and development that characterizes the first two years of a child's life is unparalleled throughout the balance of the life span as the infant brain triples in size during this time (Berger, 2008). In the first few months of life, brain growth is tremendous, and the neural environment in the cortex increases exponentially (Berger, 2008). Although some brain development during infancy and early childhood is the natural process of the maturing child, experience is essential for experience-expectant brain development. Growth is substantial in the domains of the body, mind, and social relationships, and parents, caregivers, and culture are pivotal to the success of the child's development (Berger, 2008). The child's personal experience of the environment plays an equally significant role in experience-dependent brain development (Kolb, 2000).
To accommodate the rapid growth of the neural system, experience is crucial for the communicative nature between the dendrites and synapses (Kolb, 2000). If the neurons remain undeveloped, they atrophy, and brain regions will be reappointed to other functions (Berger, 2008). According to Berger (2008), through the continual reflexive process of mental absorption and accommodation during the first four months, infants learn how to adapt to their environment and these reflexes provide the foundation for intelligence. According to the information-processing theory, the perceptions of a young infant are consistent with the opportunities for this reflexive action. When exposed to a wider range of experience, the infant brain uses the reflexive mental process and develops a broader foundation for neural processing and intelligence (Kolb, 2000).
Parenting Styles and Their Influence
According to Berger (2008), parenting styles influence children's daily lives and can modify the fundamental character of their lifelong perspective. With the wide variety of parental beliefs regarding how children learn, thrive, and behave, there are an equal number of theories on parenting style and interaction (Berger, 2008). Diana Baumrind identified a variety of parental characteristics including the level of parental affection and warmth, differences in discipline strategies, and parental interaction (Berger, 2008). Additionally, she found significant differences in the communicative character between the parent and child, and in the parents' expectations for the child's age-appropriate behavior. Based upon these dimensions, Baumrind developed her theory of three patterns of parenting (Berger, 2008).
Authoritarian parenting has high behavioral standards, strict, and sometimes physical punishment, and uses less communication than other styles of parenting (Berger, 2008). These parents dictate rules clearly and hold the child to relatively high standards. They neither accept the opinions of children nor show them affection nor emotional attachment. Parents who use this style love their children although their aloof relationship may not make it apparent (Berger, 2008). Children raised under this strict form of parenting are more likely to be quiet, conscientious, and obedient, but tend to be unhappy, and may be prone to guilt or depression throughout their lives (Berger, 2008) They learn to internalize frustrations and tend to blame themselves during challenging situations. Often during adolescence, they rebel and leave home before age 20.
Permissive parenting is a much less demanding style partly because of the low expectations the parent has for the child's maturity (Berger, 2008). Permissive parents are nurturing and accepting, and accommodate and welcome the opinions of the child. They tend to show an abundance of affection to their children and refrain from showing impatience. They consider themselves friends to their children and do not acknowledge the powerful influence they have on their children's development (Berger, 2008). Children raised in this environment tend to be unhappy and ineffective in peer relationships (Baumrind, 1971). They may lack emotional regulation, which causes problems in maintaining mature relationships and can leave them isolated and unhappy (Baumrind, 1971). Frequently these children have difficulty separating from their parents even into early adulthood.
Authoritative parents set limits and enforce rules while showing respect and listening to children (Baumrind, 1971). Reasonable mature behavior is expected but parents do not punish harshly for non-compliant behavior (Baumrind, 1983). These parents provide guidance rather than authority, and consider themselves neither an authority nor friend to the child. Authoritative parents raise successful, articulate children, content with themselves, appreciative of others, and well liked by peers. Their characters are especially valued in individualist cultures where initiative is appreciated (Baumrind, 1971).
Authoritative parenting is definitively the most efficient, reasonable, and appropriate parenting style (Baumrind, 1971). It provides reasonable limitations in the child's developmental environment with enforced rules, and fosters a sense of self-respect while providing the child with guidance and the experience of developing respected opinions. It also teaches the child how to voice an opinion appropriately while rightfully acknowledging and respecting the opinions of others. This form of parenting teaches children appropriateness, which contributes to their fluid social abilities (Baumrind, 1971).
Baumrind identified a style she called harmonious, in which parents were nonconforming, provided a significantly enriched environment, and encouraged independence (Baumrind, 1983). Parents of this style lived parallel to mainstream society but not in opposition to it. "In their hierarchy of values, honesty, harmony, justice, and rationality in human relations took precedence over power, achievement, control, and order" (Baumrind, 1983, p. 101). Baumrind (1971) thought it would be interesting to study the effects of this humanistic style of parenting and its effect on childhood development.
Influences of Early Childhood Education in Cognitive Development
Research proves high quality programs during early childhood advance cognitive and social skills (Berger, 2008). Especially for low-income families, children show lasting improvements in language and social skills. Longitudinal studies on several programs for low-income children have shown that early childhood education reduces problematic behavior in the future. These students are less likely to need special education curriculum, and are more likely to become employed, law-abiding citizens (Berger, 2008).
Although there is no consensus on the best program for early childhood education, programs that emphasize learning and offer extensive practice in language, motor skills, and basic number skills seem to offer the best for most children (Berger, 2008). More research and longitudinal studies are necessary to determine the definitive benefits of early childhood education on children's growing cognitive abilities. Further information is necessary to provide appropriate strategies for the two to six-year-old age group. Research suggests the success of early childhood educational programs depends on quality. According to Berger (2008), children most easily learn with a clear curriculum and a low adult-child ratio. Continuity is important for children, and consistent teacher training is imperative.
The impressive biological changes and acquisition of learning during the first few years of life is remarkable. Although varying theories explain how this process transpires, the surrounding environment exerts powerful influence on the child's abilities during the first few years, and lays groundwork for the duration of the life span (Baumrind, 1971). Social interaction enables and promotes biological and neural changes that form the child's fundamental system for future cognitive processes, and the maturing child develops the biological readiness for learning. Cultures, learning styles, and social contexts vary around the world, although the basic premise of social interaction applies cross culturally. The quality of care in both the familial environment and in the child's early education influences lifelong patterns of mental health and happiness. These patterns continue to contribute to the prevailing quality of life, and as such, demand the attention and care of family, society, and culture.
Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology, 4(1, Pt.2), 1-103. doi: 10.1037/h0030372
Baumrind, D. (1983). Rejoinder to Lewis's reinterpretation of parental firm control effects: Are authoritative families really harmonious? Psychological Bulletin, 94(1), 132-142. doi: 10.1037//0033-2909.94.1.132
Berger, K. S. (2008). The developing person through the life span (7th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Kolb, B. (2000). Experience and the developing brain. Developmental Psychology, 39(4), 24-27. Retrieved January 4, 2011, from ProQuest.