The Theoretical Significance Attached To Parenting During Infancy

From the perspective of formal studies of parenting, infancy attracts attention in part because a provocative debate rages around the significance of events occurring in infancy to later development. Proponents from one viewpoint contend that infancy is not particularly influential because the experiences and the habits of infancy have little (if any) long-term significance on the life course. Others argue contrariwise that experiences and habits developed in infancy are of crucial lifelong significance; that is, the social orientations, personality styles, and intellectual predilections established at the start fix or, at least, contribute to enduring patterns. Either the invisible foundation and frame of the edifice are always and forever critical to the structure, or, once erected, what really matters to a building is upkeep and renovation. Theoreticians and researchers alike have been surprisingly hard pressed to confirm or to refute the significance of the child's earliest experiences to the course and the eventual outcome of development.

Prominently, psychoanalysis espoused the significance of early experience (Cohler and Paul, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook). Thus Freud (1949) theorized that child development is characterized by critical phases during which certain experiences take on unusual significance. Infancy defines the "oral phase," during which experiences and activities centered on the mouth, notably feeding, assume particular salience for personality. According to Freud, if the baby's needs for oral gratification are overindulged or underindulged, the baby will grow into an adult who continually seeks oral gratification. Overlapping the end of infancy, according to Freud, the oral phase is succeeded by the "anal phase." During this period, parent-infant interactions center on toilet training, with long-term personality consequences likely involving stubbornness and obsessiveness. ErikErikson (1950) portrayed infant experiences provided by parents somewhat differently, but also asserted that experiences in infancy can exert telling long-term influences. From oral sensory experiences, Erikson suggested, infants develop basic trust or mistrust in others, and whether infants develop basic trust has implications for the way they negotiate the next muscular anal stage of development, in which the key issue is establishing autonomy or shame. More modern proponents of psychodynamic schools of thinking continue to see infancy as critical for the basic differentiation of self (e.g., Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1969; Greenspan and Greenspan, 1985; Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, 1975; Stern, 1985).

Like psychoanalysts, behaviorists and learning theorists also stressed the significance of infant experiences on the balance of the life course (e.g., Dollard and Miller, 1950; Watson, 1924/1970). Behaviorists eschew the idea that infancy should be set apart; but for them as well, an organism's earliest experiences are crucial because they are first, have no competing propensities to replace, and thus yield easy and rapid learning. Moreover, early behavior patterns lay the foundation for later ones. Students of the constructivist school of development, beginning with Piaget (1952), have likewise theorized that capacities of later life build on development early in life and that infants actively participate in their own development.

The exceptional place of infancy has also been emphasized by other theorists, including embryol-ogists and ethologists (e.g., Bowlby, 1969;Lorenz, 1935/1970; Spemann, 1938; Tinbergen, 1951). In the view of those who study developmental physiology and animal behavior, the immature nervous system is in an especially plastic state, and during "sensitive periods" structural developments and behavioral tendencies are maximally susceptible to influence by specific types of experience (see Bornstein, 1989b). The sensitive period concept typically assigns great weight to infant experiences because it holds that experiences that occur within its boundaries are likely to have long-lasting influence and that, once that period had passed, the same experience will no longer exert the same formative influence. Demonstrations of sensitive periods in lower animals (such as imprinting, as in the "ugly duckling") accord biological and scientific credibility to the potency of experience in infancy in general, and the notion has been painted into many portraits of human infant growth and development. Indeed, neoteny (the prolongation of infancy), which is especially characteristic of human beings, is thought to have special adaptive significance (Gould, 1985) insofar as it allows for enhanced parental influence and prolonged learning (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000). The notion of special sensitivity in infancy was seized on by Bowlby (1969), who contended that their state of immaturity renders infants dependent on the care and protection of parents and that infancy is an evolutionarily conditioned period for the development of attachment bonds to primary caregivers. The internal working models of caregiving and caregiver-infant relationships articulated in infancy generalize to other relationships lifelong.

Not all developmental theoreticians espouse the view that the experiences of infancy are formative. Some have, in equally compelling arguments, suggested that experiences in infancy are peripheral or ephemeral, in the sense that they exert little or no enduring effect on the balance of development. These individuals attribute the engine and controls of development instead to biology and maturation and to the influences of later experience. The embryologist Waddington (1962) contended that, based on principles of growth such as "canalization," early experiences, if influential, are not determinative (see, too, McCall, 1981). Infancy may be a period of plasticity and adaptability to transient conditions, but those effects may not persist or they may be altered or supplanted by subsequent conditions that are more consequential (Kagan, 2000; Lewis, 1997).

Infancy is the first phase of extrauterine life, and the characteristics we develop and acquire then may be formative and fundamental in the sense that they endure or (at least) constitute building blocks that later developments or experiences use or modify. Infancy is only one phase in the lifespan, however, and so development is also shaped by experiences after infancy. Parenting the infant does not fix the route or the terminus of development, but it makes sense that effects have causes and that the start exerts an impact on the end. Because of this, parenting is central to infancy and to the long-term development of children. Therefore, we are motivated to know the meaning and the importance of infancy for later life out of the desire to improve the lives of infants and for what infancy tells us about parents. Indeed, social anthropological inquiry has almost always included reports of infant life and adults' first efforts at parenting (Bornstein, 1980, 1991; Harkness and Super, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook). Parents are fundamentally invested in infants: their survival, their socialization, and their education.

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