The Jesuits are credited with saying...
"Give me a child for for his first seven years and I'll give you the man"
The Jesuits had it right long before neuroscience and epigenetic research figured out why this is the case. Brain research has shown that young humans essentially exist in Delta Brain mode (first 2 yrs) and Theta Brain mode (2-6 yrs) for the first 6 years of life. Dr. Bruce Lipton, an epigeneticist explains all of this in the article found here: http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/the-power-of-the-mind
Excerpted from the article referenced above...
The first six years of a child’s life is spent in a hypnotic trance. Its perceptions of the world are directly downloaded into the subconscious during this time, without the discrimination of the, as yet, dormant self-conscious mind. Consequently, our fundamental perceptions about life and our role in it are learned before we express the capacity to choose or reject those beliefs. We were simply “programmed.” The Jesuits were aware of this programmable state and proudly boasted, “Give us a child until it is six or seven years old and it will belong to the Church for the rest of its life.” They knew that once the dogma of the Church was implanted into the child’s subconscious mind, that information would inevitably influence 95% of that individual’s behaviour for the rest of their life.
What is very interesting about this fact is that because these brain frequencies are dominant in the early years, we parents have a direct impact on the sub-conscious minds of our children. What mores, values and ideas (dogma) we "download" into our children in these early years of development will stay with them for their entire lives, and they are somewhat difficult to change. These traits mix with their innate temperament to create their auto-reactions, their triggers and their default stance.
Let me repeat that... The mores, values and ideas we "download" into our children in these early years of development will stay with them for their entire lives and they are somewhat difficult to change.
This programming has an impact on how we view our worthiness, our capabilities and our ability to succeed. Our willingness to explore, to feel safe and to push ourselves out of our comfort zone all set their seeds in the first 6 yrs of life.
I'm surprised that few parenting resources mention this, and it's certainly not in common knowledge, so few parents recognize that they play such a critical role in the brain development of their children. But an example is that when our kids are young, we often see them talking about imaginary friends or imaginary worlds as if they are real. For my kids, each had a house they talked about. For one it was his Red House, for another son it was my blue house and for my daughter it's her Pink House and her Purple House. My kids can talk, in detail, about things that have happened at these houses. At or around age 7 all this vivid recollection stopped and my kids become firmly planted in reality of living in our house!
As most connected parents know, our kids learn more from us when we are not in a "teaching moment" than when we consciously want to impart some wisdom on them. This is called modeling. We teach our kids about themselves, about their world and about what is acceptable behavior by what we model to them. It is the opposite of that old pearl "Do as I say, not as I do."
So in terms of how to expose our children to the values and mores that we want them to imprint, I suggest starting with the outcome/traits you want to encourage in your children and work back from there. For me these traits are:
Happiness & Joy
Confidence, Perseverance, Resilience and Independence stem from free exploration when we are young. To a baby and toddler, these come from exploring the world with our caregivers nearby (but not too close), taking chances, pushing outside our comfort zone and then coming back to check-in periodically to reinforce our safety. It involves experiencing success at things we try, but most importantly at being granted the space and time to interact with our worlds in a way that allows for us to step out of our comfort zones for a little bit, then ricochet back to feel safe, then push a little further, then come back - and repeat this process as many times as we need to conquer a new task. No new skill is acquired without lots of practice. Gaining confidence, perseverance, resilience and independence involves lots of missteps, mistakes and lots of practice. I think it's important to point out that confidence, resilience and independence do not mean comfort or ease in all situations - it means knowing our capabilities and not allowing others to diminish our capabilities when we are challenging ourselves.
Empathy, Authenticity, Happiness and Joy come from presence, connection and playfulness. Parents need to interact with their kids without distraction. We need to listen to our kids, accept them for who they are and meet them where they are. A kids' main method of learning is through play - parents need to learn how to engage their kids' through playfulness to share their happiness and joy. As kids grow they will feel confident in "being ok" with themselves and they will transfer that inner feeling to others in their lives. When they mess up or have a bad day, we need to rise above and offer our love and support, not our judgement or dissatisfaction. Essentially if they are exposed to our empathy when they are not at their best and we can authentically help them experience happiness and joy, then they, too, will have these skills later in life.
As parents, the way we interact with our children during these formative years will solidify how our kids interface with the world in which they live. If we act fearful during our kids' explorations, our kids will take on that fear and be less willing to take risks and chances. If we say no and redirect our kids all the time, we teach them that curiosity is wrong or worse, dangerous. If we try to "teach lessons" - we often push our kids to ignore their inner guidance and they either stop trying or push beyond their own limits. If kids are never treated empathetically the opportunity to imprint empathy, happiness, joy and authenticity can be greatly hindered.
Which poses challenges for families with two working parents, where a young child must be cared for by someone from outside the immediate family. It's important to recognize that when you hire outside caregivers you not only have to know your own pecadillos, you have to know those of the people who will be managing your kids day to day. This is probably why John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, believed there was a hierarchy of caregivers that ensured better attachment in general - parents have much more knowledge of a local caregiver like a grandparent or aunt or nanny in the home vs a staff member at a daycare facility. Regardless, it's important to recognize that hired help (nanny or daycare worker) will always exert more caution with children and have more safety rules because the consequences of not being cautious will outweigh their willingness to grant free play. The question will be to what extent that caution or rule enforcement affects the free exploration or testing of mettle that little kids do every day. I recognize that many parents don't feel they have a choice or financial wherewithal to stay home but knowing that the choice of caregiver can have direct impact on your child is important whatever reality you face.
So, if you sitting there saying - wow, my kids are older than 7 now, I didn't know all this stuff, is it game over? Have I missed a critical opportunity? I'd say emphatically, no. But changing these imprinted sub-conscious ideas will be a little harder for older kids. Just keep in mind that it will take consistency and time to rewrite the messages.
As with all things I've learned on my parenting journey, the more I work on myself to understand the programming and the unintended messages I received as a child the more aware I am of avoiding passing those ideas down to my kids. I'm sure some of my programming has imprinted on them- like all moms, I'm am fallible and imperfect. But I've always believed that knowledge is power and that we parent the best we can with the information we have, then, as we learn more, we adapt and do better.
In the end, I believe that my knowledge of brain development will not guarantee that my kids will be unaffected by the harsh world in which they live, but I do believe that I have inoculated them against the ills that commonly affect kids coming up today. When their life gets hard, they will know inherently that the discomfort they feel is not a good stasis and they will have tools to change their situation in order to better support joy and happiness.