Are children simply adults waiting to happen?
I revisited the Forbidden City in Beijing a few days ago and like everyone who visits it, I am fascinated by how it was with the Last Emperor, Pu Yi, the one who started his reign when he was only 2 years old. A child betrothed to a dynasty, with all the complexities of governance and the rules of the Imperial Court, was to rule an empire and eventually got caught in revolutionary historical shifts. The political and cultural history are well documented, even in films for popular consumption. But the psychological history of that child emperor inside is lost forever. He was treated like a miniature adult. That gives a whole new meaning to “adulting.” All of that happened starting when he was 2 years old.
If you look at literature till the most part of the 20th century, most of them reflect the same way we saw and treated children. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was one of those novels that I read when I was a kid and I remember wondering to myself if I could bear the indignities and hardships that came with being a child in the Industrial Revolution. Even with Noli Me Tangere, I could not help but wonder why the child characters Basilio and Crispin were targeted with as much disdain and neglect as the adults by the colonial masters.
When my father would tell me stories about his childhood, I also sensed the same – they were expected to be adults who could just think “less” and carry less stuff. We had ideas on how children are supposed to be on their way to being adults and just made sure they do not stray too far from the paths we imagined they should take to get there. That was generally our plan of action as adults in charge of children.
When it comes to the science of growing up, the golden question has always been how much of your childhood do you bring into your adulthood? Before studies on human development, people just winged how to manage children. Before any systematic studies on human development, we used to look at children as just small adults and that time will do its thing with them and they will just grow into adults with predetermined specs.
But when scientific studies on children started, we increasingly discovered that that all children are born in special conditions that we have to understand and respond to. That they are not miniature adults. We first had to accept that genes – those that their parents gave them in a random mixed package- make up the powerful stuff that play a major role in the way children become who they are. And then we started thinking, then we just have to make sure we facilitated the experiences that will help them in their grown-up lives. Genes and experiences, we thought could be handled separately. “We got this”, we assured ourselves but we knew even by just being with the children we love, that that kind of hold was tentative.
Eventually we also learned and pretty much established that there are “windows” in time within which we really embed experiences in children, for better or worse. Generally, this happens in the first 1000 days of life or from 0-5 years old. This is why the health programs around the world of the WHO and UNESCO are focused on this window of time in a child’s life. Science has already established that what happens to a child from 0-5 years old have great impact on their health and well-being, including their behavior, when they become adults. But that story continues to unfold with many other surprises.
Recently, a study has found that the amount of touch that children in distress got when they were babies affected the timing that their genes expressed themselves. It indicated that there is some kind of delay in the way certain genes expressed themselves. This specific study did not see yet what specific effects this delay will have later in life but it is solid evidence yet again that experience directly affects our biology. An earlier study also found that a teenagers' gene expression were affected by how much stress their parents experienced when their teenagers were still children. They saw that parents’ symptoms of depression, financial stress, family-expressed anger, role overload and parenting stress when they were handling their young children found their way into how their children’s genes expressed themselves as these chidren turned to adolescents.
Note that genes are what one has when they are born. We cannot choose our genes. But having them is not the end of the story about our genes. It is their “stage presence” – the way they project themselves inside our bodies that ultimately matter. This study shows that experience (nurture) can change the way that genes project themselves inside us. This was important because this showed another direct proof that experience can change the way genes can express themselves. It makes us understand further how genes and experiences affect each other.
What we do to children are not just part of their life’s story but also their biological story. They are born with their own set of genes but we still get to affect those genes with the experiences that we give or facilitate for them. We all know for a fact that biology is a big part of our individual stories but we also know that alone is not imperial enough to embrace the lives we build from it. Science is also telling us that we reach out into our biology with the experiences we give each other. We do it to our children. I will not be surprised if it turns out later in science that we can do this even to strangers. Islands, indeed we are not, biologically or otherwise. – Rappler.com