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How to Give Your Child a Wonderful Start in Life: The First Three Years

by Burton White Ph.D.

Anyone who offers advice about raising babies ought to make sure the audience knows about his or her credentials. Since 1953, I have pursued answers to one central question: "How do some people become wonderfully competent and decent, as well?" I have been fortunate to have been able to do research on this issue since 1957. The work has been supported by Brandeis, MIT and Harvard. The funds have come from the government and several major foundations. Unlike any other research, it has been conducted mostly in homes.

Why, then, are the first three years so important? In my years of research, I have learned that if the first three years go well, a child will be assured readiness for school and a substantial amount of happiness for, at least, several years. Both the parents and the child will benefit from markedly increased pleasure and reduced needless anxiety and stress. If the first three years go poorly and a child, for example, falls nine months or more behind, it is very unlikely that the deficits will ever be made up.

Four Important Processes

There are four processes which clearly undergo major once-in-a-lifetime development in those first three years and are very sensitive to differential experiences.

The first is language, which is really an absolutely amazing process. Language begins to emerge between six and eight months of age. A child of a year of age perhaps understands 10 to 12 words. Three year olds can understand between 1200-1300 words. Experiences a child undergoes which, more often than not, are shaped by the parents, make a huge difference in how much language a child acquires by age three. Language is the single most common problem when children are not ready for school.

Second, the emergence of intellectual ability at age 22 or 23 months of age is also terribly important. It is subject to experiential input in a major way.

Third is the capacity for trusting other people and falling in love with other people. This is another way of talking about the emotional stakes of the first three years.

Finally, there is simple curiosity, which doesn’t receive much attention but is very important. Every healthy baby shows enormous quantities of curiosity from the first three or four weeks, but its development depends a great deal on the kinds of experiences the infant has.

If you don’t do a good job with a child in the first three years, can you turn them around subsequently? Remediation is difficult, if not impossible. We just haven’t learned how to take a slow three year old and turn him around. That is why prevention and optimization are so important.

The benefits of doing the job well are substantial. Few things in life are more rewarding than having a really good experience with children in the first three years. There is lasting impact when you have a three year old who enjoys life, enjoys people, and is fun to be with.

We divide the first three years into two—the first seven months of life and seven to 36 months. It’s hard to go wrong in the first seven months of life and it’s easy to go wrong in the second.

The First Seven Months

What you’re looking for in the first seven months, more than anything else, is a solid emotional beginning. You want a child to learn that somebody is crazy about her. You also want to nourish a zest for life. Finally, you don’t want to get in the way of developing abilities.

Your most important job, by far, for the entire first three years is to give your child a feeling of being loved and cared for. That’s not hard and it usually is a lot of fun. You achieve this goal through two types of actions—comforting the baby and having lots of happy, social interchanges. Comforting the baby is something you are called on to do many times during the early months, but especially during the first three months. (I am a strong advocate of the use of a pacifier). Having fun with a baby becomes especially easy and rewarding after the first three months, as the baby becomes more sturdy and far more responsive.

Every healthy infant begins to reveal excitement about just being alive from about three months of age. That zest can be enhanced by providing her with developmentally suitable opportunities for play.

Parents need to provide an interesting day for your baby. In order to do that well over the first three years, you’ve got to understand what he’s capable of doing. (Ed. Note: See Dr. White’s book, The New First Three Years of Life).

The risks to the healthy development of the birth to seven month old are: inadequate attention from immediate family members; middle ear disease (which affects language development); and boring the baby.

Seven to 36 Months

For babies from seven to 36 months old, there are three primary goals. The first is the preservation and enhancement of happiness. You can spot a child who has been grossly overindulged from 6 to 24 months by the frequency which they complain. Those who have been loved so much that whenever they wanted something they were given it are the children who, at two, have very unrealistic expectations about what the world is like. These children don’t make good prospective first friends because they want everything to be their way all the time. The key for parents, aside from being crazy about a child, is to know how to set limits effectively and to do it well.

Social enjoyment and competencies are also important. You want a three year old who is good with people, who can lead or follow other children, who can use adults as resources, and, finally, who is proud of his achievements. You also want optimal language development and optimal intellectual development.

How can you achieve these goals? First, provide lots of love, accompanied by consistently firm (but not harsh) discipline. I also recommend spacing siblings at least three years apart. ( See Raising A Happy, Unspoiled Child). Avoid extensive contact with agemates during the first two years of life. Maintain good hearing, which allows the development of language. And finally, keep the child intellectually challenged.

If all has gone well, your three year old will be a marvelous human being!




Comfortable rocking chair (0-3 yrs.)

Pacifier (0-7 mos.)

Mobile (3-9 wks.)

Unbreakable mirror (6 wks.-6 mos.)

Floor or crib gym (6 wks.-6 mos.)
Infant seat (3-6 mos.)

Doorway jumper

Walker (4 mos. to crawling; Warning: Don’t use without constant observation of baby)

"Gertie" ball (7-14 mos.)

Pop-up toys (8-14 mos.)

Balls, especially inflatable beach balls (12-24 mos. or longer)

Pots and pans (6-12 mos.)

A stair gate (7-24 mos.)

Large, empty boxes (12-24 mos.)

Playpen or play yard (5-15 mos.)

Containers with lids (7-15 mos.)

Large container with a dozen or more assorted, small but safe objects such as spools, plastic doodads, etc. (7-15 mos.)

Small, hinged gadgets; sturdy doll-house furniture (7-15 mos.)

Toy telephone (12-36 mos.)

Small, low four-wheeled toys (14-30 mos.)

Dolls, doll carriages (14-36 mos.)

An outdoor swing (12-36 mos.)

Puzzles (15 mos. and older)

Story, picture books (18-36 mos.)

Scribbling and drawing materials (24-36 mos.)

Scenario toys, such as airport, house, school) with miniature people and animals (12-36 mos.)
Large container for water play (12-36 mos.)
Slide; climbing toy (12-36 mos.)

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