When it comes to explaining the roots of social problems, the focus has turned to the early years of childhood. In the aggressive or unfeeling behaviour of toddlers and preschool-aged children lie the seeds of future school failure, reckless driving and criminal activity, researchers warn. The latest Australian research, which traced a group from infancy to the early 20s, showed it was possible to predict at age five those most likely to be heavy drinkers at age 22.

But the die may be cast even earlier. IQ and temperament, it has long been argued, are to a large extent determined by genes.

It is enough to make the parents of rambunctious four-year-olds alarmed, and parents of out-of-control 14-year-olds throw their hands up in defeat. If so much is determined in the womb or established so early in life, what room is there for improvement, and what role can parents and governments play?

The extent to which temperament and IQ are predetermined is not just a thorny scientific question, it is fundamental to a just society. The nurture crowd insist genes are not destiny and that good child care, schools and better parenting skills can make a big difference to children’s lifetime chances. The hereditarians maintain low intelligence, in particular, is resistant to change, and that governments could be wasting their money on early intervention and disadvantaged children schools programs.

In Australia, despite recent modest interest in early childhood programs, we have tended to throw money at the children who need it least. We lack universal preschool and a national home visiting program for new mothers, even though such programs, if the nurture school is right, could have a big impact on the experiences of children from poorer backgrounds.

But we spend a good deal of public money on children in private schools who already have a wide array of opportunities thanks to their families, and whose life chances are enhanced little by the addition of an extra playing field or grand piano to the school stock.

A new wave of research is casting the old nature/nurture debate in a different light and providing ammunition to those who argue environment matters a good deal. The case for early childhood programs is strengthening.

Of all a child’s characteristics, IQ was thought to be hard-wired, with no amount of coaching able to turn a dunce into a scholar. This has been demonstrated in studies of adopted children, who consistently reflect the intelligence of their biological parents rather than their adopted parents, and in studies of twins. Identical twins, who share all their genes, have IQ scores that are far more similar than are the scores of fraternal twins, who share only half their genes.

But research in the US by Eric Turkheimer shows the expected effect of genes on intelligence is only true for twins born into middle-class or wealthy families – those given every opportunity to perform at their genetic capacity. Most research in the IQ debate is conducted on middle-class subjects. Turkheimer was able to study twins from poor backgrounds. For these, he found the effect of growing up in very disadvantaged homes overwhelmed the influence of genes. The IQs of identical twins varied just as much as those of fraternal twins. These children did not get the chance to fulfil their genetic potential because of the home environment.

Research in France on the relatively unusual cases of children born to middle-class parents and then adopted reinforces the importance of environment and experience. These children on average had a higher IQ than children born into poorer backgrounds. But it varied by 12 points, depending on whether their adopted families were middle class or working class. The crucial difference in these outcomes was the lives the children had led.

In Australia, where we focus less on IQ and more on behaviour, the Australian Temperament Project has been tracing hundreds of children from infancy since 1983. And while researchers have been able to show that aggressive five-year-olds with short attention spans and poor social skills are at greater risk than their milder peers of turning into dangerous drivers, heavy drinkers, risk-takers and law-breakers in adulthood, temperament is not destiny. A significant number of children with “difficult” temperaments had learnt to moderate these traits over time. Between the ages of 12 and 14, many children, difficult in their early years, get an opportunity to remake themselves under the influence of the right friends and involved parents.

Three-quarters of children identified as at risk of turning into troubled adolescents did not fulfil their destiny. (And quite a few who led a charmed childhood later turned into big worries, partly as the result of a poor choice of high school friends).

The old view of nature/nurture saw people as the sum of their genetic endowments and their experiences. The new view is that genes can influence the effect of experiences and experiences can influence how genes are expressed. Heredity may define the limit of intelligence but experience largely determines whether children will reach their genetic potential. Genes may determine a volatile, difficult temperament, but in the right environment a child will learn how to exercise self-control.

In light of this research, the case for greater government investment in the early years is strong. It makes sense to try to head off or address bad behaviour in preschoolers that flags serious future problems. It makes sense to put public money where it will make most difference to children’s lives. But troubled children, along with their parents and schools, need resources and help later on, too, because it is never too late to change.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald