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What can World War I teach us about the importance of parental care?

Research suggests parental care can boost brain development
Research suggests parental care can boost brain development

New research suggests that a safe, nurturing childhood environment and a mother’s love can have a drastic effect on brain development. Laurinda Luffman investigates whether Kaiser Wilhelm’s unhappy childhood impacted on future world events, and what these findings may mean for the theory of child development.

2014 marks one hundred years since the start of the First World War and the history of the conflict is a hot topic. A recent BBC documentary has been looking at the roles played by the royal leaders of the time, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany. An autocratic ruler who despised democracy and constantly sought to prove he was superior to others, Wilhelm II was a key player in the events which led to the war.

How could we feel anything but repelled by this proud and dislikeable man? Amazingly, the BBC documentary elicited sympathy for this misguided ruler. The programme showed how Wilhelm’s early life was blighted by a lack of affection from his parents, particularly his mother. Vicky, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, never came to terms with the fact that Wilhelm had a withered left arm, the result of a traumatic breech birth. The young Wilhelm suffered various torturous exercises at his mother’s hands in her efforts to correct his ‘defect’. Historians widely believe these painful experiences and the lack of his mother’s approval deeply affected Wilhelm’s emotional development.

Mother and child Malakal, South Sudan 66070
Can a mother's love have a lifelong impact on a child's development and later life?

Brain scans reveal the importance of love to children

So how important is the love and care of an adult? Researchers have recently studied children who grew up in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, when these harsh and overcrowded institutions afforded children little, if any contact with caring adults. Studies have shown that such environments stunt the development of youngsters. Brain scans revealed that the institutionalised Romanian children had a reduced volume of grey matter or brain cell bodies and also less white matter, the fat-covered tracts between the brain cells. In addition, EEG measurements picked up reduced brain activity in the children and teachers indicated the youngsters struggled socially.

Researchers now believe that poor emotional and social development can be explained by the lack of a warm and secure bond in childhood. This is backed up by the very latest studies which show that children of nurturing mothers developed hippocampus volumes in their brain 10% larger than children whose mothers were less nurturing. The hippocampus region of the brain is particularly important for learning, memory and stress responses. One scientist put the case simply: “kids who develop a secure attachment show enhanced brain activity at age 8”.

Nature versus nurture?

In an extensive study by the US National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, researchers found clear evidence that assuming children had the right nutrition and a secure environment, the primary determinant for their doing well in later life was supportive parenting.

Some scientists have nevertheless been sceptical of such findings, believing that a child’s success in life is determined more by genes than upbringing. One such scientist was Professor James Fallon, once a self-proclaimed ‘genetic determinist’. However, he recently experienced a Damascene conversion. During his research into the brains of psychopaths and serial killers, Professor Fallon made the shocking discovery that his brain showed all the hallmarks of a psychopath. From scans, he found his brain had very low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes, regions which are linked to empathy, morality and self-control. Indeed, his history revealed others in his family line probably suffered from the same genetic problem; Professor Fallon has seven alleged murderers in his family tree.

An SOS family
An SOS family in an SOS Children's Village

But James Fallon is happily married and has never killed anyone, so what makes him different? In his new book, The Psychopath Inside, Fallon concludes that though he has the same anatomical brain patterns as killers and also shares their tendency for competitiveness, aggression and lack of empathy, he has been able to adjust his behaviour to fit in with society. Why? He attributes his success in life to an extremely happy childhood and a mother who doted on him. Having suffered from a series of miscarriages, his parents were particularly attentive towards him as a child. Fallon says simply, “I was loved and that protected me.”

Raising questions

So with all the evidence now suggesting supportive parents or adoptive/foster carers are vital to a child’s health and happiness in life, I’d like to ask two questions.

In its 2014 ‘State of the World’s Children’ report, UNICEF declares “in order to survive and develop to their full potential, children need healthcare, nutritious food, education that nurtures their minds and equips them with useful knowledge and skills, freedom from violence and exploitation, and the time and space to play.” Why doesn’t this list include the presence of a loving parent or carer?

And secondly, how different might the history of the twentieth century have been if Kaiser Wilhelm’s mother had shown him the love and support he so desperately needed?

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