In the early days of psychology (which is a very young science – only 133 years old), humans were thought to be born tabula rasa, or ‘blank slates’. Scientific wisdom of the day stated that babies were born with brains that were 100% empty, totally void of any thoughts or feelings. It was believed that everything a person became (from a mental perspective) was completely the result of their environment.
Later science posited (and proved) that actually, people are born with internal mechanisms (genes) that affect their cognitive development. So while the external environment certainly helps shape people, some issues (like dyslexia, schizophrenia, even anxiety and depression) have a biological basis, and are not the results of an individual, parental, or societal failing.
The most recent science on human development now shows that a baby’s environment in utero influences how the baby will grow in all facets of her life: certainly physically, but also mentally, cognitively, even emotionally.
To say that people are complex is perhaps one of the biggest understatements ever uttered. Who we all become is an amazingly intricate web of genetics, environment, social structures and support, internal drive and motivation, personal resilience, openness to learning…. Yet perhaps one of the most influential impacts on a baby/child/adolescent/young adult is his/her parents (or parental figures).
My friend J (a different friend from a few days ago) sent me the following note:
“The wallpaper next to my bed has a flowery pattern. The photos below show this design at different distances. My oldest (10) daughter asked me if I could see the smile in the wall paper. I didn’t know what she was talking about so she showed me.
If you look at the yellow flowers in the third picture, in the center of the flower there is a clear smile. Two eyes and a mouth. The center flower is the most prominent, but the smile is in all three.
Now I always wake up to a smile. Three of them to be precise. Actually about 100 as I look around the room.”
I love the image of my friend’s young daughter showing him hidden joy in an otherwise “ordinary” environment. Equally importantly, I love that my friend and his wife are raising children who have the ability to see covert beauty in what can be a harsh world. I love that these girls have minds skewed towards happiness, and that they have the social/environmental/familial support to cultivate the sustained development and further growth of that incredibly precious resource (namely, joy). While this father-daughter exchange now helps my friend wake up to wall paper smiles every day, it provided my heart with a smile of its own.