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The First Three Years

In 1965, Burton White founded the Harvard Preschool Project and became its first director. The project was aimed at discovering best practices for early child­rearing. Initially researchers assumed the critical years would be age 3 to age 6.

White and a dozen other researchers made observations in kindergartens, nursery schools, and Head Start centers. They wanted to find out "what the beau­tifully-developed three-to-six year old looked like." They came up with a profile of "exceptional competence" in a six-year-old:

What were the findings of the Harvard Preschool Project?

1. Such children are good at problem solving.

2. They have an elaborate command of language.

3. They are both leaders and followers...complete social animals.

4. They know how to use adults as resources.

5. They engage freely in imaginative play with other children. (Trotter, 1976)

Then came a surprising discovery. Some three-year-olds in their study showed the same patterns. They were already doing better than others, and after a few years, the successful three-year-olds turned into the successful six-year-olds.

Such differences were not visible in 1 year olds. Evidently something important happened in a child's life between the age of 1 and 3. Before age 1, poverty, hardship, or poor parenting seemed to have little lasting effect, providing the child's circum­stances improved. How­ever, starting around age 1, parenting made a lasting difference.

Burton White reviewed a large amount of other evidence as well, and he concluded that parent-child relations were crucially important during the first three years of life. His book, The First Three Years (1978) made that case.

White gave advice for raising a compe­tent three year old who would turn into a competent six year old, basically starting life with a positive trajectory. Booksellers advertised it as "The most important guide to the early childhood development of infants and toddlers ever written."

What did Burton White recommend for the first three years of a baby's life?

White's book was also contro­versial, because White wrote that babies should not be left in day care centers during the first three years. Mothers and grand­mothers, he noted, were the traditional caretakers for children, and they seemed to have the best record of supplying the intensive love and attention needed by toddlers.

White's book came out when woman's liberation movements were well accepted in American urban centers and campuses, and some working women took offense at White's suggestion. They called it mysogynistic or sexist, implying that women should stay home and take care of babies.

By the decade of the 2010s, something called the "First Three Years move­ment" was happening in Britain. A book titled Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens by Allen and Smith (2010) was typical in claiming that evidence from neuroscience now explained why early conditions were so crucial: bigger brains were the result, with more synapses.

The book opened with a pair of brain scans. One, from a well-nurtured three year old, was large and healthy. The other, from an abused child, was shriveled and unhealthy. The authors, both politicians in the U.K., called for urgent action to avoid "a new genera­tion of disturbed and aggressive young people" and "social breakdown".

Some scientists responded thaat these neuroscience studies (and fMRI scans in particular) were not good evidence. The two brain images, in particular, were not accom­panied by any data indicating where the "abused" brain came from or how this might be linked to parenting.

A philosopher named John Bruer authored a book titled, "The Myth of the First Three Years." His main argument was that (a) the neuroscience evidence cited by people like Allen and Smith was flimsy, and (b) "learning and cognitive devel­opment occur throughout childhood and, indeed, one's entire life" and therefore the First Three Years movement "overemphasizes infant and toddler nurturing to the detriment of long-term parental and educational responsibil­ities."

Allen's intent may have been to rebut the political implications of the First Three Years movement and sugges­tions the government should be intervening to support childcare. His arguments bore little relevance to Burton White's thesis about the importance of parenting during the first three years.

Burton White's actual recommendations were simple. Give the baby love and encouragement, first. Then, to stimulate the development of an active, curious, socially competent three-year-old, White recommended baby-proofing a house (making it safe for exploration). When the baby reached crawling age, let the baby explore the house at will.

The parent, he said, should remain alert for emergencies and dangers and should serve as a "consultant" when the baby needs help. Being a consultant meant staying nearby and being available to the child for help on short notice. (Note that this does not preclude working at home, although the caretaker should remain available.)

According to White, actual periods of contact between parents and roving 1 year olds might only be 10-20 seconds long. Yet these interactions would come at crucial times, such as when the baby was hurt, or when something desirable was out of reach.

Most important of all during those first three years, of course, is a loving and trusting relationship between parent and child. The "Catch Them Being Good" philosophy described in Chapter 5 is fully consistent with this, and it is appropriate for all ages, not just 1 to 3.

Socialization and Sex Roles

Socialization is the name for the process by which young humans are taught to fit into society. Sex role socialization is the process of learning a society's roles for males and females.

Psychologists have done many intriguing studies on these processes. From an early age, boys and girls are treated differently.

What is socialization? How does it influence sex roles?

In the 1970s, it was widely assumed that children took on stereotyped sex roles only because of external pressures. The idea that gender stereotypical prefer­ences in toys or preferred activities might come from the child was not seriously entertained.

Psychologists did not have to look hard to find evidence of social pressures toward conventional sex roles. In one classic study, mothers were asked to interact with a baby who was less than a year old.

Typically, if the baby was called a girl, they offered it a doll. If the same baby was referred to as a boy, they offered it a toy train (Will, Self, and Datan, 1976).

Similarly, Condry and Condry (1976) showed college students a video recording of a baby reacting strongly to a jack-in-the-box. If told the baby was a boy, the students were likely to label the baby's reaction anger; if told the baby was a girl, they were more likely to label it fear.

A 2010 attempt to replicate the Condry and Condry experiment failed. Now students showed no tendency to change their labels for a baby's behavior. Was the replication incomplete? Had cultural norms changed?

It is hard to say; negative findings are always ambiguous. Some aspect of the replication could have been different. The 1970s study might have suffered from an experimenter effect, and there are many other possibilities.

Most research in the 1970s and 1980s showed that people of all ages endorsed gender based stereotypes. Kuhn, Nash and Brucken (1978) reported that even children aged two and a half to three and a half years old reported the following beliefs:

like to play with dollslike to play with cars
like to help motherlike to help father
talk a lotlike to build things
never hitsay, "I can hit you"
say, "I need some help"will grow up to be boss
will grow up to be a nurse or a teacher

What stereotypes were endorsed by 3 year olds in the 1970s?

Other studies showed that fathers reacted negatively when their boys played with dolls or dressed in girl clothes (Langlois and Downs, 1980). Household assignments were found to reflect sexual stereotypes.

Girls were usually asked to care for younger children or help with the housework. Boys were more likely to be invited to help with yard work such as raking leaves or cutting grass (Block, 1979).

How do parents reinforce sex roles as children grow up?

These studies had an impact on stu­dents who heard about them in psych­ology classes of the time. Many wondered if they would someday fall into the trap of programming their children with limiting sex role stereotypes.

When these students became parents in the 1980s and 1990s, some bought gender-neutral toys for their children, or deliberately bought toy cars for girls and dolls for boys. The children themselves often rebelled at this, and comical articles by parents admitting defeat appeared in magazines.

What did many well-educated American parents do in the 1970s and 80s?

Compelling evidence for the inner origins of gender-typical behavior started to accumulate. One of the most convincing case histories was the case of the boy raised as a girl, which we will detail in Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship, and Love). The inner sense of gender identity overpowered all external attempts at determining gender.

To this day, toy stores have a blue aisle and a pink aisle. However, parents are now more inclined to think that toy preferences are a result of gender differences, not a cause of them.

What was evidence of peer influences in three-year-olds?

Whatever differences naturally exist can be amplified by peer pressure. Even as young as 2 or 3, children are influenced by peers.

Shutts, Banaji, and Spelke (2010) did an experiment in which 32 three-year-old children watched videos of two children expressing a preference for different novel objects. Pairs of children in the videos were varied by race and gender.

The results? Three year olds preferred objects selected by their own gender. Race, on the other hand, did not affect their choices.

Growth Spurts

The research summarized so far sug­gests continuity in development. Winner three year olds turn into winner six year olds. Shyness remains consistent into adulthood.

However, development is not always smooth and gradual. Parents commonly observe growth spurts of both the physical and cognitive variety in children.

How does normal development resemble "punctuated equilibrium"?

Pediatrician T. Barry Brazelton noted in Touchpoints: Birth to Three (1992) that babies may become irritable before a growth spurt or emergence of new cognitive abilities. Children may give the impression of being on a plateau for a while, not moving forward, and then suddenly they make a jump in ability.

Lampl, Veldhuis, and Johnson (1992) documented this pattern in the realm of physical growth, showing that "90-95% of development during infancy is growth-free." The same may well be true of cognitive development. Most change occurs in relatively sudden leaps from one level to another.

A pattern of jumping from level to level, in development, is called saltation. The pattern of staying the same, in an equilibrium, is called stasis. Especially in babyhood, but probably throughout life, cognitive development tends to occur in alternating periods of stasis and saltation.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist we will discuss in coming pages, had a similar concept called equilibration. He believed children created a stable way of thinking about the world, then moved up a notch in complexity when they were ready, with little time spent in transitional states.

This pattern is familiar to biologists in the realm of biological evolution, where it is called punctuated equilibrium (Eldridge and Gould, 1972). Quick change is followed by a period of stability, so over long periods of time evolution may appear as a succession of changes interspered with periods of little change.

During infancy, growth spurts may occur when a baby suddenly transitions from crawling to walking. A two-year old may suddenly grasp the idea of making sentences, or drawing stick-figures of people.

Manners can suddenly kick in, as a child learns to say "Please" and "Thank you." Each of these advances occurs relatively suddenly as a separate spurt of growth. The cumu­lative effect is what we call cognitive development.


Allen, G. and Duncan Smith, I. (2008) Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. London: Centre for Social Justice and the Smith Institute.

Block, J. H. (1979). Another look at sex differentiation in the socialization behaviors of mothers and fathers. In F. L. Denmark & J. Sherman (Eds.), Psychology of women: Future directions for research. New York: Psychological Dimensions, Inc.

Brazelton, T. B. (1992) Touchpoints: Birth to Three Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong.

Bruer, J. T. (1999) The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Condry, J., & Condry, S. (1976). Sex differences: A study of the eye of the beholder. Child Development, 47, 812-819.

Eldredge, N., & Gould, S. J. (1972). Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. In T. J. M. Schopf: Models In Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Co.

Kuhn, D., Nash, S. C., & Brucken, L. (1978) Sex role concepts of two- and three- year olds. Child Development, 1978, 445-451.

Lampl, M., Veldhuis, J. D., & Johnson, M. L. (1992). Saltation and stasis: A model of human growth. Science, 258, 801-803.

Langlois, J. H. & Downs, A. C. (1980) Mothers, fathers, and peers as socialization agents of sex-typed play behaviors in young children. Child Development, 51, 1237-1247.

Shutts, K., Banaji, M. R., & Spelke, E. S. (2010) Social categories guide young children's preferences for novel objects. Developmental Science, 13, 599-610. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00913.x

Steuer, F. B., Bode, B. C., Rada, K. A., & Hittner, J. B. (2010) Gender label and perceived infant emotionality: a partial replication of a classic study. Psychological Reports, 107, 139-144. doi:10.2466/07.10.17.PR0.107.4.139-144

Trotter, S. (1976, April) First two years of life found to be most critical. APA Monitor, p.4.

White, B. L. (1975) The First Three Years of Life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Will, J. A., Self, P. A., & Datan, N. (1976) Material behavior and perceived sex of infant. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 46, 135-139. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1976.tb01234.x

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