When it comes to child development, it’s been said that the most crucial milestones in a kid’s life occur by the age of 7. In fact, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”
As a parent, taking this theory to heart can cause waves of anxiety. Was my daughter’s overall cognitive and psychological health truly determined in the first 2,555 days of her existence?
But like parenting styles, child development theories can also become antiquated and disproven. For example, in the 1940s and 50s, pediatricians believed feeding babies formula was better than breastfeeding them. And it wasn’t long ago that doctors thought parents would “spoil” their infants by holding them too much. Today, both theories have been discounted.
With these facts in mind, we have to wonder if any recent research backs up Aristotle’s hypothesis. In other words, is there a playbook for parents to ensure our kids’ future success and happiness?
Like many aspects of parenting, the answer isn’t black or white. While creating a safe environment for our children is essential, imperfect conditions like early trauma, illness, or injury don’t necessarily determine our kid’s entire well-being. So the first seven years of life might not mean everything, at least not in a finite way — but studies do show these seven years hold some importance in your child developing social skills.
In the first years of life, the brain rapidly develops its mapping system
Data from Harvard University shows the brain develops rapidly during the first years of life. Before children turn 3 years old, they’re already forming 1 million neural connections every minute. These links become the brain’s mapping system, formed by a combination of nature and nurture, especially “serve and return” interactions.
In a baby’s first year of life, cries are common signals for a caregiver’s nurturing. The serve and return interaction here is when the caregiver responds to the baby’s crying by feeding them, changing their diaper, or rocking them to sleep.
However, as infants become toddlers, serve and return interactions can be expressed by playing make-believe games, too. These interactions tell children that you’re paying attention and engaged with what they’re trying to say. It can form the foundation for how a child learns social norms, communication skills, and relationship ins and outs.
As a toddler, my daughter loved playing a game where she’d flip off the lights and say, “Go to sleep!” I’d close my eyes and flop over on the couch, making her giggle. Then she’d command me to wake up. My responses were validating, and our back-and-forth interaction became the heart of the game.
“We know from neuroscience that neurons that fire together, wire together,” says Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist specializing in attachment and trauma. “Neural connections are like the roots of a tree, the foundation from which all growth occurs,” she says.
This makes it seem like life stressors — such as financial worries, relationship struggles, and illness — will severely impact your child’s development, especially if they interrupt your serve and return interactions. But while the fear that an overly busy work schedule or that the distraction of smartphones may cause lasting, negative effects can be a concern, they don’t make anyone a bad parent.
Missing occasional serve and return cues won’t halter our kid’s brain development. This is because intermittent “missed” moments don’t always become dysfunctional patterns. But for parents who have continuous life stressors, it’s important to not neglect engaging with your children during these early years. Learning tools like mindfulness can help parents become more “present” with their kids.
By paying attention to the present moment and limiting daily distractions, our attention will have an easier time noticing our child’s requests for connection. Exercising this awareness is an important skill: Serve and return interactions can affect a child’s attachment style, impacting how they develop future relationships.
Attachment styles affect how one develops future relationships
Attachment styles are another crucial part of child development. They stem from the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth. In 1969, Ainsworth conducted research known as the “strange situation.” She observed how babies reacted when their mom left the room, as well as how they responded when she returned. Based on her observations, she concluded there are four attachment styles children can have:
Ainsworth found that secure children feel distressed when their caregiver leaves, but comforted upon their return. On the other hand, anxious-insecure children become upset before the caregiver leaves and clingy when they come back.
Anxious-avoidant children aren’t upset by their caregiver’s absence, nor are they delighted when they reenter the room. Then there’s disorganized attachment. This applies to children who are physically and emotionally abused. Disorganized attachment makes it difficult for children to feel comforted by caregivers — even when caregivers aren’t hurtful.
“If parents are ‘good enough’ tending and attuned to their kids, 30 percent of the time, the child develops secure attachment,” says Hendel. She adds, “Attachment is resilience to meet life’s challenges.” And secure attachment is the ideal style.
Securely attached kids may feel sad when their parents leave, but are able to remain comforted by other caregivers. They’re also delighted when their parents return, showing that they realize relationships are trustworthy and reliable. As the grow up, securely attached children rely on relationships with parents, teachers, and friends for guidance. They view these interactions as “safe” places where their needs are met.
Attachment styles are set early in life and can impact a person’s relationship satisfaction in adulthood. As a psychologist, I’ve seen how one’s attachment style can impact their intimate relationships. For example, adults whose parents cared for their safety needs by providing food and shelter but neglected their emotional needs are more likely to develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style.
These adults often fear too much close contact and may even “reject” others to protect themselves from pain. Anxious-insecure adults may fear abandonment, making them hypersensitive to rejection.
But having a specific attachment style isn’t the end of the story. I’ve treated many people who weren’t securely attached, but developed healthier relational patterns by coming to therapy.
By the age of 7, kids are putting the pieces together
While the first seven years don’t determine a child’s happiness for life, the rapidly growing brain lies down a sturdy foundation for how they communicate and interact with the world by processing how they’re being responded to.
By the time kids reach first or second grade, they begin to separate from primary caregivers by making friends of their own. They also start to long for peer acceptance and are better equipped to talk about their feelings.
When my daughter was 7 years old, she was able to verbalize her desire to find a good friend. She also began putting concepts together as a way to express her feelings.
For example, she once called me a “heartbreaker” for refusing to give her candy after school. When I asked her to define “heartbreaker,” she accurately responded, “It’s someone who hurts your feelings because they don’t give you what you want.”
Seven-year-olds can also make deeper meaning of the information that surrounds them. They may be able to talk in metaphor, reflecting an ability to think more broadly. My daughter once innocently asked, “When will the rain stop dancing?” In her mind, the movement of raindrops resembled dance moves.
Is ‘good enough’ good enough?
It might not sound aspirational, but parenting “good enough” — that is, fulfilling our children’s physical and emotional needs by making meals, tucking them into bed each night, responding to signs of distress, and enjoying moments of delight — can help children develop healthy neural connections.
And this is what helps build a secure attachment style and helps children meet developmental milestones in stride. On the cusp of entering “tweendom,” 7-year-olds have mastered many developmental childhood tasks, setting the stage for the next phase of growth.
Like mother, like daughter; like father, like son — in many ways, these old words ring as true as Aristotle’s. As parents, we can’t control every aspect of our kid’s well-being. But what we can do is set them up for success by engaging with them as a trustworthy adult. We can show them how we manage big feelings, so that when they experience their own failed relationships, divorce, or work stress, they can think back to how Mom or Dad reacted when they were young.