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Hot stuff on little kids - Dr Mustard adds spice to the reading wars

By Glynne Sutcliffe - posted Monday, 2 April 2007

Fraser Mustard was in town, Adelaide’s Thinker in Residence, until the end of March this year. A Canadian doctor (surgeon) by profession he has developed a post-retirement specialist interest in research on the well-being of human populations. He has become a crusader: his cause the absolutely vital importance of early childhood if we wish to undergird or improve human life on this planet - in his words - to ensure that we have all nations with healthy, competent, high quality populations.

His Early Years Report to the Canadian Government in 2000 established his reputation both at home and abroad as a voice to be reckoned with.

The lectures he has been giving in Adelaide draw heavily and most directly from his more recent paper, Early Child Development and Experience-based Brain Development - the Scientific Underpinnings of the Importance of Early Child Development in a Globalised World, written in response to the World Bank’s request for guidance in specifying parameters within which global policy makers should work. He has added material specific to the Australian situation to ensure we are factored into the world scene.


Bringing up children has, by and large, been a haphazard “natural” process in human history, differentiated for the individual child by the personality quirks of their own particular parents as these are constrained or organised by specific cultural patterns or norms.

But now that we have become clever enough to identify what causes what, we can and should do our best both to avoid damaging children, and to ensure we maximise their options for fulfilling and productive adult lives. Children themselves stand to gain, but societies in general also stand to gain from maximising human happiness and productivity quotients.

One of the most persistent follies in the child-rearing culture endemic in Australia is the asserted belief that children should be left to their own devices.

The claims that “children should be allowed to play”, that they shouldn’t be “hot-housed”, and so on, are thinly disguised excuses for ignoring them as much as possible. Since children’s primary method of learning how to become an adult is to watch and copy adults, this approach has predictably poor outcomes. Alienation and depression are common phenomena underlying the fabled “She’ll be right, mate” “Everything’s fine” bonhomie supposed to characterise the long and lanky sunburnt Aussie. We should learn how to do better than this.

The most important contentions that have been put through Fraser Mustards’s research filter and come out fortified with hard data are:

First, that the human brain is the most important organ in the human body, because it registers and responds to life experiences, archives consciousness, and bears ultimate responsibility for emotions and behaviours (conditioned or “spontaneous”) as well as for “purely” intellectual calculations. (I am reminded of Melford Spiro’s toss aside remark that “all beliefs are motivated”.)


Second, that whatever the genetic potential children get from their parents, their actual experiences dramatically and extensively change and modify that potential. The brain is malleable, not a genetic given.

Third, that the shaping of the brain, the orientation of the personality, the establishment of the main lines of life long interests, proclivities, emotional patterns, passions, and competencies occurs during the earliest phases of an individual’s life. Fraser Mustard reasonably asserts that the overall key period is “from conception to six years of age”. Freud, the Catholic Church and the BBC in its famed longitudinal study Seven Up claim the years up to the seventh birthday are the most important. But this is to quibble. By Fraser Mustard’s reckoning, the first three years are even more important than the second three (or four) years. In his words, “experience-based brain development in the early years (conception to age six) sets pathways in brain development that affect learning, health, and behaviour throughout the life cycle”.

Fourth, that general health (as measured, for example, by longevity), positive behaviour patterns (i.e. without criminal or violent strands) and literacy and numeracy skills (as identified, for example, by school years test regimes) are all linked indicators of, as well as target areas for improvement in, individual and social well-being.

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About the Author

Glynne Sutcliffe MA (Chicago) BA (Hons Hist) Dip Ed (Melb) is a Director of the Early Reading Play School in South Australia.

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