Prevention is the only long-term workable solution, but how can we prevent poor life skills? The answer to that is understanding how we learned the life skills we each have in the first place.
Thanks to people like Clyde Hertzman and Michael Tomasello, we have a much more accurate picture of how all primates, not only humans, learn their most important life skills.
The development of our Life Skills for relationships, emotions, and making choices began at the moment of our conception, peaked when we were 18 months old, and matured before we started school.
For centuries, experts have argued which is more important, “Nature,” or “Nurture.” Which has more effect on our development they wonder; what we are born with, or what happens to us after we get here?
Consider these facts.
- The socioeconomic status, mood, and nutrition of the parents, from conception on, have life-long effects on the health, behavior, relationships, and mental stability of the child and, through them, future generations.
- Most of who we will be as an adult is determined by age three.
- Our brain and personality are basically mature by age five.
- Our life skills don’t change significantly after we are seven.
The inescapable conclusion is that how we are nurtured is most important. How we are treated in the womb and as a very young child determines the kind of adult we will eventually become.
Nurture dictates so much we did not know before, down to switching on, or off, gene systems that have life-long health and behavior consequences. Our mental and emotional development is finished before we have the thinking skills to evaluate what happened to us.
At the moment of conception, we not only inherit our physical genome, our physical characteristics, we inherit the environment into which we will be born. As a fetus, helpless baby, and developing child, we are completely subject to the levels of skill, nurturing, nutrition, coping, and perspective present in our family members, their friends, their religion, and their diet.
Considering the impact it will have on us, and through us to future generations, I have come to think of it as our Environmental Genome.
Children are the product of their environment. As tiny children, we use a very simple technique for learning, called Watch & Copy. We watched our parents, friends, family, teachers, preachers, and television celebrities, examples in our Environmental Genome, and we copied their behaviors. We figured out what we could do, what we couldn’t do, and what we could probably get away with.
Then we made up our own rules and we then practiced the rules we made up until they became our subconscious habits.
Obviously, we learn a lot of good things as young children, but at that time we are also unable to defend ourselves from the errors being programmed into our brains by the people in our environment. Remember this though, they too are doing the best they can with the skills they learned from their Environmental Genomes.
The skills we learn have very little to do with the broader world we will encounter as teens and adults because we either do not witness those skills in action, or we are purposely excluded from them because they are deemed not appropriate for children.
For example, as infants and small children, we do not go to “work.” All we know is one or both of our parents leave us to go somewhere they do not like to get something called money.
By the time our brain has developed the capacity to recognize the errors, the errors have already also become deeply ingrained habits and we don’t even question them, we just accept them as facts.
What we know about the world, our place in it, our limitations in it, and expectations of it, we learned from the people in our Environmental Genome.
As adults, we have become a composite of who those people were. What that means is there is no “authentic self,” so you can quit wasting time looking for it
Even if we did question the errors, we had no idea how to change them. It is not really possible to recall, let alone evaluate the correctness of, what was done to us in those early years because the connections to those memories is physically severed in our brains by sixteen to seventeen years of age. (Synaptic Pruning)
Since our memories about our early memories are terribly inaccurate, we need to give up the idea that understanding experiences from our past will somehow empower us to create a better future.
Instead, we should focus on what we can do differently, starting right now, to transform our lives. Our desire to change is the best evidence that we did not have better skills.
In the process of transformation, understanding the processes we used for learning during our early childhood, and how they shaped who we are today, will give us jump start on creating a very different future.
We need to embrace the facts, not the fantasy, of our identity. Who we are is the expression of skills we learned as tiny children. We can re-learn, upgrade, practice, and master better versions of those skills as adults.
In doing so, we will not only repair much of the inadvertent damage done to us, so our lives are significantly better, we can begin to nurture our children in ways that will allow them to realize more and more of the amazing potential humans have.
Our children will be the ultimate beneficiary of our personal transformation because they will be raised in a much more emotionally stable and peaceful Environmental Genome.
When we significantly improve the environment in which they develop, they will have the tools to figure out how to avoid repeating the same mistakes that have ruined countless lives and destroyed every civilization for the last 10 thousand years.
Our subconscious was programmed by the same brain processes we use to learn any skill. The toddler had no basis to understand what was happening, but, as adults, we can understand it very well and use it to update the programming we got in our first 1000 days.
Thankfully, the ability to change our mind instantly is built in, and the way our modern brain works can make updating our subconscious with better skills is a lot easier than we ever believed possible.