We tend to overlook social and emotional development when it comes to observing our baby’s overall development. We take a closer look at motor milestones and worry about their future IQs. However, emotional stability and the ability to control and detect feelings is arguably a better predictor of success.

Don’t believe me, believe the science!

If the previous argument does not seem convincing, let’s recap a study that was conducted a few years ago.

In his famous marshmallow experiment, Walter Mischel studied delayed gratification with 4 year-olds. The children were given a marshmallow and were told that they could eat it now or wait until the experimenter came back 15 minutes later, in which case they would get another one. Some kids were unable to control their impulses, while others, although struggling and closing their eyes to avoid temptation, were able to wait for their reward. 

Further studies found that the performance on this marshmallow test predicted success at the end of high school more accurately than their IQ scores at that time. The children that had impulse control later did better on their SAT scores than those that were more impulse-driven. The first group was more conscientious and better socially adapted. Thus, all the intelligence in the world will not be effective if a child lacks emotional intelligence.

Where does social and emotional development happen?

The limbic system is the brain structure that is involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory, and it takes into account our innate temperament and our malleable personality. This system has a large set of neural structures that are molded by both nature and nurture.

“Temperament” refers to our innate emotional traits; it tends to evolve, but mostly remains stable throughout our lives. However, the environment can mold our limbic system through experiences and social interactions. This molding creates what we call our “personality”.

Why are some people more prone to negative personalities while others seem to be more optimistic?

These variations apply to social behaviors such as a shy personality versus a more outgoing and assertive personality. These differences are largely genetic, but they can be slightly molded at an early age. The limbic cortex is slow to develop, which is why babies don’t feel the same way an adult feels.

What about memory?

There are other parts of the limbic system that take longer to develop, such as structures associated with memory storage. This explains why most babies won’t remember early experiences.

Memory and emotion are anatomically linked, this is largely explained through evolutionary psychology. It is beneficial to remember something that is emotionally impacting. For example, babies recognize faces that caused them harm versus those that had a positive impact. They create an association and thus learn to avoid certain people and situations. If there is an inconsistency in this learning phase, they will likely fail to develop confidence and emotional security. Even if the child does not consciously remember a painful or fearful situation, their lower limbic system does store this emotion and the person associated with it.

Our social and emotional development is crucial and it impacts our future success. That’s why it is important to take a closer look into it and understand its bases, in order to take advantage of the possibility to harness this limbic molding with positive parenting.