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The excitement of learning how babies change parents' brains Add to ...

On Remembrance Day last year, I called Chaviva Hosek, president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. I knew Chaviva from her time as head of the policy unit in the Prime Minister's Office under Jean Chrétien, a position I often thought of as probably thankless in a managerial government, although Chaviva would certainly beg to differ.

We had scheduled a lunch for the following day at my office to catch up on life and the work of her group. I phoned that afternoon to suggest we have a quick sandwich and use the remaining time for her to review CIAR's research into early childhood development, long a personal interest, for a group of Globe editors.

I apparently have this habit of catching Chaviva unprepared and she has this habit of coming through anyway. Such was the case with her mini-seminar.

Her remarks on the most recent findings into the way children, particularly babies and toddlers, develop was spellbinding.

Humans are at their most violent as toddlers! Babies actually change the brain functions of their parents! Violent behaviour in adults can be traced back to toddlers!

To make it better, this was an area of research in which Canada is a world leader, with fascinating projects under way in all parts of the country.

There are times when one can feel the intellectual excitement rippling through a room.

When Chaviva took her leave, the editors were unanimous: Here was a worthy subject for a major Globe commitment.

Four months later we begin Starting from Zero, a riveting five-part examination of how our children turn out the way they do, and what we can do about it.

The series starts today in the Focus section and will run on Saturdays and Mondays until April 10.

Once we made our decision, which took all of five minutes, we set up a project team under Cathrin Bradbury, editor of our Weekend sections. She worked closely with Erin Elder, our photo editor, and her Focus team, particularly designer David Woodside and editor Carl Wilson.

We decided to keep the writing group tight, given the complexity of the material and the time it would take to understand it.

We chose two quick studies with strong storytelling skills -- Erin Anderssen, our social-trends reporter and a veteran of the New Canada project, and Anne McIlroy, the paper's science reporter.

The fact that Erin and Anne both happen to be recent inductees into the ranks of parenthood provided them with that extra curiosity about the material at hand.

Erin is the mother of three-year-old Noah and Anne is mother to 21/2-year-old Ella.

Both felt their dual roles -- parent and reporter -- sometimes blurring as they went about their interviews.

"I often had to fight the desire to break into an interview and say, 'well, I do this with my daughter, or is this how I respond when she beats up her doll?' " says Anne, who came away struck by how indifferent so many child-rearing advice books seem to the scientific knowledge.

As for Erin, she couldn't believe how many of the behaviours one witnesses in infants -- and their parents -- are hardwired into their genes. There is a reason, she concluded, why Noah loves to wrestle so much.

"Understanding why things happen that way really alters your perspective; it makes you parent more consciously," she says.

I can remember first hearing about early childhood development research in the mid-1990s. The CIAR, an entity that brings together researchers from all kinds of backgrounds and academic institutions, had launched a study, which posed the central question: Why are some people healthy while others are not?

It became apparent that more than income differentials were at play. The base for good health and other positive outcomes seemed rooted in early childhood experiences.

This insight led to the launching of a second, related, study in the early 1990s. Helped by new brain-mapping technologies, researchers began to probe the complex nexus between the social experiences of children, their brain development and how they turned out.

The research turned up intriguing patterns. Fraser Mustard, then head of the CIAR, took to the pulpit to spread the word that children become "hard-wired" between birth and six years of age and that if policy makers wanted to make a difference, they needed to direct resources to this early period.

Among those to whom Dr. Mustard told his story was Ms. Hosek, then working in the Prime Minister's Office and with an established interest in early childhood policy. In 2001, she moved over to head the CIAR as its network of researchers continued to dig deeper and deeper into the early childhood experience.

The research is incredibly creative and sophisticated -- particularly the relationship between social and biological developments -- and provides the basis for many of the stories in Starting from Zero.

The point of this all is to increase our understanding of early childhood experiences so as to improve the life chances of any given child, whether through better parenting methods or improved policy interventions.

"The door to development doesn't ever shut," Ms. Hosek notes, "but the impact of doing it right in the first few years is so huge that you want to make sure you do it right early on."

So please read on.

In listing our 13 National Newspaper Award nominations this week, I omitted the name of one finalist now in our camp. Christie Blatchford came to The Globe last summer from the National Post. So she played for both teams over the course of the last season and was nominated in the breaking news category for her tremendous work on the Holly Jones case, one of the Post's three nominations.

Christie has added hugely to our journalistic capacities over these past six months, and we expect to see her on the nomination list again next year -- but this time in The Globe column.

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