A panel of experts on childhood -- renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and 14 Prince George's County children and teenagers -- recently gave an audience of 400 at Northwestern High School in Adelphi a glimpse into the world of children.
"Parents care so much they can't smile," said Brazelton, a popular author on infant development. "They can't smile and give children a feeling of the excitement of being a parent. I would like to look at what can be done to get parents to relax and not to take (parenthood) quite so seriously."
The childeren, for their part, described the world as they see it.
"As children, we will always look for some signs of approval from our parents," said Ky-Huong thi Pham, 14, a student at Northwestern High School.
"Parents tend to be very overprotective," advised Judy Myers, 10, Hyattsville. "Before I turned 10 it was always, Don't do this, don't do that.' I mean, we can do things."
The event was sponsored by the Prince George's County Committee for the International Year of the Child and the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs.
Historically, the medical profession has treated newborn infants as if they "are unfeeling, as if they are unresponsive, and (as if) they aren't people," said Brazelton, who is chief of child development at Children's Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
But the infant "is a pretty powerful little number who can tell you what is happening to him," Brazelton said. Babies only a few hours old will reach toward their mothers with everything the y have -- their hands, arms, fingers, even their toes and mouths reach toward their mothers, he said.
He showed three-minute films of mothers and their 100-day-old babies interacting. His researchers spend up to 23 hours analyzing movements made by the infants during each three-miute segment.
Infant responses are more complex and more specific than is generally recognized, Brazelton said. By watching a finger or a toe, Brazelton said, he could tell whether the infant was reacting to an object or to a person, and whether that person was mother, father or a stranger.
Brazelton said his research shows that babies begin to learn about and respond to their world long before birth. Likewise mothers, he said, get to know their babies before they are born. The process "energizes" parents and prepares them for "any kind of baby they get," he said.
The natural exchange of cooing and smiles between mother and infant is critically important to their intellectual development in later years. Talking and singing to an infant can improve his IQ score by 12 to 15 points, he said. When mothers are shown how important they are to new babies, Brazelton said, and natural inclination to respond is encouraged, maternal care improves.
In an experiment with unwed teenaged mothers in a Boston ghetto, doctors spent five to eight minutes with the new mothers, showing them how an infant chooses his mother's voice and follows her face in preference to others.
"I've never seen a mother who didn't automatically reach for that baby," Brazelton said.
These mothers never missed pediatric appointment and nearly every child was immunized against childhood diseases. But mothers in a control group who had been shown simply how to bathe, diaper and feed their babies missed nearly half their babies' pediatric appointments and only 48 percent of the children were immunized.
The other panelists gave sometimes funny, sometimes profound answers to questions posed by moderator Bonnie F. Johns, a member of the Prince George's County school board.
"Suppose you could wipe away one problem in the world," Johns asked the children. "What problem would you most like to see disappear?"
"Greed for world power," said Kathleen Julian, 15, of Forrestville.
"I'd like to get rid of war and pollution and trash and anything that kills somebody, like disease," said Tracy Sherwin, 11, of Andrews Air Force Base.
"Child abuse," said Phnonya Collins, 11, Riverdale.
John asked the children how they handle competition.
"The bad thing about competition is that it makes people nervous and worried about unimportant things," said Brian Head, 15, Adelphi. "But the good thing is that you can improve when you see what a fellow classmate is doing, so there are two sides to the story."
"My mother told me to say this," said Judy Myers, giggling and glancing at her mother in the second row. "She says I usually don't have any competition. I usually come out winning."
On the subject of what parents do wrong, the children had an impressive list of unfair practices. Parents tell children, "Do as I say, not as I do," compare one child with another and sometimes cannot decide whether a child is too young for one thing or too old for something else.
"I had a friend a few days ago who came home from school and didn't do the dishes as she was supposed to," said Tracy."She was put on restriction for two days. I think parents get carried away with discipline for children."