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Your Childhood Is Crucial to How You'll Age

Early relationships with your parents have a profound impact on your health and outlook on life

By George Vaillant

If the child really is father to the man, then it's reasonable to ask: Why is that true?
This is not a simple question. But research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development allowed me to link childhood environments with men's lives in old age. The project, commonly known as the Harvard Grant Study, is the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken. Begun in 1938, it has charted the emotional and physical growth of more than 200 men, starting in their undergraduate days at Harvard University.

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For the study, research associates assessed the childhoods of 268 Harvard sophomores and, separately, 456 disadvantaged inner-city youth. At least two independent raters, blind to the men's identities, reviewed each subject's answers to questions about their childhoods. In all cases parents were interviewed, too. The raters were kept ignorant of the fate of the men after adolescence. Rater reliability was excellent.

The goal was to use the assessments to answer these questions:

  • Was the home atmosphere warm and stable?
  • Was the boy's relationship with his mother (and, separately, his father) warm and encouraging, conducive to autonomy and supportive of initiative and self-esteem?
  • Would the rater have wished to grow up in that home environment?
  • Was the boy close to at least one sibling?

Researchers discovered that wealth and status, to the extent that they correlated with successful aging, were not predicted by social privilege in youth, but instead by childhoods experienced as warm and intimate.

Upending Expectations

There were other surprises as well. For example, among the college men, achievement of high military rank in World War II correlated more highly with a warm childhood than with social class, athletic success or intelligence. For the 456 inner-city men, none of whose parents were wealthy, warm childhoods and friendships were best the predictors of high income.

Equally important, what went wrong in childhood predicted future income and social class less robustly than childhood strengths. The early study staff noted that neither strict nor liberal toilet training exerted any significant effect on future personality.

Another faulty assumption, based on retrospective "evidence," is that alcoholism is "caused" by an unhappy childhood. Data from our inner-city sample suggests that alcoholism is caused more by heredity than environment. An alcoholic parent appears in the childhoods of many alcoholics, leading to a miserable upbringing as well as future alcoholism. However, miserable childhoods without a biological alcoholic parent do not lead to alcoholism.
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The college men in the bottom and top fifths of the study's scale of childhood warmth were termed the Loveless and the Cherished. By age 50, half of the Cherished, but only an eighth of the Loveless, had made excellent adjustments to adulthood. By the time the men were 70, only a seventh of the Cherished, but fully half the Loveless, had at one time been diagnosed as mentally ill, under which rubric we included serious depression, drug or alcohol abuse or a need for extended psychiatric care (more than 100 visits) or hospitalization.

The Loveless were five times as likely as the Cherished to be unusually anxious. They took more prescription drugs of all kinds and were twice as likely to seek medical attention for minor physical complaints. Warm childhoods were often followed by heavy smoking, alcohol abuse or regular tranquilizer use, but bleak childhoods were often associated with all three.


Unhappy Childhood and Lonely Old Age

The cruelest aspect of a bleak childhood was its correlation with friendlessness at the end of life. The Cherished were five times more likely to be rich in friendships and other social supports at 70 than the Loveless, who often trusted neither the universe nor their emotions and remained essentially friendless for much of their lives.

The Loveless were more likely than the Cherished to be pessimistic and self-doubting. Perhaps this is why many of them were unable to take love in, even when it was offered, or fearful about offering love themselves. However — and this is important — there were many Loveless who, often through good marriage, learned to adapt to life successfully by 70 or 80.

The study found some facets of adulthood in which a good relationship with a parent, but not the other, exerted significant influence. When I first began to analyze the effects of childhood on adults, it looked as if the total childhood environment was more important than the maternal relationship alone. But as decades passed and the subjects aged, this impression proved misleading.
Positive boyhood relationships with mothers were associated with: effectiveness at work, high maximum income, continuing to work until 70 and mental competence at 80. A poor relationship with one's mother was significantly associated with dementia. Yet none of these outcomes was even suggestively associated with the quality of a college man's relationship with his father.
Warm relationships with fathers (but not mothers) did enhance the men's capacity to play. For example, men with warm paternal relationships enjoyed their vacations significantly more than others, employed humor more as a coping mechanism and achieved significantly better adjustment to, and contentment with, life after retirement. Men with good fathering also manifested less anxiety — a significantly lower standing-pulse-rate in college, for example — and fewer physical and mental symptoms under stress in young adulthood.

Men with poor fathering were much more likely to call themselves pessimists, to report having trouble letting others get close and to report low life satisfaction at 75. None of these variables were associated with the maternal relationship. And, counterintuitively, it was the men with poor fathering, not poor mothering, who were significantly more likely to have unhappy marriages. All five of the men who reported that marriage without sex would suit them had poor paternal relationships, but the adequacy or inadequacy of their mothering was evenly distributed.
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Finally, how the men adapted to a loving or bleak childhood had as much to do with future success as childhood itself.

Of 26 personality traits assessed when the college men were 21, the trait called "Practical, Organized" best predicted good adjustment from ages 30 through 50. Similarly, the 90-year-old Terman Study of adult development, which included women, found that prudence, forethought, willpower and perseverance in junior high school were the best predictors of vocational success at age 50. It's hard not to believe that these are precisely the traits people need to find ways around failures and to capitalize on successes when they come along.

The Harvard study makes clear that global disruptions of childhood have strong predictive power, none of it good. Children who fail to learn basic love and trust at home are handicapped later in mastering the assertiveness, initiative and autonomy that are the foundation of successful adulthood. Mental illness and alcoholism create conditions that can ravage entire families and destroy children's futures for decades to come.

Excerpted from TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE: THE MEN OF THE HARVARD GRANT STUDY by George E. Vaillant, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 George E. Vaillant. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

George Vaillant is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Read More
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