Why 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
Originally Posted On April 15, 2014

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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.

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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.

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.
 
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.