BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Catch Them Young was broadcast on Thursday, 26 August, 2004 at 20:30 BST.
Nursery for under-twos makes children aggressive and anti-social, smacking causes long-term emotional damage, bottle feeding increases the risk of obesity and parents need to be taught parenting skills.
Policy makers are becoming increasingly concerned with the long term consequences of childhood experiences. This concern is fuelled by the belief that the early years of life are crucial in shaping later life. Catch them young and save society trouble later on, runs the argument. As Hillary Clinton put it in a White House conference in 1997: "A child's earliest experiences ...determine how their brains are wired."
These experiences can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves. Last year, the British government's Green Paper "Every Child Matters" suggested that "the period from conception through to the start of school is crucial to later life chances."
The debate about the importance of the early years and the pros and cons of early nursery education; which has been running for a while in the USA, Canada and Australia, has now reached Britain. Pre-school children will be the main focus of Labour's five-year plan for education when it publishes its general election manifesto.
Last month the Chancellor, Gordon Brown announced 120,000 more childcare places by 2008, along with a pilot scheme offering a free part-time place for 12,000 two-year-olds in 500 disadvantaged areas.
From nursery education to parenting classes, policy is beginning to be shaped by the "catch them young" assumption. Many politicians and educational professionals in the UK agree with Hillary Clinton's statement and, like her, increasingly refer to findings from neuroscience to back up their belief that the first years are crucial.
Kenan Malik asks whether policies towards young children are based on reliable scientific evidence or on political claims.
Contributors include: Professor Norman Glass, founder of Britain's Sure Start programme, Professor John Bruer, author of The Myth of the First Three Years and Professor Usha Goswami who is setting up a Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University.
Presenter: Kenan Malik
Producer: Ingrid Hassler
Editor: Nicola Meyrick