It's also a great relief. This is going to sound weird I think, but after reading a lot about child development it's pretty clear that by age 2 or 3, most of the heavy lifting of parenting has already been done. That's not to say that nothing you do after that age matters, and of course humans develop throughout life. But for the most part, by preschool children have already developed their core personality, their social style (how they approach the world) and virtually all of their brain function.
|The concrete results of bad parenting (link)|
During the first three years of life, the human brain develops to 90 percent of adult size and puts in place the majority of systems and structures that will be responsible for all future emotional, behavioral, social and physiological functioning during the rest of life. There are critical periods during which bonding experiences must be present for the brain systems responsible for attachment to develop normally. These critical periods appear to be in the first year of life and are related to the capacity of the infant and caregiver to develop a positive interactive relationship. (whole article here)And this is from a man whose life's work is healing troubled children (in other words, someone with a strong belief that children with problems can be helped).
In other words, bad parenting in the first three years (and particularly in the first year) is totally disastrous and potentially unfixable. But if all goes well during this period, then barring unusual or highly traumatic circumstances it's pretty likely that a person will have a normal and successful life. Wait a few years--until the child is 7--and this is even more the case. In fact, in many societies throughout history children of around this age were sent away from home and received only occasional parenting afterwards (see: pretty much the entire British ruling class until the middle of the 20th century, including greats like Winston Churchill, George Orwell and Charles Darwin). (Conversely, babies who receive only occasional parenting either die or become profoundly disabled and dysfunctional.)
Parenting matters, a lot: but only for a little while. I am making a huge investment of time and energy in R at the moment, but soon enough she will be securely placed on the right track (and in fact I can see that day approaching). It's almost as if a baby were a machine: get them running properly, and then they will keep on that way with little additional effort required. Then it's just about making minor adjustments or correcting for environmental changes.