Changing the World, One Little Heart at a Time
[By L.R.Knost, author of Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages now available on Amazon and through other major retailers]
A recent article in the UK based news outlet, The Telegraph, shared a startling image of the differences between the brain of a three-year-old child raised in a nurturing environment and the brain of a three-year-old child who suffered from extreme neglect. The image of the neglected child’s brain lacked “some of the most fundamental areas present” in the image of the nurtured child’s brain. Those areas of deficit included areas determining intelligence, the capacity for self-control, and the ability to empathize. The differences between the two images were so shocking that the neglected three-year-old’s brain looked like one of a victim of brain trauma, but, in this case, it was solely deprivation of a nurturing caregiver that caused the deficiencies.
“Professor Allan Schore, of UCLA, who has surveyed the scientific literature and has made significant contributions to it, stresses that the growth of brain cells is a ‘consequence of an infant’s interaction with the main caregiver [usually the mother].’ The growth of the baby’s brain ‘literally requires positive interaction between mother and infant. The development of cerebral circuits depends on it.’”
The article goes on to discuss the fact that eighty percent of the brain cells that will develop in a person’s lifetime are created in the first two years, making any significant recovery of potential after that period difficult to impossible. “If the process of building brain cells and connections between them goes wrong, the deficits are permanent.”
While it may be hard to grasp the idea of permanent brain damage as a result of poor parenting, scientists have known as far back as the Harry Harlow studies on primates in 1957 and the world has seen in the heartbreaking images of the neglect in the 1990 expose of the Romanian orphanage system that a nurturing, care-giving environment is essential to normal intellectual, emotional, and social development.
“This discovery has enormous implications for social policy. It explains two very persistent features of our society…Chronic disadvantage reproduces itself across generations of the same families. There is a cycle of deprivation – lack of educational attainment, persistent unemployment, poverty, addiction, crime – which, once a family is in it, has proved almost impossible to break…Parents who, because their parents neglected them, do not have fully developed brains, neglect their own children in a similar way: their own children’s brains suffer from the same lack of development that blighted their own lives. They, too, are likely to fail at school, to be liable to get addicted to drugs, to be unable to hold down a job, and to have a propensity to violence.
The second persistent feature is the dismal failure of rehabilitation programmes that aim to diminish the rate at which persistent young offenders commit crimes. Many different approaches have been tried, from intensive supervision to taking young offenders on safaris, but none has worked reliably or effectively. Recent research indicates that a large majority – perhaps more than three quarters – of persistent young offenders have brains that have not developed properly. They have, that is, suffered from neglect in the first two years of life, which prevented their brains from growing.”
Decades of research, not to mention simple human experience, have confirmed the importance of an interactive, attentive, and responsive primary caregiver in early childhood. And yet, unlike the more family-centered societies in third world countries, most industrialized societies have embraced a far more detached parenting mode typified by practices such as sleep-training, schedule-based feeding, non-family care-giving, etc.
Additionally, public policies in the most advanced nations on earth tend to be skewed significantly toward housing the results of childhood neglect in prisons and homeless shelters rather than addressing the root issues of that neglect. Tax codes favor two-career families, thus making it more difficult for a parent to choose to remain at home and provide a stable, nurturing environment. Public funds are poured into educating parents about public health concerns like obesity and smoking and vaccinations rather than into early parenting support such as breastfeeding education and crisis resources and information on normal child development and behavior.
The lost potential in the lives of these children and the resultant social issues because of short-sighted public policies is as unconscionable as it is unnecessary. Public attitudes must shift from “somebody should do something” to “let’s address this together,” and we need to go further than just reaching out to troubled children. While that is a vital step, and nurturing from another family member or a mentor can have a significant positive influence on a troubled child, that influence may be limited by brain deficiencies and associated negative behavioral patterns already in place due to neglect.
Let’s also go back to the beginning, though, and address the issues preemptively. Let’s reach out to families in need with our hearts instead of just our tax dollars. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world by mentoring struggling parents in our communities, organizing local outreaches such as parenting fairs, and supporting community centers and churches that provide weekly mommy and me classes or mom’s day out resources. Let’s provide schools with information packets about optimal early childhood care to send home with students with new babies in their families.
Let’s contact our local universities and ask them to consider giving college credit for early education/social work/nursing students, etc. to spend a certain number of hours every week mentoring at-risk new mothers. Let’s contact our government officials and petition them to implement tax breaks and incentives to stay-at-home parents with young children and to employers to encourage them to offer extended maternity leaves.
The research has been done. The reports have been written. The evidence is clear. Parents matter. Parenting choices have a profound impact on children and the people they will become, and the people they become will shape the world we all share.
Join Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources in changing the world, one little heart at a time. ♥
*Also published in The Natural Parent Magazine