Four days before I delivered my (feisty, independent, brave) daughter, in the fall of 2003, I waddled onto a stage to speak at a local conference on early childhood development. Over the year or so leading up to that date I had been working with a coalition of healthcare, social service, education and public sector leaders to develop a campaign highlighting the importance of the “first years,” ages zero to three in a child’s life.
The primary impetus behind our campaign work was the seemingly clear and direct link between early childhood trauma and teen/adult violent behavior. Following the work of Robin Karr-Morse (“Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence“), the basic idea was that an investment in early childhood was the best, most effective way to prevent crime and improve education, crime and education being the top priorities in our community.
In case this topic has never come onto your radar, here’s a grossly abbreviated summary: The human brain develops more rapidly in the first three years of life than at any other time, reaching 80% of its full adult size by age two or three and 90-95% of adult size by age six. During these early years, the brain, according to neuroscientists, is highly malleable. It’s a time of great discovery and development – or not. What happens in the first years – when children seem, from the outside, not to be doing much – sets in motion all future development.
So there I was on stage, pregnant and unable to catch my breath (because, very pregnant) talking about websites and billboards and TV ads to encourage parents to talk to their babies, hold them, read to them, nurture them, because “the first years last a lifetime.” I believed it then; I still believe it, now.
Next on the program agenda was the main speaker, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, author of the book “Neurons to Neighborhoods” and director of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child. Dr. Shonkoff began his presentation with brain imaging studies that compared brain activity in different scenarios. When children were exposed to nurturing words, soothing sounds, stimulating environments, et cetera, their brains went wild with activity, making new connections and growing. When children were exposed to harsh words, maltreatment, or isolation, brain activity basically shut down. Thus, exposure to trauma in a child’s early years limits that child’s ability to learn and grow.
While the bulk of his presentation was scientific and research-based and incredibly interesting, what I remember most were his concluding statements. In traveling the world, speaking at various conferences, Shonkoff observed stark differences between the way children were valued (his word) in the U.S. in comparison to other countries. His final statement was something to the effect of this: When we in the United States begin to value children, truly value what it means to support children, then we’ll begin to see a different future.
So that was the idea, back in 2003, to invest in building awareness about early childhood development because science proved its importance. And the way we were going to get started, here in Memphis, one of the poorest cities with one of this highest rates of violent crime, was through community education first, followed by public policy, followed by tangible work – nurse home visitation, parenting centers, and so on. It would be a long work.
In the dozen-plus years since then, brain-based study has continued to evolve. Human brains, we know now, develop more gradually than once thought, not reaching full maturity until around age 25. While the young child’s brain is busy absorbing information, the teen brain is learning how to process it, and the young adult brain is finalizing how to use it, how to develop executive function. Impulse control begins to develop in the early stages of toddlerhood but doesn’t fully mature until the early to mid 20s.
All of this scientific research also backs what we have known all along: interaction with others – adults in particular – is critical to the entire process. The ability to form relationships, to connect with others, is fundamentally essential. As Dr. Bruce Perry, keynote speaker last week at the 2016 version of that 2003 early childhood conference, said: humans don’t have body armor; we can’t shoot poison darts from our tongues. When it’s man alone versus tiger, the tiger wins. Our brains are wired for community, and it’s the communal aspect of human development that protects us, allows us to keep going, to thrive.
We know this, both intellectually and at an emotional level. We know that our collective ability to survive depends upon our collective cooperation. Still, we fight. Even when we agree on “what,” we often disagree on “how.” We dig in, us versus them. This is where we always get it wrong. We’d all be fine if “those people” didn’t have such crummy home environments. Yep, if only those people didn’t raise _____ (racists, rapists, junkies, bigots). If those people didn’t teach their children words like ______ (nigger, deplorables, pussy, super predator, fascist), then nobody would have a single problem.
Back in 2003 these judgments were private, discussed in small circles, if at all. Now, in 2016, they’re on public display. As Neal Gabler wrote last week, our thin veneer of civility is gone. Words we (some of us, anyway) thought shelved long ago have come right back into the open. What seemed like an agreed-upon code of conduct was very clearly not agreed upon in earnest by all.
And so, here we are, with everything out on the table. There’s no way back now, only forward.
Similar to the way in which science teaches us about brain architecture and the patterns of human physical development, history teaches us about the patterns of social development. According to history, what is happening now, in the U.S. and in the world, is part of our natural cycle. There are many differences, to be sure (starting with the scale of world population). But there are too many similarities to ignore.
If things today feel like 1937 or 1787 or any other pre-revolutionary period in history, it’s because so many patterns appear to be the same. To normalize what’s happening, to pretend that we should just get back to business as usual, would be naive. We are in a time of great upheaval and change, one that did not begin merely a year ago. Studies of widening income inequality and predictions about its effect, for example, go back more than a decade. The eruption was coming. As my (insightful, reflective, brave) 15-year-old son said Tuesday morning when I dropped him at school, “There is no good outcome, Mama. It’s going to be ugly no matter what.” No way back, only forward. Here we are.
In the early work related to brain development, what was becoming apparent was a connection between early exposure to violence and later propensity to behave violently. Initial research led to more research; was it causation or correlation? Did all babies of drug-addicted mothers and abusive fathers grow up to be criminals themselves? Of course not; nor did all violent criminals come from violent homes.
Subsequent research has pointed to many factors that play roles in human brain development. If you’re willing to invest an hour in learning about it, watch Dr. Bruce Perry’s 2014 presentation at Notre Dame on this topic (essentially the same one he gave in Memphis last week). It’s both informative and entertaining, I promise.
If you’re looking for just the upshot, then I suppose it’s this: Children whose lives are full of relationships and interactions develop resilience, and children who are isolated do not. We humans are wired for relationships, for community. This is true across race, ethnicity, religion and income level. It’s true across traditional and non-traditional marriage. It’s true of children born into or outside of wedlock.
It’s also true across our entire development, not simply during childhood. The more we are able to build relationships, the stronger we’ll be. The more we isolate ourselves or others, the worse this is going to get.
So, we’ve stripped away the veneer of civility. Pandora’s Box is open; things said and done cannot be taken back. Instead of trying to push the vileness back inside, now we must reach into the toxic stew to look for fragments of agreement, places where we can reconnect – reconnect, not surrender. Support one another, reach out to those on the margins. Listen. Teach our children tolerance and love and patience. Maintain resolve, build resilience. It will be a long work. The important work always is.
Food | Week of November 14, 2016
I’ll be in Detroit; wish my family healthy eating in my absence.
Here are the suggestions I’m leaving for them:
Anything from NYT What to Cook this Week