It’s not fair

Although our six-year-old has to practice handwriting and using scissors a bit more to produce neater results he knows and uses the term “fine motor skills”. He reads in three languages on grade levels higher then his own.

He could learn to read because he can focus his attention on a certain task and persist until he is done. Sometimes when we play chess and I am ready to give up he’ll tell me: “No, mommy, we’re not done yet, you need to keep thinking!” He gets along well with his peers and makes new friends easily. Although he sometimes bites his older sisters when he is furious, he has the self-control not to use that behaviour at prep. He knows he is loved and is capable of extending his love to others. These skills are essential for children’s academic and social development.

What is not fair is that these vital building stones of human development – focused attention, self-regulation, and a healthy sense of self-worth – are not equally distributed among children. Some enjoy the effects of a nurturing environment, whereas others fall behind early on.

By age five there is a 30 million word-gap between children who belong to the highest and the lowest socioeconomic groups in society in Northern America. So the least advantaged children have been exposed to 30 million less words by their immediate environment, and consequently, the development of their impressive and expressive language skills will lag behind.  Differences in focused attention are huge because the brain is an organ where the rule is use it or lose it.

In countries with no access to universal early childhood education services the social gap – and with it, lost potential – is enormous. In Scandinavia, the preschools serve as a compensatory mechanism and are especially useful for children coming from disadvantaged families. The U.S. has launched a number of successful programs for early childhood education for low-income families, such as Early Head Start. Australia has got some catching up to do in this area!

The excellent book From Neurons to Neighborhoods (Shonkoff and Phillips, eds, 2000) summarises evidence from neuroscience, child development research, and molecular genetics. They shatter the controversy of “nature versus nurture” as a cause of developmental differences by presenting strong evidence that it is both. They make the case that no society can allow itself not to do everything in their might to provide safe, healthy, nurturing, and developing environments to all children.

The importance of the equal distribution of these commodities is described in a book I refer to as our ”bible”: Developmental health and the wealth of nations, edited by Daniel Keating and Clyde Hertzman, 1999. There is a Latin proverb: Nomen est omen – your name predicts what you might become. Hertzman can be translated to The Man of Heart and it is exactly what Clyde was.

I met him at his favourite breakfast place in Vancouver and he generously shared his experiences with me. He stressed the importance of speaking a language that politicians will understand and be able to act upon. Clyde Hertzman died recently, but if you want to see a truly inspiring video where he explains the complex issue of environmental effects on brain development in a simple way, do watch him speak here.

So what is not fair is that our son is fast asleep in his bed after a dinner with his family and a story read to him, while other children never get a chance to experience that. The tragedy is that so much of the ingredients of suboptimal development, such as insecure attachment, prenatal environmental hazards, chronic life stress, violent relationships, economic disadvantage, and low academic achievement seem to be “inherited” from one generation to the next.

The good news is that even if you are not in a position to make a difference for many children you can always be a significant adult in the life of at least one child – and I don’t mean your own. Children are wired for interaction and learning. So extend your love and attention to a child who needs it: read a story, show them affection, tell them everyone is good at something and the trick is only to find out at what. Show them they are worth loving for just whom they are. That will oil their brain wires for learning and experiencing.

If you are in a position to make a difference: do your part in making high quality early education accessible, affordable, and equitable.

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