You may dispute the study that is referenced. You may dispute the comparisons made to our youngest and most vulnerable. However, it would surprise me if you dispute the logic: Children who grow up in neglect and despair are less likely to succeed in life, however you define that success.
A recent article broaches this subject from several angles. Appearing in The Huffington Post, it addresses issues of maternal attention (or lack thereof) that often results from income inequality – a catch-all phrase popping up constantly these days – which, for purposes of this discussion, we might refer to as poverty, or living in a low-income bracket.
Now, let’s get real. Early childhood experience shapes us. It is not the sole determinant of who we will become of course, and I would argue that geography is the most fundamental factor in setting the stage for an individual’s future. That said, research reflects how vital those first few years are for everything that follows.
Education, Early Childhood Education, Benign Neglect
In “Not Everyone Has the Tools to Become Rich: How Our Childhood Shapes Our Ability to Succeed,” writer, historian, and college lecturer Anthony W. Orlando writes:
… Some mothers have easy access to the basic necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care — but many do not. Millions of mothers live paycheck-to-paycheck, working multiple jobs and long hours, leaving them too busy and too exhausted to give their children the same attention as their wealthier peers.
These statements certainly explain benign neglect in many cases: It’s all you can do to put food on the table and arrange for minimal childcare; time for listening to a child, holding a child, reading to a child – these become luxuries when you’re fighting for survival.
So what’s your first reaction to statements about those mothers who are “too busy and too exhausted” by their long hours? Maybe you say to yourself: “They should do something differently. Find a better job.” Maybe your reaction is tinged with blame: “They should have made better choices and they wouldn’t be in that situation.”
Don’t those knee-jerk responses assume access to education, a model for an alternative, no dramatic events that have left these mothers flailing in their fall-out? Don’t they assume the existence of those “better jobs?”
Perhaps your response is more along the lines of this: “The problem is overwhelming. I can’t imagine how I can possibly help.” I understand the sense of powerlessness, but we can help. We can open our eyes. We can pay attention to the politicians. We can pick one way, perhaps two, in which we – as individuals – can make a difference.
Early Childhood Experiences of Despair and Anxiety
Isn’t the importance of nurturing our infants and young children common sense? Don’t we all realize that growing up hungry, sick, disrespected, knocked around, or living in fear damages us in profound ways and promises a dispirited and dysfunctional society? Isn’t that where we’re headed? Isn’t that where millions already find themselves?
How is it that we have arrived at this state of affairs where we need to call upon neuroscience to demonstrate what intelligent adults ought to understand?
As for data, Mr. Orlando continues making the distinction between those children who are raised with the basics covered and those who are not:
The difference is so drastic that children raised in poverty have brain activity that looks like it’s been damaged by a stroke. Study after study show that these early scars last long into adulthood, affecting everything from job prospects to marital happiness.
On his blog, Mr. Orlando reminds us that while we think “getting an education” is the answer to everything, options for attaining that education are narrowed before a child’s birth. In “No, Education Isn’t Enough to Get You Out of the Ghetto,” he writes:
By the age of 3, low-income children hear 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers. Kids whose parents can afford to send them to high-performing preschools are more likely to graduate from high school, half as likely to get arrested, and almost three times more likely to own a home in adulthood.
Brain activity that resembles a stroke victim. 30 million fewer words than their wealthier (3-year old) peers. How can we not be struck by that? How can we not want to do something – anything – picking one area of attack, to improve the situation?
Myths About Low-Income Parents
If we think that low-income parents care less about their children than “the rest of us,” we would surely be wrong. I will go beyond my personal anecdotal experience, which nonetheless includes a period of time working with a non-profit early childhood educational organization, and my years as a parent volunteering in my boys’ schools with a diverse demographic including a significant low-income population.
I cite the following, again from Mr. Orlando:
… low-income parents are just as committed to their kids’ education as their wealthier counterparts… The problem is, they are less able to navigate the educational system because they are less informed. They also have less money to spend — and the gap in money spent on “enrichment activities” has been growing for the past four decades.
With economist Thomas Picketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on my “To Do” list – a gargantuan task given a rather overflowing plate – I’m nonetheless adding Mr. Orlando’s “Letter to the One Percent,” which promises to be an informative read.
Kristof on the Hard Life
I will cite one other recent article, by Nicholas Kristof, “Is a Hard Life Inherited?” and ask you to consider this, which opens the opinion piece:
One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence…
Mr. Kristof goes on to point out the realities of being raised by nurturing parents, as facilitated by not being poor, by reading to children, and if disadvantaged by low income, not further constrained by neglect and substance abuse. Like Mr. Orlando, he, too, has recommendations:
… a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity…
Mr. Kristof also emphasizes that empathy – which costs nothing – is an excellent starting point. But that seems to be more challenging than one might think; along with a growing income gap, or possibly as its toxic result, our nation seems to be suffering from an empathy gap as well.
As we send our children back to school this month, consider this: Would you want that disadvantaged child to be your child, your grandchild, your best friend’s child?
How Do You Define a Civilized Society?
If we wish to live in a civilized society, we cannot ignore our neighbors. Nor can we insist (blithely, blindly, foolishly) that we all have “equal opportunity” and if So-and-So can rise out of poverty to accomplish great things, then so can we all. If that were the case, then wouldn’t everyone be doing just that?
By way of clarification, a definition of “civilized” will include descriptive terms like reasonable, respectful, comfortable, just. You can well imagine my feelings on how we’re performing as a “civilized” society.
Each year, as my taxes (seem to) go up, in particular my property taxes that fund local public schools, I am (initially) angry: I have made no improvements to my small home, my income isn’t rising along with my taxes, and every service I require to “keep going” has grown more expensive. Yet I remind myself that property taxes are, in part, financing the very schools that educated my children over the course of 15 years. Far from perfect, with all its flaws, it was a decent system with many fine teachers.
Whether or not I believe public schools should be financed by property taxes is, to some degree, irrelevant. For now, these taxes are helping children learn, as the taxes of my neighbors helped my children learn. My volunteering, in the years I was able to do it, also added value – and cost nothing but sweat equity, for which I was handsomely repaid in smiles.
I may disapprove of how my taxes are used and it is my right to vote my disapproval. But I understand that there is no free ride, and should not be. That, too, is logical. I will add that when I read about the one percent saving on their taxes and corporations relocating or restructuring per IRS loopholes, thereby not paying hundreds of millions in taxes, I see red.
Our Collective Children, Our Collective Responsibility
By no means do I intend to dismiss the critical nature of individual responsibility, dogged determination, and the proverbial indomitable spirit that some people demonstrate again and again. But aren’t we more likely to inspire exactly these qualities in a child who isn’t hungry to be held, much less fed?
Do I want my own children to do well, to “succeed?”
Naturally. They’ve worked hard; I’ve worked hard to afford them advantages; my parents worked hard before me for precisely the same reasons, but during an era that seemed less cruel and complex, at least, and let’s be frank, if you were white.
My sons have also seen financial struggle up close – not of the sort discussed in these articles, but sufficient to teach them there is no free ride, there are no guarantees, and we are, none of us, in this alone. Nor should we be.
As I see it, my responsibility as an adult does not end when my children have flown the nest; it transitions. I recall my own mother, a complicated woman, who, in her seventies, turned her skills to raising funds for babies and toddlers diagnosed with a failure to thrive. Those years serve as a model to me, certainly if I wish for my children and yours to lead their lives in a world that is eventually more compassionate, more inclusive, more just, and more civilized.
References and articles of interest:
- New York Times: A Closer-to-Home Tax Break
- New York Times: Is a Hard Life Inherited?
- NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children)
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