Around 90 people met this morning at the Blantyre Miner's Welfare Resource Centre in conference to think about Tackling Child Poverty. Amongst the eclectic group were representatives from the council, health care, voluntary groups, service providers, churches, youth workers, teachers, and community leaders. This particular conference was centred around the needs of Blantyre, Hamilton and Larkhall.
The first speaker was an educational psychologist, Zeta Anich, who spoke about the importance of "attachment" for the development of children in the earliest months and years. Perhaps we forget just how important those first years are, and the impact a positive and loving environment can have for young children as they grow and develop into mature adults. [There's more...]
The repercussions on classroom behaviour and thus a teacher's capacity to spend their time encouraging and teaching rather than maintaining discipline and order was directly linked to the ability of the young school pupils to interact productively and to develop good relationships with their fellow students and teachers - something that cannot be taken for granted when children do not have a stable, loving home environment that has nurtured the capacity to relate to others positively.
Ultimately what Ms Anich was saying was that we are created as relational beings, we are born to love, and without an environment that allows us full expression of that primal urge in us, then we are diminished as human beings - we are not all that we could be.
She tied this to neuroscience and the latest studies in brain development, which always fascinates me. But I couldn't get out of my mind how obvious this should be to us, and I was surprised when people talked about these insights as if they were a new revelation.
As we, in St Andrew's, have been exploring the theme of "Community is..." over the past month or so we have witnessed through the telling of the story of the ancient Hebrews, the awakening realisation of the importance of our relationships one with another and with God. God, as the primal expression of love, is for us in the Christian community the source of all our relationships. We are relational beings in the same way that God seeks relationship with the 'other'. Today we understand this in terms of neuroscience, where positive interactions with even the youngest baby release floods of natural opioids (beta-endorphins) within the baby's brain giving a pleasurable sensation that encourages interaction and helps their brain to develop through the release of dopamine, a natural neurotransmitter that enhances glucose uptake within the neurons of the brain, and thus promotes growth and a deepening of the connections within the brain.
Within the understanding of the ancients, I think they weren't that far off this modern understanding when they described humanity as made "in the image of God". In other words, as beings with an urge for relationship with others. We are not built for isolation, indeed isolation is used as a method of torture for good reason, we are created with a natural tendency towards relationship with others. It is surely to our collective shame that humanity has endlessly struggled to fully grasp this and the repercussions of it. Too often we have been led down the sinful paths of demonisation of the 'other' by those with an eye to maintaining power and authority over others rather than developing healthy and positive relationships with others. You see this at an individual level, at a 'tribal' level (my gang is better than yours) and at an international level all too often.
The challenge we discussed this morning was how we can use the resources available to us to try to help promote better an environment within our communities where, in particular, young children will find positive relationships in their lives from the earliest moments. A stark realisation is that many of the children who are most affected by poverty are raised by a single parent, often stressed with the responsibility that entails and a lack of resources to assist them, when a child really needs at least 4 key adults with whom to relate as they grow and develop their brains as social creatures.
Ms Anich told us of a study that had been undertaken in 1945 looking at the outcomes of children who were raised with their mothers in prison and those raised in an orphanage. Despite fastidious cleanliness in the orphanages where the material needs of the infants were met (food, clean sheets and clothes, etc), the mortality rate was a shocking 37% before the age of 2. Within the prison where the babies spent all day with their mothers, it was zero. A poverty of interaction is utterly devastating for child development. Recent brain studies show that the brain is physically far smaller in children who have been deprived close enriching relational environments in their earliest years.
So next time you see a harassed mother with an infant, make sure you take time not just to talk with the mum, but also to talk with the infant, to smile and interact with them too. It all makes a difference.
But what can we really do across our whole community? In our particular group we talked about the need to release the people resources available across the community to help, perhaps with mentors to encourage and take a lead so that we can encourage young parents to find the time to interact positively with their children and find other groups or organisations (things like the Rainbows, Brownies, Anchor Boys, etc) where young children can find spaces to develop their skills in relating with others. It is utterly foundational to the continuing health of our communities.