It's all about relationship

Happy and resilient children are made, not born. We are social beings and the love, affection and consistency of our early caregivers is essential for our development. As I prepare for the arrival of my first grandchild in the spring, this fact is becoming increasingly important to me. My daughter will be one of many young mothers in the UK who are faced with the economic reality of needing to return to work to make ends meet. I love Britain and find it incredibly sad that I even considered the fact that my grandchild might become be a happier and healthier person if they lived in Scandinavia rather than England. And that is because as a country we are woefully poor at prioritising the wellbeing of children and families. There is an urgent need for this to change if we wish to nurture a happy, healthy society. Increasingly GDP is seen as a very limited measure of societal performance and one that is perpetuating many of the systems that are potentially harmful to our wellbeing (you can read more about this in my recent
Healthy and Happy Paper).

The childcare system in England is currently both fragmented and alarmingly underfunded. Government policies have drastically undermined the vital importance of mothering and have created a tax system that now actually rewards both parents returning to work. Historically children have always been left in the care of others, but in the past it would have been with large extended families and communities with whom they already had strong bonds. Young mums now often have to contend with not only having no family members around and no sense of local community, but also no realistic choice about who to leave their children with and what the impact of this decision might be.

We also have to consider the fact that anxious 'parenting' in its current form is a very new invention. As Alison Gopnik says in her book 'The Gardener and the Carpenter', "The rise of parenting has accompanied the decline of the street, the public playground, the neighbourhood, even recess. In the world before parenting, even toddlers could explore the environment they would grow up in - the village or the farm, the workshop or the kitchen. Middle-class American children now spend much of their lives in highly structured settings; poor children's environments are even more narrowly constrained." Whether tending the animals, helping prepare food or running errands for their parents, in previous times children had real and meaningful roles within their families and communities. She continues " In a society that values creativity and innovation more and more, we provide fewer and fewer unfettered opportunities for children to explore."  And it's not as if these changes have made parents lives more easy - a
 defining feature of modern-day parenting is now anxiety and ‘aspirational anguish' about children's abilities - and the pressure is even impacting the youngest children.

Of course historically young children haven't always had it easy, and most modern countries have thankfully eradicated many of the worse forms of abuse, but we need to take a serious look at how we can continue to provide children with lives of meaning and contribution within the communities that they live - and not just measure them through their cognitive abilities and academic achievements.

Given such a radical change in family dynamics the early years workforce now plays a hugely important role in ensuring that young children continue to have high quality care, and yet, despite mounting global evidence, a succession of English governments have downplayed the importance of such provision. A recent Education Policy Institute Report compared the situation in the UK with that of Finland and New York:

"Government policies over the past few years have sought to increase access to early years programs for different groups of children, with little acknowledgement of the value of the workforce...despite recognising the importance of highly-qualified teachers for children, and ultimately to society, the status and working conditions of early years educators have deteriorated as their nominal wages remain stagnant, workload stays high, benefits continue to be subpar to teachers at other levels and even new increased funding proposals towards their programs are seen as insufficient. It is no wonder that teacher recruitment and retention issues are widespread.

In Finland, early years teaching is highly respected and all teachers are treated as professionals. Their difference in the treatment of early years practitioners starts with competitive teacher training programs and extends into the practice of high autonomy...There are no alternative routes into teaching. All staff in early childhood education and care (ECEC) centres must have at least an upper secondary qualification, with one in three staff members needing a higher education degree. Even family child minders have some degree of specialised education, while all pre-primary teachers have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

Unlike Finland, where high cultural valuation of teachers provides a surplus of those willing to teach, New York had to attract teachers – both from students who might not have considered teaching and from already qualified teachers outside their system – to meet their needs. This was made possible in large part by the acknowledgment and subsequent willingness of the city to spend an unprecedented amount on the early years. The city successfully battled for $340 million per year of funding from the state of New York, a significant amount to ensure competitive teacher pay, and dedicated $6.7 million for a large-scale partnership with the early childhood professional development institute at the City University of New York to maintain a supply of qualified teachers.

For the 2016-17 school year, starting salaries of lead preschool teachers ranged from $44K to $56K, and while disparities in pay do exist, those working at community-based centres will still earn a comparable amount to centres in New York districts – made possible through signing and hiring bonuses, part of a $16.9 million pledge to close the gap.This is significantly higher than the median American pre-school teacher salary ($28,570 in 2015)and almost double England’s starting salary for pre-primary teachers (18K to 22K in pounds), which is also notably much lower for those working in private, voluntary or independent centres despite recent measures to close this pay disparity.Second, clear routes to teacher training and certification.

Unlike in England, where there are various qualifications and certifications for early years teaching, all NYC lead teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a New York State teaching certificate for early childhood (NYSEC)."

The UK media also doesn't help the situation by perpetuating the stereotypical image of nice women reading to children or watching them play at the sandtray.

This remains an appalling understatement of children's extraordinary natural learning abilities at this age (I was so mad about the media coverage of something before Christmas that I wrote letters to all the editors) and how radically different it would be if, instead, they helped raised awareness about some of the really amazing work going on in other settings around the world e.g the Reggio Emilia images below. In the UK we continue to portray young children as weak and in need of constant adult intervention, whereas in other countries they are seen as 
strong, powerful and rich in potential and resources. They are also seen as the holder of rights, which means that they have the human right to not have their natural development and love of learning constrained by the anxious adults in their worlds. Our children, and the people that we entrust them to during this absolutely vital period of life, are, quite simply, being let down by the system.

Over the past 50 years, science has
 made striking discoveries about the importance of early relationships for human health and happiness. The past decade has witnessed international calls for this information to 
be incorporated into government policies and professional practice guidelines, as well
 as parenting advice. What has become increasingly clear is that the experiences that we have through the interactions with our parents and early caregivers literally shape our biology. Children become resilient as a result of the patterns of stress and nurturing they experience early on in life.The more healthy those relationships are, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. We know that persistent stress results in physiological changes to the body and architecture of the brain and that damage can persist throughout our lives.

Relationships are the core agent of change and the most positive therapy of all is consistent human affection and love. That's why the quality of early years care is so vitally important.

Over Christmas I have been reading a couple of books on the impact of adverse early environments on young children and and I wanted to share some of the notes that I made.The first is
The Body Keeps the Score
Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, Founder of the Boston Trauma Centre

"We are profoundly social creatures: our lives consist of finding our place within a community of social beings.As we grow up we learn to take care of ourselves, both physically and emotionally, but we get our first lessons in self-care from the way we are cared for. Mastering the skill of self-regulation depends to a large degree on how harmonious our early interactions with our caregivers are....Children whose parents are reliable sources of comfort and strength have a lifetime advantage - a kind of buffer against the worst that fate can hand them...

From the intimate give-and-take of the attachment bond children learn that other people have feelings and thoughts that are both similar to and different to theirs. In other words they get 'in sync' with their environments and with the people around them and develop the self awareness, empathy, impulse control and self motivation that make it possible to become contributing members of the larger social culture. These qualities were painfully missing in the kids at our Children's Clinic" (113).

Our earliest caregivers don't only feed us, dress us, and comfort us when we are upset;
they shape the way our rapidly growing brain perceives reality (my emphasis) Our interactions with our caregivers convey what is safe and what is dangerous: whom we can count on and who will let us down; what we need to do to get our needs met.

This information is embodied in the warp and woof of our brain circuitry and forms the template of how we think of ourselves and the world around us. This inner maps are remarkable stable over time." (131)

and the second

The Boy who was raised as a Dog
American Psychiatrist Bruce Perry (who runs the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas).

The modern world has disrupted and in so many cases abandoned the fundamental biological unit of human social life: the extended family. There has been so much emphasis on the breakdown of the nuclear family, but in many cases the extended family, whose dissolution has been much less discussed, is at least as important...For countless generations humans lived in small groups, made up of 40 to 150 people, most of who were closely related to each other and lived communally. As late as the year 1500 the average family group in Europe consisted of roughly 20 people whose lives were intimately connected on a daily basis. But by 1850 that number was down to 10 living in close proximity, and in 1960 the number was just 5. In the year 2006 the average size of a household was less than 4, and a shocking 26 percent of Americans live alone. 262

As technology has advanced, we have gotten farther and farther away from the environment for which evolution shaped us. The world we live in now is biologically disrespectful; it does not take into account many of our most basic human needs and often pulls us away from healthy activities and towards those that are harmful...You cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation. I believe that we’re at a transitional point in history where people are recognizing that modern societies have abandoned many of the fundamental elements required for optimal human mental health. 262

A good place to start is at the beginning, with the way we treat infants and new parents. As we’ve seen, in order to develop normally infants needs the devoted attention of one or two primary, consistent caretakers, and those caretakers need the daily support of a loving community that recognizes and relieves the exhausting demands of new parenthood. When humans evolved they didn’t live in a world where one woman spent her day alone with her offspring while her partner spent his day at the office. Both men and women worked hard to ensure survival, but women worked together with young children close at hand and older boys often accompanied men and were trained by them. An overwhelmed mother could hand off her infant to an aunt or a sister or a grandmother: there were, on average, four adolescents and adults for every young child. Today we think that a daycare centre has an excellent adult child/ratio when there is one caregiver for every five children! 265

We need to educate people about the needs of infants and create better ways of addressing them. We need to have an infant and child-literate society, where everyone who has or works with children knows what to expect. ..Further we need to call an immediate cease-fire in the ‘Mommy wars” and recognize that everyone benefits when new parents have the choice to spend more time with their children and when they have community support and access to quality childcare. As Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy says, “We evolved in a context where mothers had much more social support. Infants need this social engagement to develop their full human potential.” Many European countries – particularly the Scandinavia countries- have managed to have both highly productive economies and provide high quality child-care and lots of paid family leave. There’s no reason that we can’t develop similar policies. 267

I agree - there's no reason why we can't develop similar policies - and a whole host of reasons why we're going to run into big problems if we don't.

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