I see a nation of hurting people. Husbands and wives not talking to each other as they struggle to pay the bills each month. Military men and women killing themselves at rates never seen before. College graduates unable to find work, and high school graduates not able to afford college or find work. Â¶ Our first impulse is to blame somebody. Our second impulse is to forget that all of this is happening and turn on the TV.
My impulse is to think about the minority without a voice — the children. Think about what they are processing right now, with moms and dads stressing out as they try to make ends meet, with moms and dads serving our nation overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, losing moms and dads as a consequence of war, watching a single parent try to do his or her best.
We are grateful for the children who have food on their plates, clothes on their backs and roofs over their heads. What about those who do not? What is our responsibility in this age of transformation? What do we owe our children?
A long-term study by Duke University researchers recently was released, revealing that childhood abuse, neglect, social isolation or economic hardship results in a greater likelihood of health risks as adults. A group of New Zealanders, tracked from birth through their mid-30s, were twice as likely to suffer major depression and chronic inflammation if they were maltreated as children.
“What we’re learning is that poor adult health is, in part, manufactured in childhood,” said Avshalom Caspi, the Edward M. Arnett Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “The more difficult the childhood, the more adult age-related disease risk factors we see.” The biology of why and how negative experiences in childhood lead to these health risk factors aren’t addressed by this study, Caspi said, but needs to be explored.
“Ever since Freud, if not Plato, the assumption has been that early childhood experience shapes adult functioning and psychological well-being,” said Jay Belsky, from the Birbeck University of London, who was not involved with this study. “What we see here is even more than that. The early years are important for reasons we haven’t even considered.”
We can identify children who are high risks for learning disabilities — as well as socially unacceptable criminal behavior — and now we have a clue that a difficult childhood can contribute to an unhealthy adult life. But what good are studies when we don’t act on their implications?
As a society, if we wanted to raise a generation of healthy and socially responsible children, we could do more — much more:
- Reduce health care costs — We could create a new way to provide health care to all children, and collectively care for children who are abused or neglected at home, increasing the odds that these children will be healthier later as adults than if they were left to fall between the cracks as youths.
- Dramatically reduce prison populations — We could collectively care for children who demonstrate tendencies toward anti-social behavior, and offer all children positive role models and the support they need to thrive. The United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world. The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, with 1 in every 31 American adults in prison, on parole or probation. Our nation seems unmoved by these facts.
- Substantially reduce mental stress and improve the quality of the work force — Our nation now provides free education from pre-school to 12th grade. Adding four more years of free education to what is offered would help parents who struggle to send their children to college, as well as reduce the debt burden on students who must take out huge student loans in order to go to college. We could better screen students for potential careers, and create a better defined technical education program that caters to 21st century workforce needs. Not all students need a four-year college education.
- Establish wisdom education — We could enlist our elderly, and leaders from the community, to offer wisdom and to emphasize values to our young people as a part of their early childhood education. Our new goal can be to educate every child as if he or she is our own.
I do realize that here in America it is too much of a socialist platform to believe that these ideas will ever see the light of day. So, perhaps the best we can hope for is a souped-up prison program where we remind our jailed youngsters that they are much more than they believe about themselves, teach them how to meditate, and tell them that we truly do care about them and wish them a good life.
And then we can go home and turn on the TV, and feel good about ourselves.