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Why good parenting matters

Published:Sunday | May 31, 2015 | 5:00 AMIan Boyne, Contributor
The 1950's and 60's prescribed that every facet of a child's life should be governed by his/her parents or guardian.

Parenting is such a crucial and impactful job, but it's one for which there are no mandatory qualifications. Yet lives can - and are - literally destroyed if the job is bungled.

An important study by the US National Academy of Sciences shows that "virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain's evolving circuitry to the child's capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years".

Robert Putnam, the distinguished Harvard professor, in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015), says, "The roots of many cognitive and behavioural differences that appear in middle childhood are often already present at 18 months ... . Healthy infant development requires connecting with caring, consistent adults ... . Cognitive stimulation by parents is essential for optimal learning."

You have to talk to your children. You have to pay them attention. Research has shown that as awful and repulsive as child abuse is, child neglect is even worse! Your children's ability to not only learn in school, but to have the discipline for impulse control is dependent on your interaction with them and the loving stimulation they get. The prefrontal cortex of the brain controls executive functions like mental flexibility, willpower, memory and concentration.

Hear Putnam in his new book: "Under normal circumstances with supportive caregivers, executive functions develop especially rapidly between the ages of three and five." But children who experience stress and trauma have impaired executive functions. Don't expect them to be brilliant at school and to get commendation for good behaviour.

We create the out-of-control children we complain about. And we have to do a good job of this parenting thing from early in our children's lives. Otherwise, it will be too late. Says Putnam: "Skills acquired early in childhood are foundational and make later learning more efficient. The experiences in those years are especially significant. Conversely, as the child ages, the brain becomes less able to change. One consequence of this fact is that early intervention is more powerful and cost-effective than during adolescence".

 

Learn before it's late

 

We need to learn these things early in our parenting before the horse bolts through the gate. Often when our children reach adolescence, it's too late to tame them. It's not impossible, but why make it harder for ourselves as parents? Putnam has more to say in Our Kids: "Intellectual and socio-economic development is inextricably twined from an early age. Research has shown that so-called non-cognitive skills (grit, social sensitivity, optimism, self-control, conscientiousness, emotional stability) are very important for life success. They can lead to greater physical health, school success, college enrolment and lifetime earnings and can keep people out of trouble and out of prison. These skills are at least as important as cognitive skills in predicting measures of success and may even be more important in a post-industrial future ... ."

Our children in Jamaica are under extreme stress. We can't have a healthy, thriving and successful economy if this is how we are rearing our children. It's a recipe for disaster and continued underdevelopment.

It's frightening that so many parents are unqualified for this most important job and could be legitimately be charged for malpractice. They are a threat to children's lives and the lives of those children's victims. This is an emergency, ladies and gentlemen! There is a host of studies conducted which show how critically important parenting is. Canadian researchers have shown differences in brainwaves of children from lower- and upper-class backgrounds, suggesting that lower-class kids had greater difficulty concentrating on a simple task because their brains are trained to maintain constant surveillance of their environment for new threats. A recent study showed MRI evidence of slower brain growth and less grey matter in a small sample of young children living in poverty in comparison with children in economically better circumstances.

 

Don't accept victimhood

 

With the constraints of poverty already heavily impacting children, parents of those children have to compensate by deliberately and meticulously instilling certain values and attitudes in them. Last week, I showed that I fully understand how poverty and economic exclusion hold back child development. Unless we create a just and equitable society, child development will be a laborious, frustratingly uphill task. But there are things that can be done. We can't succumb to helplessness. We can't accept victimhood.

People from the worst of circumstances have risen to great heights. Children born in the most limiting and stressful conditions have gone on to flourish and rack up remarkable achievements. My television programme, Profile, has been demonstrating that for 28 years now. I am not guessing on this.

For those victimised by poverty and an unjust society where inequality is spawned, they can still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They can spend time with their children. They can preach to them constantly that they can be whatever they want to be. Tell them about others who have done it. Encourage them to watch inspirational television programmes that show other poor kids surmounting their circumstances to make it. Introduce them to motivational, positive-thinking books.

You can get them cheap on Kindle. Your kids are already using the Internet for fun and games. Let them utilise it for inspiration and motivation. Teach them, too, about our heroes and about our long and glorious history of struggle against enormous odds.

Let your children know you believe in them. That you know they will do well in life. That you know they will succeed. Don't beat up on them psychologically. Don't tell them they are 'wutliss' and no good. When they make mistakes, tell them great people also made mistakes, but they pulled themselves up back.

Teach them resilience, perseverance. Tell them 'if dem waan good, dem nose haffi run'. Make them know that life is hard; that there are many obstacles and disappointments in life, but if they don't give up, they will make it.

Religion can be a great source of motivation. Putnam, in Our Kids, says, "Religious involvement among youth themselves is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, both academic and non-academic. Compared to their unchurched peers, youth who are involved in a religious organisation take tougher courses, get higher grades and test scores and are less likely to drop out of high school.

"Church-going kids have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are less prone to substance abuse, risky behaviour and delinquency ... . Religious involvement ... makes a bigger difference in the lives of poor kids than rich kids ... ."

Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse in their monumental, 675-page book, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth (2015), affirm: "We have already noted how religious membership can buffer against the negative effects of growing up in conditions of severe structural advantage, helping youth become more resilient despite exposure to a multitude of risks."

Parenting is crucial. Parents are important. Both of them. The Cultural Matrix makes this critical point: "For while the ethnographic data indicate a wide range of household arrangements throughout the world for bringing up children, one constant underlying this variation, especially in advanced societies, is that some provision is made for reliable emotional and material support and consistent socialisation of children, usually by two adults ... ." That's science (our new god), not religion.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.