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Hardwired to Connect: what are the main findings of this report?
Hardwired to Connect: what are the main findings of this report?
AbstractIn the “developed” West, a new form of social and cultural deprivation is emerging, and it is affecting children and teenagers worst of all. It is related to the breakdown of family life (extended and nuclear), settled communities and traditional employment patterns, coupled with a dearth of suitable role models and a very rapid pace of economic change. The result is that too many young people fail to fulfil their potential and are affected by mental illness, self-harm and addiction, or suffer from anxiety and depression. Commentators of “right” and “left” have their own partisan explanations for the problems of Western youth, but these are one-sided and so express only part of the truth. This article describes an attempt to reach a non-partisan consensus on the “youth crisis” and how to address them in a coherent and principled way.
Keywords: Child psychology, Social problems, Youth
In the USA, as in other Western democracies, behavioural and emotional problems amongst children and teenagers have reached epidemic proportions. This has large-scale implications for the economy and the wider social landscape, as well as causing great human suffering to young people, and an immense waste of potential talent. The causes of emotional problems amongst children and youth are many and various. They have been analysed from a seemingly infinite variety of perspectives – professional, social and political, religious and ideological, but until now there has been little attempt to pull these threads together and draw overarching conclusions about what has gone wrong and what could be put right. To fill this gap, the Commission on Children at Risk was set up as a multidisciplinary panel of children’s doctors, research scientists and youth service professionals from across the USA. The panel’s report, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities was published in 2003. Its conclusions invite us to reflect critically on the past three decades of social policy and look for constructive ways of renewing civil society.
Those on the front lines of service delivery who work directly with troubled youth often embrace simple, common-sense assumptions about what is good for children. In short, they believe:
What happens to children matters, especially their relationships with people who nurture them.
Children’s most fundamental nurture comes from their mothers and their fathers, and the love relationships within families.
Children and families themselves depend upon support from healthy communities and their institutions, such as schools, civic, and religious organizations.
Communities rely on shared values that give meaning to life.
This is the belief system of public services for children. I am delighted therefore to report to you that the scientific findings of our commission, representing both original papers and a literature review from a wide spectrum of disciplines, support these assumptions. Our key scientific findings are described below.
Finding number one
Human beings are biologically wired to form relationships. Thus our title, Hardwired to Connect. The capacity for attachment is structured in our biology and brains and neurotransmitters. And the infant’s brain cannot develop in a vacuum, the developing brain requires devoted human attachment. Infant development on a biological level requires what another human being offers in a sustained, reliable, responsive love relationship. A mother’s love, hallowed through the ages, is being rediscovered by scientists as the bedrock of human personality development. Of course I mean a permanent devoted caretaker, who may not be the biological mother. What we see on a biological level is that both participants in a human relationship mutually influence one another – through hormones and complex biochemical systems that are only beginning to be understood on a technical level. Scientists can demonstrate that brain circuitry and gene transcription, the biological core of the developing individual, respond to the quality of mothering relationships in a permanent, brain-based way. Animals that receive good mothering are biologically different from animals that don’t – and these benefits can be passed on to the next generation. Take-home messages can and should be reflected in how we think on a practical level about human infants and improving their chances for a good start in life:
the importance of bonding;
the importance of the well-being and stability of the mother or caretaker who is the other half of this human;
If we want to help children flourish, we need to pay heed to the earliest experiences that have profound and life-long effects on their well being. Acknowledging the needs of infants could generate a whole world of policy considerations around motherhood and factors that enhance or detract from mothering. Those of you working in the front lines will not lack items on your wish lists in this regard:
the impact of poverty;
untreated mental illness;
domestic and community violence;
inadequate educational and job training; and
Finding number two
Parenting matters in measurable behaviours. Probably you are familiar with the question of nature versus nurture as an approach to understanding problem youth – was that darn kid just born that way, or is it how he was raised? Our commission has resolved this dilemma as a reciprocal, mutual interaction. We know that individuals differ biologically at birth. Some are bold, and some are nervous wrecks. But in scientific experiments we find that young animals that carry a heritable trait for anxiety can be rehabilitated if they are transplanted at birth into the care of especially nurturing mothers. Studies have found that children with a predisposition to excessive reactions to the environment could become either especially vulnerable or especially resilient, depending on the context in which they are raised. The same genetic trait that is especially troublesome when the child is raised an inadequate family structure can be an unusual strength when the same child is given supportive surroundings.
The plasticity and flexible potential of the spectrum of human traits present at birth is thus a reason for optimism. Science is showing us how the vast majority of children have tremendous potential to flourish intellectually, emotionally, practically, and spiritually if they are given home environments that are responsive, responsible, and nurturing. Those eager to proceed to recommendations can I trust connect the dots that link family well being to a facilitation of inborn potential, focusing on all that may promote or may undermine family well being.
Out third finding
“Male and female” has far-reaching meaning in childhood and adolescence, and that the biological systems that govern gender at work on the level of brain circuitry, endocrine function, and physical organs are profoundly influenced by social systems. Children typically begin to speak in sentences at the age of two, but the child’s sexuality is well entrenched by that time, and throughout the child has been involved in a consuming search for understanding – who am I? Am I like Mummy and Daddy? And how do they relate together? The process of attaining gender identity is not only physical and physiological, but familial, social, and psychological. These discoveries – the toddler’s exploration of his or her own body and its potentials, and the bodies of people in the family – are part of the child’s growing capacity to understand the most fundamental polarities of human destiny: of love and hate, of birth and death, of man and woman.
The social revolution over the past 50 years in the USA has demanded a rethinking of many of our laws and standards of behaviour regarding gender. But to say that males and females have equal rights does not make them equivalent in physical or reproductive capacities. The study of specific psychological needs of boys and girls has been perhaps one of the casualties of these rapid social changes. These needs are especially pressing in the realm of adolescent sexuality and rites of passage. We have made strides as a society to curb the negative effects of social stereotyping upon men and women, but with regard to young people, we suffer a vacuum in the time-honoured dimensions that give a specific validity to men as men and women as women.
Our fourth finding
Science now recognizes some of the biological mechanisms underlying the normal teenage craving for stimulation, for risk-taking, and pleasure-seeking. The teenager’s heedless drive to go forth and conquer the world, a source of both pride and worry for parents, is based in part upon developmental alterations in brain structure and function. Here too is a lesson for policy makers – that the teenager’s brain is prompting him to seek novel and more intense interests, pleasures, and excitements. It behoves us therefore to consider how our families and communities support our adolescents, and indeed what kind of preparation should have taken place in a youngster’s character before the transformations of puberty. How do we help families understand how quickly children will need to rely upon their inner resources of good judgement, and to foster these resources? How do we provide for the needs of older youth to participate in society in ways that are sane, responsible, and fulfilling? These are not simply questions of policing reckless and floundering teenagers, but of preventing their floundering to start with – of renewing our social landscape so that fledgling adults can participate in the real world as a genuine opportunity for growth.
Our final scientific finding
The capacities for love, for commitment, for devotion, and for transcendent experiences are related, biologically patterned, and eternal dynamics within the life cycle. This is the sphere of human meaning. It is part of all great works of art, of literature, and of religious texts the world over. It is this area, so often neglected in academic domains dominated by surface behaviour and measurable physical quantities, that we as a commission hope to revive within the national dialogue concerning factors significant in the lives of children.
The science of child development informs us that trust, hope, and ideals first arise in the earliest mutual devotion between the parent and infant. We must not forget the love the infant feels for the parent – even babes in arms try to feed their mothers and become upset if the parent is upset. The infant’s empathy for the parent – however primitive it may seem – is the origin of concern and conscience. The child’s innate selfishness is constrained by his concern for those he loves. It is his concern with the feelings and well being of others that later becomes the child’s capacity for self-discipline and self-criticism. The child’s morality is the consequence, over time, of having been loved. The values and ideals that the child finds later in life in teachers, coaches, civic and religious organizations – the values he finds in the world of ideas and the empathy he feels for people remote from him – all have their origin long ago in the immeasurable value that he placed upon his parents, and the immeasurable value they place upon him.
Of course, no family can go it alone. The resources that each family has to offer its children, both physical and intangible, depend upon the family’s place in a social context which the family itself enriches and from which it in turn draws nurture. To be sure, we see around us many families that are languishing. We see families lacking the basics of health care, housing, employment, and education. We see homes devastated by domestic violence, social bigotry, untreated mental illness, substance abuse, and marital instability. We see families without financial impoverishment that suffer nonetheless from emotional impoverishment.
These families cry out for our support, and often can be stabilized through relatively straightforward measures if only such measures were accessible and available. Families, even families beset with many problems, are not static – they are organic entities that can fail or flourish depending on what can be mobilized to fortify them. Science shows us that troubled families can grow and be healed, and give more to their children as only families can do. If attachment is the key to wholesome development, both physical and spiritual, then helping parents be better parents must be our abiding commitment.
But even when the families provide children with the love and dependability that evoke his faith in the world, even when they have laid the groundwork in the child’s heart that the world is a good place, as the child encounters the world, it has to be a good place. All the institutions that have impact upon a growing child – the school, the health clinic – have to put the child’s best interests first and the child must know that. The outside world must be worthy of the child’s trust. And how many children in the USA today feel they inhabit an interconnected and interdependent neighbourhood, part of an authentic and organic social whole devoted to shared civic ideals? The dearth of connectedness among adults and the incessant commercialism that characterize our society threaten to reduce our children to material winners and material losers in a landscape increasingly devoid of human empathy and meaning. As we look to the family as the most fundamental source of attachment, the fundamental “authoritative community” we must look as well to our social fabric as a whole and address its many woes. This renewal is our mission, one that we take on not only for the sake of our children’s spirits but for our own.
Elizabeth BergerCommission of Children at Risk, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Note1. More details of the report on which Dr Berger commented, Hardwired to Connect: The Case for Authoritative Communities can be obtained from the Institute of American Values (www.americanvalues.org/html/hardwired.html).