Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Mind-Numbing Cost of Suffering

One hundred billion dollars (again with that B!). That’s the figure that inspired me to make the commitment and put in the time and energy to begin writing this weekly column. That’s roughly the amount of money that Childserv vice-president, Suzette Fromm came up with when she did an analysis of the direct and indirect costs that result from unskillful child care. You can see a full breakdown of her categories and costs here: Estimated Costs of Child Abuse in America.
This seemed like a big number to me. Bigger actually, than I could easily comprehend. When I looked more closely at Doctor Fromm’s data, I noticed that she based her estimates on reported incidents of abuse. Thinking about my own life growing up in a housing project in New Haven, Connecticut, I witnessed far more incidents of abuse than ever got reported. In fact, I can’t even recall a single incident of anyone reporting anything, ever. Authorities of any sort were simply not part of the Home Team in that world.

This realization intrigued me enough to get in touch with the good doctor and ask her about the decision to base her calculations only upon reported data. “I originally did a range of calculations that could include non-reported incidents,” she told me (I'm loosely recalling our conversation here). “But the costs turned out to be so mind-bogglingly large, that whenever I presented them to peers and policymakers, they would simply glaze over and go numb. 100 billion dollars turns out to be a pretty big number all by itself.”

A big number indeed. For a long time (Fromm’s research was published in 2001), I found my own brain glazed over and numb. What could I possibly do in the face of such an overwhelming social problem? Contribute money to children’s charities? Get an elementary school teaching credential? Become a school psychologist? In truth, what the answer has come down to is: whatever I can do that feels aligned with who I am and what I’m somewhat reasonably skilled at. I’m reasonably skilled, it turns out, at researching and writing. 

As a result of reading as much of the brain research literature as I can – 35,000 new studies are published every year! – I’m convinced that the roots of war and horrendous suffering actually DO take hold in the nursery. And they take root there mostly by accident and lack of awareness. Parents and care providers simply don’t know and understand how the things they do - or just as importantly, don’t do - impact a child’s neural development. And that those things they do or don’t do can have implications affecting such things as ability to learn, social-emotional intelligence, immune function, and general life satisfaction … across the whole lifespan!

As a result of this conviction, one of the first things I did was research and compile a list of practices for parents based on recent findings from social neuroscience, trauma and attachment studies. When I published them last year as A Little Book of Parenting Skills, I contemplated what to say in the subtitle for a long time. I finally settled on “52 vital practices to help with the most important job on the planet.” I chose that subtitle, not because the practices I’ve organized and included are so critically important, but because the job of parenting itself is. And I deliberately made the book small, because parents are well, busy! I have also made it available for the cost of postage and handling ($5) for anyone wishing one. And I give hundreds of copies away for free at talks and seminars every year, not because I’m such a grand philanthropist, but because I truly believe in the power of parents to raise children with profoundly organized and integrated hearts, brains, minds and bodies. But parents first need to suspect they can raise such children. Which often starts with working on healing their own hearts, brains, minds and bodies. 

There have been a whole host of wonderful books and articles written for parents from the point of view of children’s experience. Daniel Stern, a Swiss psychiatrist, has written A Diary of a Baby; Peter Fonagy has written extensively about children’s experience; Penelope Leach has written several editions of Your Baby & Child; and just last year Peter Levine and Maggie Kline published Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes. Later this month, a new book endorsed by Bruce Perry will be released: Creative Interventions With Traumatized Children. Each of these offerings share the common virtue of showing us over and over that through the eyes of a child, parents show up as their whole world. And so, my primary goal with this column is similar to each of those authors - to help make that world a wonderful (and less costly) place for children to live in and continually come home to.

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