A Tale of Two Children
It was, according to the opening words of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “the best of times the worst of times”
Although far removed from the French Revolution, the contrasting scenes those words evoke are very much reflected in the lives of America’s children today. Consider the increasing numbers of those in poverty who live on the fringe of hope and for whom the worst of times simply last and last and last. If current research on the developing brain is accurate, and mounting evidence says it is, then the child who sits in that fringe will be hard pressed to move beyond it. For what we are now learning is that the stress to the delicate brain of a very young child, struggling to survive in a hostile environment punctuated with violence, rejection, hunger, illness, homelessness and fear is too much to permit its normal development. The chemical dance that inhabits and protects us becomes a frenetic force that destroys rather than nurtures and, as a result, the brain forever loses vital connections that have been designed to plan, think, behave, learn and rejoice.
Consider then, the tale of two children.
One is a happy little fellow who attends a pre-school day care with energetic teachers, a thriving atmosphere and an emphasis on health eating called “a rainbow in my tummy.” He goes home to a warm and welcoming setting, is read to before he falls asleep and probably has a well loved dog, who likewise, is eager to greet him each time he returns home.
He represents, perhaps, the best of times, the one we would much rather believe is the happy image of all American children.
They may not all live in the squalor of the neglected social world that Dickens so graphically described, but one third of our children are still haunted by the same limited opportunities that he sought to bring to light. The astounding truth is that, apart from the emotional, physical and behavioral suffering, there exists the damage that is done to the brains of countless numbers of children by the toxicity of environments filled with the heartless persistence of neglect. What results in so many is academic failure, social unrest and violent behavior. What is also becoming clear is that the altering of the brain’s structure and function leads to a very high risk of major illnesses such as diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Thus the cost of damaged beginnings is played out in every level of life adding, sadly, to economic woes and social devastation.
Two children. One, Dickens would surely have said has “Great Expectations!” The other is simply to be carted away as a tragic example of being born into the wrong circumstances. If he is lucky he will somehow be resilient enough to accomplish some aspirations, no matter how dimmed they may already be.
What is to be learned from the contrasting tale of these tw0 children?
Many things of course. The most pressing lesson is the critical need to value each child born and provide a stable invitation to a life that has enough food, a warm bed to sleep in, a hand to hold and a smile to wipe away the inevitable tears. That is not too much to ask for any child. And it is not too much to ask of everyone who indeed feel “that children are our future” to challenge the complacency, the ideology, the lack of understanding of children’s development and the absence of resources that stand in the way of that future. It is no longer acceptable to waste the wonderful minds of so many useful citizens when we know what can be done to protect and stimulate them. It is no longer acceptable for there to be a tale of two children.
It is time for their story to be one. That is the tale we would most desire to read from the likes of Charles Dickens.