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Lack of intellectual and emotional support from caregivers hurts children’s chances for success

A version of this commentary appeared in the Toronto Star, Huffington Post and the Windsor Star

lonelynessMore than one in seven Canadian children currently lives in poverty. That number has climbed steadily since the 1990s, and comes with very real consequences  both social and economic.

Children raised in poverty suffer from a disproportionate amount of health problems, have less education, and are more likely to live in poverty as adults. This in turn hurts our economy, as we struggle with higher rates of crime and joblessness, steeper health care costs, fewer income taxes, and a sagging social safety net.

All told, poverty has been calculated to cost Canada $72-84 billion dollars a year  that’s between $2,299 and $2,895 per Canadian annually.

Unfortunately, poverty is as complex as it is costly, and our attempts to eliminate it have met with limited success. Yet there is cause for hope. As we come to better understand why child poverty leads to such poor outcomes  what precise factors are at play  it becomes easier to develop real and lasting solutions.

In our newly published book, Scientific Parenting (2013, Dundurn), we highlight a recent meta-analysis that Nicole and her team published analyzing the results of every study they could find that looked at the relationship between families’ socio-economic status and their children’s intellectual and behavioural development. At first glance, poverty seemed to impact how well children behaved or did in school. But the closer the team looked, the weaker this connection became.

The true culprits were manifold, but most of them  such as home environment, parental attentiveness, discipline, community safety, postpartum depression, increased life stress, family support, and exposure to violence  had to do with the quality of a children’s home lives  or, more specifically, with their parents. Regardless of the family’s budget, children who had loving, engaged caregivers were better off than those who didn’t.

Of course, poverty places many additional challenges on parents. When living in poverty, meeting even basic needs  food, clothing, shelter  can seem enough of a challenge, leaving little time and energy for the intellectual and emotional needs, which can be much harder to see and therefore much easier to ignore. Yet these needs, invisible or not, are vital to children’s long-term development, and their absence causes untold damage.

In this sense, the greatest challenge children face isn’t financial poverty, but relational poverty.

Relational poverty means a lack of intellectual and emotional support from caregivers. Interaction, affection, and play provide vital stimulation to infants’ brains, which grow at a rate unmatched by anything they will experience later in life. This neural growth spurt allows children to absorb new skills and behaviours with phenomenal speed. It also leaves them vulnerable to stress, as even small issues can leave deep prints in their pliable minds.

Supportive adults act as a sort of buffer, protecting young children’s minds until their neural growth rate slows and their brains become more durable. The trouble is that children on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum are less likely to get this support and more likely to encounter toxic levels of day-to-day stress, which is why poverty and poor outcomes for children often align.

But they don’t have to.

Caregivers don’t need great riches to support their children. A strong, supportive adult figure can help children overcome otherwise unhealthy environments. This figure need not even be the child’s parents (though of course this helps). A grandparent, and aunt, a family friend, even a dedicated teacher can have a tangible, long-lasting impact on a child’s development.

Studies have found that the one sure predictor for success among children from poor families was a strong relationship with an adult.

To prevent the social and economic consequences of child poverty, we need to work with poor families. Changing public policy to better address basic needs for job security, living wages, and adequate housing is essential. From there, helping parents address conditions related to poverty, such as mental health problems and addictions, would also make a difference.

But just as important are programs targeted specifically at parenting.

We need a more proactive postnatal outreach system, one that teaches basic parenting and child-bonding skills, one that can reach out to parents at home if necessary, and can be tailored to the needs of different families. If we put such programs in place, more children from impoverished homes will gain the tools needed to break the cycle of poverty.

A better chance to succeed means a better opportunity to contribute. And as more children rise to the occasion, our country will grow stronger, happier, and more successful. And that helps all of us.

Nicole Letourneau is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine. She also holds the Norlien/Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary. Justin Joschko is a freelance writer currently residing in Ottawa. Their co-authored book, Scientific Parenting, has just been released with Dundurn Press.

October 2013

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.