Last Sunday I listened to a fascinating radio interview with Professor Phil Fisher, an expert in children’s neurobiological and psychological development. He spoke about a new understanding of how children’s early experiences build their brains’ ‘basic circuitry’, which underpins later learning. Of critical importance is ‘serve and return’ where a caregiver notices what a child does and responds in positive ways. Neglect, abuse and excessively stressful environments – even in the prenatal period – interfere with this process and have long-term negative effects.
Most caregivers, including parents, siblings, extended family members and close friends, engage in serve and return and thereby help build good outcomes for children and families. However, excessive stress can take away caregivers’ ability to be responsive. Constant arguing in a child’s environment or the absence of soothing words can also have damaging effects on the developing child’s brain (I should add here that some of my Superu colleagues who came from large families say they experienced no shortage of arguing. I don’t think this is the kind of arguing that Professor Fisher was talking about).
Raising children can be a great experience but combining family life with the other demands of modern living, particularly participation in the workforce, generates stress. Mostly this stress can be managed and policies such as paid parental leave, subsidised childcare and Working for Families help. But it can still be a struggle to meet the cost of living, look after a sick child while meeting a deadline, or simply carve out enough quality family time.
Superu has identified factors which either protect families or put them at risk, and described positive behaviours that help build resilience. A child-centred approach is important, but emphasis also needs to be given to family context and positive connections between children and other people. Public policies should continue to recognise this truth.
Dr Malcolm Menzies
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