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Disciplining children with love
Simple intuition as well as personal experience inform us that good parenting is key for the development of mature, reasonable, adaptive human beings.
Just how important a mother’s love is in this process as well as just how harmful lack of parenting can be have become more obvious as the issue is further studied and it is becoming apparent that people need to pay more attention to parents’ nurturing if we want to ever live in some degree of social comfort. Nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development and criminal behaviour.
Some of the latest research findings are simply staggering. I do not include Government in this conundrum. Reluctantly, I have to agree with Mr Duprey when he says: “West Indian politicians are the laughing pirates of the Caribbean...who get up in the morning and say, ‘Lord, keep these people ignorant.’”
If it has taken WHO to push the Minister of Health into an appreciation that adult lifestyle diseases are directly related to children’s obesity and food and exercise issues, do not expect any politician to ever realise on their own that lifestyle is also about how much you nurture or love-up your children.
Research by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists in the last two years shows that mentally healthy children who have loving, caring mothers have a larger hippocampus than depressed children with non-nurturing mothers. When the body stresses, the brain activates a part of the nervous system that controls the release of stress hormones. Those hormones help cope with stress by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure thus helping the body adapt. The hippocampus is the main brain structure involved in that response.
Brain scans done on 92 children who were either mentally healthy or had symptoms of depression as preschoolers revealed that children without depression who had been nurtured had a hippocampus almost ten per cent larger than depressed children whose mothers were not as nurturing. This study was the first that actually shows an anatomical change in the brain, which really provides validation for the very large body of early childhood development literature highlighting the importance of early parenting and nurturing.
The effects of nurturing on the brain are likely to be the same for any primary caregiver, whether they are fathers, uncles, tanties, grandparents or adoptive parents, a finding which is supportive of the local belief that children will turn out well as long as there is someone around to love them up. That statement does not mean “spoiling” the children.
Last year further evidence of the chilling effect of lack of maternal love was again demonstrated. Neuroscientist scanned the brains of two groups of three-year-olds, one normal and the other victims of child abuse. They found that the brains of the normal children were one and a half times larger than the brains of the abused children. The only difference between the groups was the way the children had been treated by their mothers.
The available evidence suggests that, unless helped, the abused babies with the shrunken brains are more likely to become addicted to drugs, be involved in violent crimes, be unemployed and dependent on government handouts in the future.
This month comes the news that maternal love can soften the blows of harsh physical discipline. Researchers in Arizona, in a study of nearly 200 Mexican-American teenagers, found that the psychological pain of physical discipline was limited by a mother’s maternal warmth toward her children. Even if their mothers beat or berated them occasionally, children in the study did not act out as long as they felt loved.
Results showed that “their perception of maternal love kept the teenagers from externalising problems and acting aggressively if they were harshly disciplined. Teenagers who felt more loved by their mothers showed no correlation between harsh discipline and antisocial behavior, while those who felt less maternal love tended to show a stronger correlation between harsh discipline and later antisocial behavior.”
This suggests that, “if children know they’re loved, and that physical discipline is backed by good intentions, being hit or verbally berated is unlikely to lead to externalising aggression.” This perspective comes from attachment theory. Attachment theory suggests that “warm, responsive parenting is the critical factor in producing securely attached children who, in turn, develop positive secure internal working models of their parents.”
The authors concluded that, “Even if parents occasionally hit their children to discipline them, or otherwise use harsh verbal or physical methods, the children are unlikely to perceive their parents’ behaviour as rejection if they feel emotionally supported and have a firm belief that they are loved.”
This, of course, is what happens in the Caribbean and may explain why so many of us who were severely disciplined as children still believe that the “licks” did us good. It may very well have, as long as we knew that we were loved. That may have worked out well for many of us but what of the child who knows that the blows come with a lack of feeling or even with dislike?
And who knows what might have become of us if we had not been abused?