Many of the mothers and mothers-to-be that I talk to are young—teens and early 20s—a challenging group to promote healthy parenting practices to, as they are still growing and developing themselves. We know this anecdotally. We also know this scientifically. This 2010 UK study is among many that show that the brain doesn’t reach maturity as once theorized until people are at least age 30. Executive functioning, such as planning and decision-making, social awareness and behavior, empathy and other personality traits, are the last bits of cognitive functions to fully develop.
This is also why it’s most important to educate these young mothers’ personal support networks. Unlike older mothers and mothers-to-be who look more to professionals and evidence-based resources for guidance in their choices, overwhelmingly young mothers seek and follow advice from their peers, significant others, and family members regardless of whether they are “with the times.” These young mothers’ own mothers are especially influential. This is also a challenge in that the older generation raised children differently than what is now recommended.
In relating to the older generation, we are advised to say something along the lines of “We know a lot more than we knew then,” but we also have to remember that these mothers did raise at least one child in the era of “don’t pick up the baby lest he spoil,” “crying is good for the lungs,” “don’t spare the rod,” and “children should be seen and not heard, and probably not even seen”—and her child appears fine today.
Seemingly more so than any other part of society, childrearing is slow to catch up with what the research shows are the best practices. The medical community, the automobile industry, even lawn chemicals seem to advance more quickly in finding what is healthiest for families and communicating that to parents. We don’t see parents trying to treat strep throat with peroxide anymore; they go to the doctor for a prescription of antibiotics. We know that children are safest in the back seat of the car and which car seat works best for each age group. And in the case of lawn chemicals, we now know that when Dad is spraying the yard, to keep the kids in the house. But there are still so many pervasive myths alive today regarding childrearing.
We know from a mountain of neurologic research the importance of childrearing, especially in the infant and early childhood years, on the direct development of the brain. We can see brain scans of the differences. We can read about differences in levels of neurotransmitters. We know that what was once thought as “normal” non-physical discipline can now be classified as emotional child abuse—that while invisible, the marks left emotionally often far exceed the damage of physical abuse, linked directly to many mental health issues from anxiety and depression to personality disorders and others. Yet, despite all this knowledge, our society is still struggling to change the way parents relate to their children.
There are a lot of factors, but I feel a strong one is that childrearing doesn’t have its own profession associated with it. Parenting advice comes from so many angles that it’s impossible to have a clear picture of the situation, a solid front of information. Many parents get information from the medical community, which relies on the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, two great organizations that address many issues, but not all of them, and in just the past year, at least one recommendation from the AAP was based on sub-par research. And then parents also get information from teachers, child care providers, religious organizations, and peer support groups, all of which tend to have their own agendas, not created from sound science but rather from personal opinions. Many parents can tell of their family physician giving out advice based on his personal opinion, too.
Fortunately, parenting advice is becoming more solid for children once they begin school. But as the Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families reports, the early childhood years are still a hotbed of countering childrearing advice, and the importance of infant mental health is still largely unknown among families. And yet, the earlier abuse—whether overt or “normal”—occurs in a person’s life, the more impact it will have, certainly because the brain is growing at the fastest rate during a child’s first three years of life. This is well-researched and organizations like The Urban Child Institute and Attachment Parenting International work to get this research to parents through professionals and peer counselors as well as direct parent education materials.
One organization, the National Parenting Education Network, is working toward making parent education a globally recognized professional field so that parent educators would become a mainstay in medical centers, schools, and other locations in recognition of the vital importance of healthy, evidence-based childrearing choices from before birth (because prenatal care counts, too) and on.
But first, we as a society, have to get to the point where we recognize the vital importance of parenting as a major contributor to lifelong mental health, and therefore demand a change in how society views mental health and the value that should be placed on this part of our lives. Our society is very much on board in terms of physical and sexual child abuse prevention. These forms of child abuse, as well as neglect of physical needs such as food and bathing, are very much looked down upon. Most of us wouldn’t turn and walk away with a clear conscience if we saw such a thing in our neighborhood. But emotional neglect and abuse prevention still requires a lot of public education; there are still whole generations who believe that it’s OK to shame, humiliate, insult, ignore, and yell at children, especially infants and toddlers. They may not have the ability to recall physical memories in these young years, but their emotional memories are there for life. Emotionally abused children are affecting our society in profound ways as adults, and we should be giving more notice to that as a whole.