There is now evidence for the idea that ‘the baby is the father of the man’ (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). This understanding is part of a ‘quiet revolution’ in our own species understanding of itself. Our earliest experiences become ‘biologically rooted’ in the brain structure and chemistry. The challenge is to move this knowledge into the mainstream to create a critical mass of people which will enable this information to move into practice.
Prevention, unfortunately, is a difficult concept to sell (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). Resistance to public-health initiatives go back to 1854 when the British Physician John Snow tried to convince people that Londoners could avoid cholera by drinking clean water. Snow had discovered that people drinking from the broad street pump were dying. Officials, however, did not believe that the disease was being spread by water – most believed it spread due to poor people who led unkempt lives (a moral issue). Snow continued to see people die and one day out of desperation ripped the handle off the broad street pump – with immediate positive effects. Snow was never given credit for associating the disease with its risk factors while he was alive but is now regarded as the father of epidemiology. In the public health sphere today ‘ripping the handle off the broad street pump’ is now used as a metaphor for taking action.
In seeking to prevent violence today there are many obstacles, many of which are personal (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). It is hard to acknowledge the fact that so many children grow up in appalling conditions and are subject to abuse and neglect. This can trigger memories of our own (similar) experiences and the grief, anger and pain that brings up. Instead, we choose to deny or distance ourselves from it. Another aspect is the feelings of guilt or regret for what we have provided our own children, generally due to ignorance or lack of opportunity. A third element is simply feeling overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of the problem. Berry Brazelton noted biases that impedes progress in preventative work and creating family centred legislation in the US: the belief that families should be self-sufficient and our distaste for failure so we don’t back up people who are not successful. These operate at unconscious levels; if they were brought to the surface people would not stand for it.
Dr. Penelope Leach notes that we still believe children ‘belong’ to parents and that children are each person’s private business (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). Mathew Melmed, executive director of ‘Zero to Three’ says that the whole world has changed in recent decades: work responsibilities, mothers and fathers working, divorce, and family makeup; the whole economic and social fabric has been altered dramatically but the needs of babies haven’t. More mobility means less extended families and more parents working means children have less contact with adults, resulting in teens often spending more time with fellow teens who often are out of control. Dr Kathryn Barnard writes that how people raise their children is not just a matter for the family but for all of society and so as a society we must accept responsibility for how all children are raised. Communities must support the collective need of parents. Bruce Perry describes what he calls ‘devolution’ – as more children are subjected to abuse and neglect, not only are these individuals limited, but society too if affected by this loss.
Efforts to prevent violence generally involve generating lists of effective programmes and distributing information on them in order to mobilise public support – but this strategy has been ineffective in the political arena (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). The best policies and programmes are often fighting to stay alive. Primary prevention programmes struggle to continue to receive funding and are vulnerable to cuts. Einstein noted that we cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. We wait for top-down solutions but these are often not forthcoming. Until there exists an informed public that insists on change, babies will continue to suffer. Change will only come from the bottom up. Bruce Perry writes that no set of intervention strategies will solve transgenerational problems. To solve the problem of violence we need to transform our culture. We need to change our child-rearing practices and the ‘destructive’ view that children are the property of parents. This involves a revivification of the concept of community and its importance for our survival. The key to cultural transformation may not lie in policy and programmes but in our babies. Ed Tronick notes that emotional exchanges between infant and caregivers is the equivalent of nutrients for the body in structuring the brain and the child. Emotional communication is the defining feature of our species.
Karr-Morse, R., & Wiley, M. S. (1997). Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence. Open Road + Grove/Atlantic.