Affection can cure many ills
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
A day in Ricky T.’s Life
"Do u know why I am scared of the dark? Do you know why I have these scars? Well daddy is gone and mommy is too high to hug, so who is there to share my battered love? When daddy is here, he beats on momma, he beats on us, and he keeps on going even though that is enough. My older brother tells me to “just be tough” even though the pain is immense, and daddy says “you better not tell anyone if you have any good sense.” The liquor off his breath beats me in the face; the crack smoke is stale in the air. His eyes are red, he is terribly strong, he looks like a monster, oh God I’m scared! I try to stay calm so the beatings will stop, but I’m scared to even do that. Now my brother is doing the same, kicking and punching or just a quick slap. I hate my life, I wish I could trade it in, but I guess the pain will subside eventually, because if it doesn’t I’ll turn like them, and then there will never be an end!"
This poem is written by my longtime friend and former prison inmate Smokey, who is coming along -– coming around, leading the life that is real and not always easy. Smokey handed me a full book of his poems and said “Judy, use them as you want -– just make sure the book comes back to me when you’re done.” He’s gone through a 2-year business course and graduated, has 2 children and a wife and hits no one. He is a gentle, non-violent soul who I respect and admire and runs an internet radio station devoted to prison poets and poetry called "Long-Talk."
I see one of his children almost every day; he calls me Judy-Pooty and is so excited about coming to QUEST that his mom has to watch him for when the van and I pull up. Winter and summer he tears out of the house bare feet and all running down the front steps yelling “Judy-Pooty, Judy-Pooty!” And I sit in the car and smile and smile and smile.
I’d like to take a minute here to talk about grandparents and uncles and aunts.
Every day on my rides through the Hill I see these older folk with their young charges. Holding hands, buttoning coats, pushing on hats and scarfs. Showing so much care and love no matter how long the day may become. I just want to stop and jump out of the car and applaud and yell “good job – good job.”
I wish I had some things to hand out, like gold stars or cups of hot coffee, just some way to let everyone know how special they are. We have had grandparents groups in an informal way for years. Dubbed the Bitch and Moan Club, this was a way for caregivers to get together and talk things out, to look for better avenues for their young charges and just to know they weren’t alone.
I will never forget the couple I met at a school meeting. They had a 4-year-old granddaughter in a Head Start program, the woman was on oxygen and the man had prostate cancer; or Quanni’s grandmother who was 83 with a heart condition and who was bringing up Quanni alone. Quanni was 8 at the time. These people are amazing and yet if you tell them so, they say “I’m just doing my job -– that’s all.”
“Even as a solid rock is unshaken by the wind, so are the wise unshaken by praise or blame.”
-- The Dhammapada
Perhaps the most widespread peril children face isn’t guns, swimming pools, or speeding cars. This month the American Academy of Pediatrics is issuing a landmark warning that toxic stress can harm children for life. This is a policy statement from the premier association of pediatricians based on two decades of scientific research. This has revolutionary implications for medicine and for how we can chip away at poverty and crime.
Toxic stress might arise from parental abuse of alcohol and drugs. It could occur in a home where children are threatened and beaten. It might derive from chronic neglect -– a child cries without being cuddled (how often do I see this -– “man up” the parent will say, or “don’t be such a baby.”) Affection seems to defuse chronic stress -– keep those hugs and lullabies coming! -– suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector! I once taught a 4-year-old that came from a stressful home to stand up and say “Judy says I’m a good boy.”
Cues of a hostile or indifferent environment flood an infant or even a fetus with stress hormones like cortisol in ways that can disrupt the body’s metabolism or the architecture of the brain.
The thing is that children can be permanently undermined. Even many years later, as adults, they are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments. They are also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.
The crucial period is from conception through early childhood. After that the brain is less pliable and has trouble being remolded. This brings to mind the parenting procedure called attachment parenting, where parents’ breast feed until age 3 and carry and hold their children often and sometimes even sleep in the same bed.
“You can modify behavior later but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,” says Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician who has been a leader in his field. “We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning.
This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth. Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine but others may skip school, abuse drugs, break the law and have trouble settling down in marriage and a job. And so the wheels keep turning and the cycle continues and continues.
The research suggests that the root of impairment and underachievement are biologically embedded but preventable. “This is the biology of social class disparities,” Dr. Shonkoff said. “Early experiences are literally built into our bodies.”
Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society including limited educational productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.” The pediatrics academy said in its policy statement: Cuddling and reading to children as well as breast feeding is strongly recommended from birth on.
The science is still accumulating. Children who had been badly neglected in orphanages and spent considerable time there were closely examined and findings showed these children had shorter telomeres, a change in chromosomes that’s a marker of accelerated aging. Their brain scans, to put it simply, looked different. Even ADD/HD (i.e. trouble concentrating) was more frequent in children living in disruptive conditions.
A compelling message from biology is that if we want to chip away at poverty and improve educational and health outcomes, we have to start at birth or even conception. Families need to be aware of how even indifference can damage their children. For many children damage has been suffered before the first day of school.
As Frederick Douglass noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Part of this previous section was taken from an article – “A Poverty Solution That Starts with a Hug.” Nicholas D. Kristof. –- N.Y. Times -– Jan 8, 2012.
And so goes nature versus nurture. But maybe both are right and they are closely intertwined. And if not studied and altered could become a serious problem of haves and have-nots. Hugging your family seems like such an easy thing to do. But my own family was pretty hands off and until I was 50 I had problems with intimacy of any kind, even a group hug seems to pose insurmountable difficulties for me.
You know who taught me to hug? hese children of the streets and neighborhood, who would hug my knees and hand or come running to leap on me. They were so spontaneous in their group hugs or pile-ups. They seemed to know instinctively that I was a likely candidate and that I was as much a novice at these affection displays as they were. And we learned together and grew as close as two halves of one blade of grass. We learned to trust, a big thing in their lives as well as mine.
And now we are a giant field of green rooted in the soil of living and waiving gently at the world at large. And even though the world may trample us we spring up yet again and watch the sun, moon and the stars go on their daily journeys. And is this not good? I am tired of wars, be it gangs or nations. I’m for pot lucks and dancing at your neighbors wedding. I believe in long walks, holding hands and rattling old sing-a-longs. Together-together. You do not lose your identity by joining others; rather your person-hood expands and encompasses so much more. Solitude is refreshing, I will give you that, but it also gives you the strength to re-enter and soldier on. Be spontaneous, what can it hurt? Embrace both yourself and life at large.
The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love, die. If the screams of all Earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.
-- P.D. James