Monday, November 5, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Rethinking Childhood Hunger


   Watching the ravages of hurricane Sandy, and hearing, not surprisingly, that the wealthiest families have more resources to survive and recover from nature’s fury, I’ve taken pause to look at poverty from the perspective of children and the most important fundamentals for their success.
   The neediest children are not necessarily those without iPods or the latest fashion trends. When thinking about poverty, images of children without basic resources come to mind. We imagine kids who come to school wearing torn, ill-fitting clothing, holes in their shoes, without winter coats to protect from the elements. Perhaps these children reside in homeless shelters or foster homes, or maybe their parents are simply inadequate. We may even tell ourselves these would never be our kids. Those children receiving welfare, food stamps, eligible for free lunch programs have parents—if they even have parents—who aren’t providing for their basic needs.
   Sometimes the best dressed kids with the biggest houses and newest electronic gadgets are the neediest of all. Especially if they are lacking in one of the most essential ingredients for growing healthy children—unconditional love and positive regard. The first months and years of an infants’ lives are framed within the context of attachment to consistent, loving, available primary caregivers. Babies feel safe when they can rely on their basic needs being met. If they are fed with hungry, changed when wet, comforted when afraid, they learn to feel secure in the world. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this first stage of life, on which the rest of a child’s cognitive development is built, Basic Trust vs. Mistrust. Think of this stage as the straw foundation of one Little Pig’s house vs. another built of brick that can withstand the huffs and puffs of life. While the outside of the straw house may look more majestic, wealthier even, without bulletproof strength, beauty is a mere illusion. Trust does not develop through perfect parenting or and mistrust does not develop because a baby’s cry is sometimes unheard. In fact,  D W Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother” tells us that infants are resilient and they do not need flawless parents in order to thrive.
   The richest children, are in fact, those who are protected by unconditional love and knowing that impenetrable regard of their worthiness withstands mistakes and failures. Whether a child hits a home run or strikes out for the fiftieth time in a row, she is loved equally. Her parents are proud of her persistence as much as they are her success. That’s not to say her self esteem is based on getting a trophy for waking up in the morning or that she deserves a medal for failing a test for which she did not study—only that the love she receives is not contingent on performance. Her parents will not like or approve of every choice she makes, because if they do she is not testing her independence or autonomy. Her parents will love her regardless of those choices. Unconditional regard does not mean she escapes consequences for poor decisions or that she is prevented from failing or learning from those failures. It means she has a safe place to fall, into the endless love she has built from the security of those first attachments.
As therapists, we sometimes see the materially wealthiest children living in a dearth of self-esteem because they lack the security of feeling loved. While this does not mean an absence of love or even unconditional love, it does mean that kids do not always feel the presence of this positive regard. Sometimes parents mistake being good providers or meeting their children’s material wishes to be the same as giving them the security of impermeable emotional safety. Despite what naysayers believe, this does not create egocentric, narcissistic children, but children who are confident enough to allow that the success of their peers does not mean their own failure or inadequacy as human beings.
So, as we pledge $10 with our smart phones, or call in donations to the Red Cross for hurricane survivors, we cannot forget the cheapest and most important resource that some kids lack, whether sleeping in a mansion or disaster shelter.

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