LOVING tenderness and nurture generate the healthy organisation of children’s developing brains. Love poured into a child through tender interactions sets up the ability to form warm relationships throughout life, and stimulates spoken language. Spoken language is the solid base from which literacy springs. And literacy, as it is mastered, is a tool to grow language further.
Our knowledge and skills, therefore, grow straight from loving interaction. Such tenderness is the formational basis of children’s capability for human functioning. It is the glue and the means of richly flourishing individuals and society.
But the converse holds too. Environments and relationships in which loving tenderness is punctuated by violence and neglect cause impairment in children’s brain development and stifle acquisition of language and pro-social skills such as self-calming, attention, trust, mindfulness of others and connected relationships. This diminishment creates massive obstacles for children’s future learning and flourishing long before they get to school — generating disadvantages which can be borne into adulthood. But it’s not the children’s fault: their developing selves didn’t receive love consistently. It’s easy to see this of children. But what of teens?
Anglicare’s Social Action Research Centre (SARC) has released Too Hard?, a report about the lived experiences of vulnerable teens in Tasmania. It’s disturbing. If you’re comfortably middle-class you’ll be rocked by what you read. It reveals stories of children living with violence and fear, and absence of tenderness and security. There’s no consistent love to report. The savage diminishment to these teens is shown. It’s not their fault.
If we think circumspectly, it’s also hard to blame the parents of these children, most of whom suffered the same plight when they were children. No one can give what they’ve never been given.
Too Hard? shows the devastation of cycles of hardship which make consistent tenderness and security unknown within these families — smashing capability for functioning and flourishing. Born to differing circumstances, the report depicts that which could have befallen anyone.
But love is powerful. Not only does it stimulate growth and flourishing in the first instance, it also ameliorates and heals. The raw knowledge of the hardships endured by the unanchored kids of the Too Hard? report can be used to evict our judgment of them and call in our kindness.
Kindness is love that community can pour in. We should be kind. It is in the better selves of us all. And our social institutions should be kind. This becomes an imperative when dealing with children like the Too Hard? teens who have not received consistent tenderness from anywhere.
If the devastating cycles are to be unwound, public agencies must provide for safe tenderness within their policies and their structures. As the compounding of small errors leads to accidents, so the compounding of unkindnesses maintains conditions such as Too Hard? has revealed. Yet the responsibility to work from an attitude of love cannot be airbrushed if devastation and disadvantage are to be turned.
SARC’s report identifies that the kids are “hard”. But trauma research identifies that healing is possible. Ordinary kindness and non-judgment allow us all to participate in restorative justice practice. Random acts of kindness are great, but it is the persistent, courageous, unselfish acts of listening, connecting, and “being with” which give restoration its power.
Holding consistently kind space for “hard” kids requires non-judgment as a way of being and responding in all who serve — face-to-face workers, policy makers, community members passing in the street. Reports like Too Hard?can make it feel easy to tut-tut at the system, without reflecting that we are the system by what we allow, encourage and congratulate.
Here is work of positive social change for all: intentional development within ourselves, of kindness, compassion, empathy. Thinker Richard Rohr puts it this way: “personal transformation and social transformation are one piece”. There’s not one of us who is unable to actively contribute to the healing of the wound SARC has revealed. We have the glue. We are the means.
Rosalie Martin is a criminologist, speech pathologist and the 2017 Tasmanian Australian of the Year.