PATHWAYS TO A MORE PEACEFUL AND SUSTAINABLE WORLD: THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

I pledge to be a global citizen and help bring PEACE for one and all:
By treating all children with love, hope, and kindness;
By respecting and helping others every day; and
By thinking about how I can work with others to bring positive change in my home, neighborhood, workplace, community, and the world at large with help from the Early Childhood Peace Consortium https://ecdpeace.org/.”
by James LECKMAN, MD, PhD

Run-Down Photo Album of the Event |
PROGRAMME – Booklet of the Event

The below Paper is presented at the following titled event, ‘IN A GENTLE WAY, YOU CAN SHAKE THE WORLD’ – MAHATMA GANDHI ~ MAN OF THE MILLENNIUM” at The Salvation Army International Social Justice Commission in NYC on October 1, 2019.

Let me begin by thanking Bircan Ünver of The Light Millennium NGO and the Shanti Fund for the opportunity to join you this afternoon to celebrate the life of Mahatma Gandhi.

Like the Shanti Fund and the Light Millennium NGO, my colleagues and I are committed to promote peace and enlightenment through education. And like so many others I greatly admire Mahatma Gandhi.

Quoting Gandhi:

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children…”                           

Through my work with UNICEF, the Early Childhood Peace Consortium, and a number of other organizations across the globe, I am convinced that if we invest in how we raise our children, we will have a more peaceful and sustainable world. We need to join forces with the international community to make this a reality.

I could speak at great length about the importance of the nurturing care that is offered by parents and other caregivers in the first days of a child’s life, it’s effects on early brain development and how it sets the stage for the child’s future socio-emotional and cognitive abilities. There are a number of recent books and articles that make a compelling case for this reality:

During my brief presentation, I plan to focus on just three topics: (1) The importance of nurturing care; (2) Toxic stress and its adverse impact on a child and her or his family; and (3) the challenges we face if we are really to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

(1) The importance of nurturing care on early brain development. The development of the structure and function of a child’s brain provides the foundation for all future learning and behavior. The basic structure of the brain is constructed through a complex ongoing process that begins shortly after conception and continues into adulthood, but it is during the first years of life that the brain undergoes a series of truly extraordinary changes.

Before birth, the brain produces billions of neurons and trillions of “synapses” – these are connections between brain cells. At birth, a baby’s brain contains more than 100 billion neurons. There are as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Believe it or not, in the 1st year of life 700-1,000 new neural connections are made per second, a pace that is never again achieved. Remarkably, by age 3 years, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain.

Importantly, we have learned that it is early life experiences that directly impact the structure and function of the developing brain. During these sensitive periods the circuits form that underlie our sensory systems – that are required for being able to feel things, as well as to hear and see. This is followed by the formation of the synaptic connections that are required for receptive language as well as for speech production. Then by the end of the first year of life the neural circuits that support our higher cognitive and socio-emotional skills peak. So in sum, the structure of our brains is comprised of billions of connections between individual neurons across different areas of the brain. These connections enable lightning-fast communication among neurons that specialize in different kinds of brain function. The early years are the most active period for establishing these neural connections and this complex process is experience-dependent. As a result, the infant’s environment and early experiences affect the development of their brain structure, which in turn provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.

Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair our brains and our bodies – with these negative effects lasting into adulthood.

Indeed, there is a way in which adversity can be biologically embedded in the child. Fortunately, early childhood development and parenting programmes aimed at enhancing responsive parenting can reduce the impact of adverse childhood experiences (poor nutrition, neglect, abuse, and other forms of dysfunction in the home). These interventions can positively impact brain structure and function, as well as our hormonal and immune systems, and even how our DNA is read and transcribed!

(2) Toxic stress and its adverse impact on a child and their family.  Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity. We can make a list of these adversities, including biological adversities – such as malnutrition, as well as exposure to toxic substances, like lead in the environment. Then there are psychosocial adversities that include exposure to violence in the home and the community, emotional neglect or abuse, as well as, and/or the accumulated burdens of poverty and family economic hardship. Toxic stress can have devastating consequences on physical and mental health of a child. Sadly, at the end of 2017 there were close to 69 million forcibly displaced individuals, more than 25 million refugees and over half of these refugees were under 18 years old. The number of children living in conflict zones rose by 74% over the past decade. Here is another sobering statistic. Last year, more than 29 million babies were born into conflict-affected areas. Just imagine — 1 in 5 babies born globally spent their earliest moments in communities affected by the dangers and chaos of conflict. These areas include regions of Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and other countries including many in Central America. Thoughts too of the children separated from their parents at our Southern border in the United States.

Of course, the ongoing conflicts and chaotic realties in many of these communities will go on for years, if not decades. Imagine what these children experience as they grow up. What will they see and hear over the course of their childhoods. Losing friends and family members. Or watching helplessly as their neighborhoods are destroyed. Conflict affects not only their physical safety. Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, at a conference last week, reported that one of her colleagues based in Yemen reported the following. “Some of the young children we see shake with fear, uncontrollably, for hours on end. They don’t sleep. You can hear them whimpering. Others are so malnourished and traumatized, they detach emotionally from the world and people around them, causing them to become vacant, and making it nearly impossible for them to interact with their parents and other family members.”

In addition, The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1/3rd of the world’s children <18 years old experience harsh punishment or physical abuse in their homes. United Nations estimates that at least 133–275 million children globally witness violence between primary caregivers and sadly more than 220 million children are victims of sex trafficking each year. I mention the issue of sexual abuse and trafficking as I am here today because of my connection to the World Childhood Foundation that was founded by the Queen of Sweden 20 years ago to address and prevent sexual abuse at a global level.

In conclusion, the effects of early adversity (including neglect) can have far reaching consequences. As a rule, the earlier in life the adversity begins, and the longer it lasts, the more profound the effects. If we want to reduce the burden of “disease” (both physical and psychological), we need to take steps to address the reality of toxic stress and improve the environment and support systems of the children growing up in adverse circumstances.

Sadly, exposure to violence at an early age can be extremely detrimental to a child’s development and is causally related to a broad range of negative outcomes and indeed, to varying degrees, violence can become self-perpetuating.

(3) The challenges we face if we are to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. As I just mentioned, toxic stress can affect a child’s future. Let me emphasize that Parenting Begets Parenting. Indeed, a crucially important predictor of future parenting behavior is how parents were parented themselves. This reality has the potential to create virtuous or vicious cycles. As a consequence, in my estimation, early child development and parenting programmes can provide a foundation for sustainable development. I could walk you through the 17 SDG goals and point out the important role early childhood development can play in achieving each these goals, but let me again quote Mahatma Gandhi –

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.                            

We need to take action to make our world a better place for our children and for future generations. Next steps include a commitment to refine, adapt and implement in a sustainable fashion ECD and parenting programmes of proven value across the globe. There is an urgent need for investments in nutrition, education, health and protection for children in emergencies, including more tools and support to create safe spaces where children can learn and play. We need to renew the UN’s call to all parties to conflict, to adhere to international law…and stop targeting the schools, hospitals and water systems. IF governments, institutions, organizations design & implement Early Child Development Programs of proven value that build context-specific, peace-relevant attitudes, skills & knowledge in children, family, and government institutions; THEN there will be: (1) increased vertical & horizontal social cohesion; (2) a reduced risk of transgenerational transmission of violence; & (3) increased economic growth and sustainable development within communities, and at national and international levels. In addition, it is also clear that there are substantial economic benefits associated with the implementation of high quality parent-child interventions in the early preschool years.

Every country’s future depends on building the human capital of its youngest citizens. I am so grateful for the work being done by the UN, and so many non-governmental organizations – The MacArthur Foundation, The LEGO Foundation, The International Rescue Committee, the Mother-Child Education Foundation and so many others.

I look forward to listening to, and learning from, all of you today, as we join forces to protect the key to our common future — the minds of our youngest citizens.

And I would be most grateful if each of you would consider taking the pledge of the Early Childhood Peace Consortium:

I pledge to be a global citizen and help bring PEACE for one and all:

By treating all children with love, hope, and kindness;

By respecting and helping others every day; and

By thinking about how I can work with others to bring positive change in my home, neighborhood, workplace, community, and the world at large with help from the Early Childhood Peace Consortium https://ecdpeace.org/

Thank you all and let us become agents of change.

_ . _


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