FOR THE LOVE OF RELATIONSHIPS – Stronger brains, healthier nation

Attending a brain architecture conference, I learned early childhood experiences affect the development of brain architecture, providing the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. As a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences as a newborn, toddler and preschooler can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood. A nurturing “environment of relationships” is crucial for the development of a child’s brain, especially in the first 5 years which lays the foundation for mental health, and interpersonal skills. To build a resilient and strong child, a child must be nurtured, touched, loved well, have physical, social, intellectual and emotional needs met, and experience early interaction called in the scientific literature, “serve and return”. These repeated interactions are games like peek-a-boo, reacting to the child’s focus of attention, being supportive and encouraging, talking to the child all day long (which also develops language), positively responding to the child and doing these interactions hundreds of times throughout the day.  This develops brain pathways and patterns of positive pro-social behavior. 

This concept was taught by playing the Brain Architecture Game developed by neuroscientist, Judy Cameron, PhD from the University of Pittsburg. She had conference attendees use pipe cleaners, straws and random experience cards to simulate the growth of the brain. If the experience card, selected was positive, each pipe cleaner was reinforced by placing it inside a straw which was a metaphor for social supports. If the experience card was negative or stressful, the pipe cleaner did not receive a reinforcing straw making it weaker and limp. There were also hanging weights that looked like dangly earrings. If the base of the brain was not strong enough, these weights, which represented stress and adverse experiences, collapsed the brain structure we were building.

The implications of this research are cataclysmic. It highlights that family structure, marriage, safe and stable, loving adults matters to child and adult physical and mental health, academic achievement, resiliency, overcoming obstacles, self-regulation, personal competencies, job security and self-sufficiency. A healthy nurturing family is essential. Public policy must support and encourage marriage, family formation and family strengthening efforts. Some policies do that such as the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) welfare Federal block grant to states.  

TANF goals are to:

  • 1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes
  • 2. End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage
  • 3. Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • 4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. 

Many County Commissioners in Colorado have no idea how to use these dollars for this effort. We must rebuild America’s families if we are concerned about public safety, reduction of crime, stopping school shootings, reducing rage and violence, and building healthier communities.  When families
are loving and strong, so is the nation.