Do children who grow up in extreme poverty lack intelligence and imagination?
A toddler sits in the sand, eyes clouded. He simply sits. Occasionally listlessly handling a pebble. That’s it. Extreme poverty robs a child of adequate stimulation, of joyful exploration, of life-giving nutrition and care. No, poor children are not born less curious and motivated than affluent children, they become so because by the age of two their systems can already be in shutdown.
The number of first 1 000 days initiatives refer to the importance of the first two and a half years in a child’s life, when the brain forms an intricate network of neural connections – or doesn’t. Here is a quote from UNICEF (https://www.unicef-irc.org/article/958-the-first-1000-days-of-life-the-brains-window-of-opportunity.html)
While the human brain continues to develop and change throughout life, the most rapid period of brain growth and its period of highest plasticity is in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life. The human brain at 5 months post-conception is a smooth, bi-lobed structure that looks somewhat like a coffee bean. By 9 months, i.e. term birth, it has gyri and sulci indicative of significant complexity, looking far more like the walnut-like adult brain. At birth, rapidly developing brain areas include the hippocampus and the visual and auditory cortices. In the first postnatal year, there is rapid growth of the language processing areas as well as early development of the prefrontal cortex that will control “higher processing” such as attention, inhibition, and flexibility. The first 1,000 days are characterized by rapid rates of neuronal proliferation (cell numbers), growth and differentiation (complexity), myelination, and synaptogenesis (connectivity). Thus, this time period harbors the greatest opportunity to provide optimal nutrition to ensure normal development and also the time of greatest brain vulnerability to any nutrient deficit.
The irony is that ordinary children, in ordinary homes, who have basic good nutrition, who have their questions answered, and have sufficient spaces and things (but not too many) to explore, both inside the home and outside, who hear stories read to them and have peers to engage with, will be fine. It is ironically these parents who read the research on the importance of the early years, and who then tend to expand toys and information provision to such an extent that it becomes demotivating to children (another toy-another 5 minutes distraction, another over elaborate explanation, and another loss of interest. Overstimulation an over provision lead to disillusionment, that sense of emptiness that seems to be growing in our youth. But more about this in a later blog.)
The gap between rich and poor is not only that of money and material goods. The stimulation gap is the largest of all. And in my opinion the most devastating in the long term.
My own granddaughters love animated films. They can watch them over and over again. Afterwards they play out themes from these movies with little figurines and everyday objects; princesses and ponies, witches and heroine’s, romantic hero’s and speaking animals. High heel shoes become coaches, galloping along on their heels.
I tried to show the animated films to the granddaughter of the domestic worker who works at my house. I had encouraged her to bring the little girl during the holidays, as she is in the same age group as my granddaughters. The little girl tried valiantly to watch, but couldn’t. She could not make sense of what she was watching, and was relieved to go back to what she was playing with before: cooking on the little stove with pretend food and cleaning with the little broom and dustpan. This she knew, having grown up thus. I realised that children need scaffolding to access Disney, and that having watched children’s television shows such as C-Beebees and Peppa the Pig, Thomas the Train -and my personal favourite, Shaun the Sheep – as well having listened to stories being read about fictional characters, where dogs and chickens talk, where strange characters tell fabulous make-believe stories, these are all preparation for being seduced by The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo. And then making up your own version yourself. This is why I believe that Einstein was right when he wrote that imagination is more important than intelligence. It is as much lack of imagination that is keeping people trapped in the concrete, as it is lack of “intelligence.” Imagination requires soil with adequate nutrients to grow.
We have a farm in Namibia. A new farm worker arrives with his wife and two small children. The little girl is 4, her brother 15 months. Lucky for them, my friend who is the principal at a preschool, has joined us for the long weekend. She takes one look at the one child sitting listlessly in the sand, the other hanging idly about. “Oh NO”, she says, these children need toys. In a jiffy she has turned a plastic bottle into a type of rattle with tiny stones, has collected an assortment of objects in a bucket for the toddler: a scoop, my multi-coloured measuring cups, a small jug to pour water with, a wooden spoon and a small pot to fill and to use as a drum (“I will buy you another one”). Soon she is making the little girl a doll, using stuffing from a pillow and a pillow case. She sews on eyes, nose and mouth as the little girl watches entranced. The doll gets long blue strands of woollen hair, and a dress made from dishcloth. Cleverly my friend then makes her a little bag that she can carry the doll in. She demonstrates to the boy how to play. He had NO idea. No networks stimulated into firing, no networks growing into other networks. The little girl gesticulates to my friend to change the bag so that the ‘baby’ could sit on her back. “See”, my friends says delightedly, “she is beginning to think, to plan!”. And to imagine.
Children in poor environments need “pretend” from an early age as much as they need nutrition. It starts with a plastic duck in a bath tub, a chink of driftwood flying “zjoo0” as an aeroplane, and expands with increasingly multi-layered exposures. This fires up children’s neural systems, creating multiple pathways.
I am in the Cape Town Waterfront. The bridge connecting two sections is lifting to allow a boat through into the dry docks. As I watch, I notice a young father, holding his young boy of about three years old on his arm. He is pointing towards the bridge and talking to his son. He seems to be carefully explaining what is happening. Both are engrossed in the magic of the moment. And then I spot the other father. He has son of roughly the same age, standing next to him. Both are watching. None are speaking. No explanation, no connection. A different part of town, a different experience. I wish I could have made a video.
If poor babies and toddlers lived in the same environments as non-poor babies, if they received similar stimulation from the start, we would not have this gap. Toddlers, given half an opportunity, instinctively respond. They will crawl eagerly to explore, eyes shining.. (Whilst houseworkers, overstressed poor mothers and authoritarian parents try to put a stop to it . . the pulling out of pots and pans too disruptive, too noisy, too untidy, too risky. This is where television as a babysitter becomes a real threat to a child’s development),
We know that the educational level of mothers is a crucial determinant of the educational futures of their children. From experience I would add that working class mothers are often overburdened and under-supported, especially by the fathers of their children. It is hard for a mother who has anxieties about day-to-day survival to engage spontaneously with a child.
I end off with an extract from The Institute of Family Studies: (https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-many-ways-mothers-education-matters)
The concept of human capital is easiest to understand. Essentially, it refers to individuals’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, which they develop primarily through education and “capitalize” on in the workforce. In the realm of parenting, a college degree (or the knowledge and skills it stands for) seems to make people interact with their kids differently. Take the famous thirty-million word gap, for example: some scholars estimate that children of parents on welfare hear 30 million fewer words by the age of four than the children of professional parents.
The gap is not only about quantity, but quality: Better educated parents also use a wider vocabulary, and they dole out affirmations (not just complimenting kids, but repeating and building on what they say) more generously than less educated parents. Learning lots of words early in life is tied to better academic outcomes down the road, so parents’ early conversations with kids have long-lasting implications.
Mothers’ education also matters later in childhood: College-educated mothers are able to more appropriately tailor cognitively stimulating activities to their children’s developmental level , and they are more equipped to help kids do homework and study for tests.