Brazelton & Greenspan: “Could our need to deny vulnerability in ourselves mean that we have to deny seeing it in our children?”

Dr. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Stanley Greenspan, giants in the field of early childhood, published, “Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish,” in 2000. Known for their groundbreaking research and cutting edge approach, this book remains a must-read for those wondering how we could do a better job of addressing the needs of children in our society. Below is an excerpt.

Early childhood is both the most critical and the most vulnerable time in any child’s development. Our research, and that of others, demonstrates that in the first few years, the ingredients for intellectual, emotional, and moral growth are laid down. If they are not, it is true that a developing child can still acquire them, but the price rises and the chances of success decrease with each subsequent year. We cannot fail children in these early years.

The “irreducible needs” (detailed in the book) are experiences and types of nurturing to which every child has a right. In a society as affluent as ours, no one has a right to ignore them. Yet once we define these needs, it becomes clear that our society is failing many of its families and small children at present.

Approximately 50 percent of young children are now reared for significant parts of the day by persons other than their biological parents. Here we’re not talking about after-school programs for school-aged children. We’re talking about infants and toddlers in the first three years of life. From the 1970s through the 1990s, there has been a transformation of the attitudes of families towards raising their own children. During this time, there has been a huge increase in the number of families giving up the care of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to others for 35 or more hours a week.

 …The most comprehensive study of the quality of day care reported that the vast majority of center-based care was not of high quality (over 85 percent was not of high quality for preschool children and over 90 percent was not of high quality for infants and toddlers).

Even when children are cared for at home for the first few years, there are still worrisome trends. There has been a shift towards more impersonal, rather than emotionally nurturing types of caregiving for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and children. A recent report from the Kaiser Foundation revealed on average, children are spending five to six hours a day in front of the TV or computer screen. During this time, children are not receiving nurturing warmth or age-appropriate social or intellectual interactions.

But this is just one sign of the movement towards impersonal care. Many families are overly scheduled. Both parents are working to make ends meet or to improve the family’s economics, leaving little relaxed family time. Education is becoming more impersonal as it is, more technologically oriented, losing the personal touch. Families in their own relationships with one another are also moving towards more impersonal modes of communication. E-mails are replacing lunches together and time in front of the screen is replacing many other forms of personal interaction. Recreation as well as work is taking place in a more impersonal atmosphere, with less interaction among and within families.

In spite of the considerable evidence for the importance of early experience, some argue that later experiences are equally important. However, they are not distinguishing the early essential experiences which help children relate, read social cues, and think (and take years of therapy to recreate even partially later on) from attitudes, values, and academic skills which are acquired throughout life.

Overly simplified psychological, as well as biological, explanations can lead the public and professionals to believe that behavior can be controlled by simply rearranging rewards and punishments. This in turn can put the focus on discipline, rather than compassion, warmth, and love.

Why are we moving so dramatically into more impersonal ways of interacting with our children and in family life?

… We often associate human evolution with survival of the fittest, species competing with one another for survival. However there is another trend, one that doesn’t often get associated with evolution per se, but may be a very important component of our development as complex human being’s capacity to form families and cooperate in larger social organizations.

…Human beings have to be able to work cooperatively, compassionately, and empathetically with others in a group in all aspects of life.

 …New generations of children will be able to carry out these functions only if they are reared in nurturing empathetic families. Advanced societies, in order to compete economically and militarily and through stable government structures, require nurturing care for the children who will become the adults.

 …we seem comfortable focusing on the competitive survival side and do not seem comfortable focusing as much on the nurturing side. The theme of nurturance is associated with vulnerability and helplessness. Vulnerability, helplessness, and the need for nurturing care seem antithetical to the assertive self-sufficiency so embedded in the competitive ethic of survival. Could our need to deny vulnerability in ourselves mean that we have to deny seeing it in our children?

The question then becomes why now? Why should this conflict at present be even more apparent and more undermining to our child care policies? Perhaps the economic progress we have made so that most of us can take basic needs for granted has contributed to our neglect of nurturing needs.

… we need to have a clear picture of the basic needs of children around which families must organize themselves. If we can’t meet the needs of children, we may compromise the capacities of future generations to sustain families and provide economic and political stability.

The Irreducible Needs:

  • The Need for Ongoing Nurturing Relationships
  • The Need for Physical Protection, Safety, and Regulation
  • The Need for Experiences Tailored to Individual Differences
  • The Need for Developmentally Appropriate Experiences
  • The Need for Limit Setting, Structure, and Expectations
  • The Need for Stable, Supportive Communities and Cultural Continuity

— T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. & Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. (excerpts from: The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish)

T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.

Thomas Berry Brazelton is a noted pediatrician and author in the United States. Major hospitals throughout the world use the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS). Many parents know him as the host of a cable television program What Every Baby Knows, and as author of a syndicated newspaper column. Brazelton has written more than two hundred scholarly papers and twenty four books. He has been described as “America’s most celebrated and influential baby doctor since Benjamin Spock”.

Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D.

Stanley Greenspan, now deceased, was a clinical professor of Psychiatry, Behavioral Science, and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and a practicing child psychiatrist. He was best known for developing the influential Floortime approach for treating children with autistic spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. He was Chairman of the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders and also a Supervising Child Psychoanalyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. Dr. Greenspan was the founding president of Zero to Three Foundation: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Clinical Infant Developmental Program and Mental Health Study Center.

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