On Saturday, May 9, the day before Mother's Day, I received the following personal email in response to my Friday post on Mothering and mental health... I responded immediately and the writer gave me permission to publish it anonymously.
It's been on my mind ever since. The links, by the way, are mine.
Thank you for your article today. Certainly you raise the red flag for children who are funnelled through the mental health system, but what do we do with highly anxious children who simply cannot fit into a mainstream environment?
Increasingly there is reduced emphasis on play in childhood. The Junior Kindergarten and Senior Kindergarten environment both my children are in right now focuses on benchmarks of school readiness, even when my five-year-old daughter (already labelled with ADHD and a severe anxiety disorder) is clearly in need of play and relationship skills.
For our part we are lucky enough to have the financial resources so that my daughter will switch from the current system into a private Montessori school. But what of the other families? And what of families like us, who despite having the financial and educational resources lack the emotional ones?
For example, while university educated and from a middle class background, I was diagnosed with ADHD at 37 after a lifetime of failures at school and career, which brought on depression after depression. My coping skills are substandard to say the least, and I know now that I lack the higher level processing required to keep myself organized and calm without lots of self-prompting built into my day.
I openly admit that my difficulties related to my child might well be a contributor to her current behaviour. I learned TOO LATE of the role that interactive play and engaged relationships have in healthy brain development – she's only five-and-a-half!
Evidence supports the growing school of thought that stressors in a child's environment – be they inadequate relationship support, inadequate nutrition, inadequate stimulation – before the age of six (or even three) create an overdeveloped limbic centre in the brain and thus literally create a "stressed" brain which is then much less responsive to cognitive interventions.
Is there any way we can create a formalized network of wellness and relationship-based initiatives based in play, sport, the arts and nutrition which might support healthy brains by identifying the science and getting this info out to the community?
I'm game to support this as a parent and as an employee in the childcare system. Any chance you could write a blog as an informal tool to gauge public interest? I know many academics in Canada including child and adolescent psychiatrist Jean Clinton of The Offord Centre – and the mother of five children –and her colleagues (associated with McMaster University and McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario) might be willing to support an application to get this kind of network going in communities across Canada.
Looking forward to seeing your thoughts in blog format or by reply to this email.
What an intriguing synthesis of neuroscience sounding a call to turn back the clock for the sake of our youngest children.
And talk about red flags! This email raised dozens for me. Alarms went off. Bells started ringing. Whistles began blowing. Mind-blowing sounds.
I had hoped the comments to this blog would erupt with these concerns, but alas, this didn't happen, proving my point. Young children do not and cannot speak up for themselves. They desperately need advocates who can listen to them actively and empathetically – listen with their eyes, their ears and their hearts.
Especially very young children, most vulnerable to their emotional and physical environments – their relationships, their mental, emotional and physical stimulation, their nutrition – as their young minds and brains, as well as their bodies, are rapidly growing, developing and changing.
I just watched Dr. Jean Clinton's PowerPoint presentation. Have a look. It's based on a broad variety of sources – medical, scientific and other researched-based programs that will give you a quick overview of the complexities of the developing brain – from conception to age 12. Yes, the pre-natal brain/mind. It includes the ground-breaking work of Toronto-based children's advocate Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a program with which I am most familiar.
There is a great deal of "evidence" suggesting many things in our information-driven technological age. But what do we really know for sure about the workings of the brain, especially the childhood brain?
Terms like neuroscience and neuroplasticity are transforming our understanding of how the brain works, but for young children upon whom studies are never performed, the first three to six years of life are and should be sacrosanct.
That's why I think "gauging public interest" across Canada about the level of concern for the mental health of our very young, even unborn children, as this young mother suggests, is so crucial. Why not mounting a movement to reclaim play in childhood, especially in junior and senior kindergarten.
Why are we rushing childhood? Why tamper with kindergarten? Very young children are not mentally and emotionally equipped to learn numbers and the alphabet at the ages of three or four or five. It's too stressful for them.
When I was in kindergarten, in the early 1950s, all we did, was play. Socialize. Eat snacks of cookies and milk. Rest on mats. Cut paper and paste it (with that icky flour and water kind of paste) and play – with wooden blocks, in sand boxes. Simple toys. We learned to share. We ran around outside or we sat in circles and sang sweet simple funny songs with rhymes and riddles. We did all kinds of art like finger-painting and water colours on big easels. Kindergarten was engaging and playful. Our minds were free to explore and develop. It was creative. We learned to relate to other little kids. That's what it was all about.
I'm sure there was more to it than that, but I know we never had to learn to the alphabet or count. Homework? You must be kidding. That wouldn't have been healthy for our little developing brains. That was for the big kids in Grade One.
Sometimes, old traditions stand up better than all the new fangled ideas. Kindergarten was created in 1840 in Germany so children could learn to communicate, play and interact appropriately with each other.
Today, kids learn to interact more through technology, computers, television, in a virtual world. How can these cool media be healthy for developing brains?
Consider The Mothercraft Movement.
It was started 1907 by a New Zealand doctor Truby King who pioneered a system of early childhood care for new mothers in a bid to combat high infant mortality rates. He published a Mothercraft Manual and mothercraft nurses, specially trained in his methods, were dispatched all over the country to teach new mothers.
King prescribed "Twelve Essentials" for the raising of healthy infants. At that time, they were considered revolutionary, but they're still relevant today and worth revisiting: air and sunshine, water, food, clothing, bathing, muscular exercise and sensory stimulation, warmth, regularity, cleanliness, mothering, management and, rest and sleep.
How many of you fit all 12 "essentials" into your daily routine – especially "muscular exercise" and "rest and sleep" with "regularity"? I know I don't!
By 1923, New Zealand had the world's lowest infant mortality rate, and two years later, Dr. Truby King was knighted for his vision of standardized "mothercraft" care and the way it was universally administered. His methods were adopted throughout the British Commonwealth.
One mothercraft nurse, Barbara Mackenzie, moved to Toronto in 1931 and married Irving Robinson, the president of the board of the Hospital for Sick Children. Together, they founded the Canadian Mothercraft Society.
There have been other experts. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renown pediatrician and psychoanalyst published his landmark book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. It's still in print today.
I'm hoping my HealthZone.ca editor Brandie Weikle, who also edits and blogs at ParentCentral.ca along with Ann Douglas who writes The Mother of All Parenting Blogs will have a look at this email and consider raising these concerns with their online communities.
Perhaps all three of us can raise these questions and help to create a groundswell of interest in a proposed pan-Canadian "network" of individuals and childcare experts with a variety of resources to consider the issues raised so passionately by this young mother.
Healthy children have a much better chance of growing into healthy adults. Isn't health the best legacy you can give your child?
What do you think? How do you feel about this? We were all children. I'm inviting you to share your ideas, your memories of your childhood. How were you mothered? Schooled? Raised? How has it affected you? What are your concerns about your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, friends' children? How do these questions resonate with you?
Let us put our heads together. We may not all be "mothers" or "fathers" but we're all sons and daughters. Let's empathize with today's children and help them reclaim their childhood.
Don't you think they deserve it?