Scotland has one of the worst health records in Europe and the Western World. How do we tackle that? The Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, Sir Harry Burns, argues that the solution is thinking more about how we love our children.
The Times newspaper featured his analysis in a front page story this weekend, 12 January 2013. Admittedly, Sir Harry didn’t use the word ‘love’. He used the word ‘attachment’.
He described attachment as “individuals feeling in control of their lives, [which] is a process that starts very early on [in life], through consistent parenting.” So, effectively, what he means is ‘love’ — because he is telling us that the way our parents were able to love us, when we were children, has affected our ability to keep ourselves emotionally stable, as adults. This is the key message emerging from the study of attachment processes, which has been ongoing for 75 years now, by scientists from a range of disciplines. As he goes on in the article to say: “Young people who don’t experience consistent parenting are less able to manage themselves in stressful situations.”
It’s quite a story to kick off a new year: that one key component of changing our health record, and reducing our NHS bill, is to take loving babies seriously. Scotland is now taking that point so seriously that, later in January, Sir Harry leads the first meeting of the Early Years Collaborative, in which 700 experts are coming together to identify the most effective early years initiatives, so that we take them to a very large scale, across the whole country. If you want to see Sir Harry’s video message, delivered to the group meeting for the Launch of the Early Years Collaborative, in October 2012, you can see it on YouTube.
Raising children is scary, exhausting, exasperating and full of joy. If you are a parent, raising children in poverty, in conflict, without confidence or confidants, without enough time, which of those qualities is most likely to evaporate? The joy, of course. Sir Harry is saying that if parents are to be better able to offer joy and consistency to their children, they need the support of a community. This isn’t true only for parents living in poverty. It’s true for all parents. We all need a good support system, to cope well with the stress of raising kids.
One of the really interesting elements of Sir Harry’s analysis is that, in particular, the industrial collapse that Scotland suffered after the 1950s has led to a social collapse in our communities. It is communities that support parents and children. So, at its core, community regeneration needs to focus not on building houses, but on building relationships.
I am deeply encouraged by the fact that love and attachment and parenting and children’s emotional needs are being taken seriously in Scotland. You can see it happening everywhere. The Parenting Across Scotland Conference, in October 2012 was designed to highlight exactly this message. The Pre-Birth to 3 National Guidelines, launched by Education Scotland in 2010, were written to disseminate exactly this knowledge. The Scottish Executive held their Early Years Preventative Spend Enquiry in 2010 to explore exactly this theme. In 2013, Aberdeen City Council will be using some of their Change Fund allocation to train 4000 staff in exactly this way of working. Their official launch is this week. Imagine, 4000 staff in one single council region, all trained in attachment theory!
Sir Harry is pushing us to realise that love affects our very biology. If our baby brain learned that the world was an unpredictable place, devoid of people who could respond reliably and reassuringly when we felt scared or overwhelmed, then we are more at risk of a whole range of health problems. The NHS pays for those health problems. We pay for the NHS. So the way that ‘other people’ are able to enact loving their babies isn’t ‘their’ ‘problem’. It’s our problem too.
The skeptics will rightly say: but not every kid raised in an inconsistent environment turns out to experience such outcomes. That’s true, they don’t. There is a lot of scientific interest in resilience, in what leads some kids to be able to overcome early challenges and put together a life where they not only survive, but thrive. Drawing attention to the existence of resilient individuals offers all of us hope and relief: early challenges are not a definitive life sentence. It’s not all over by the age of 3 years. But reassurance about the power of resilience does not undermine the core point. All the data show that people who have an emotionally stressful childhood have a significantly increased chance of having an emotionally stressful adulthood, because their brain has been wired for stress, rather than calm.
I love Sir Harry’s concluding sentence in the article: “We’re only five million people in Scotland. If we can’t do it, where can we do it?” It’s 2013. It’s a new year. We now have tons of scientific evidence, as well as political and professional impetus. I say: If we can’t do it now, when can we do it?