We have made progress since 1994. There is more housing, more social security, more homes with electricity and fewer people in abject poverty. But we still live in a divided society and there’s much that hasn’t improved. Education is poor, jobs are scarce, and crime and violence is commonplace.
Into this context, two children are born. At conception both their genes hold the promise of abundant potential. But as each child takes that first breath, certain critical foundations have been laid that are difficult to undo. Just 16 days after conception, the neural plate – the foundation of the baby’s brain and spinal cord, develops. Soon millions and millions of neurons start to form and, at their peak of growth, connect to each other at a rate of 700 connections per second. This neural circuitry is the basic brain architecture that enables complex cognitive development to take place during early childhood. In fact, much of the scaffolding for language development and critical thinking is laid down in infancy.
This sophisticated platform for future growth and development needs just four basic elements:
Statistically speaking, the South African experience is that one child will receive an abundance of these… the second, will not.
When a child misses out on some of these elements, she is exposed to continuous stress – fewer neural connections are made, and the brain circuitry is not developed to its full potential. And so these children are thrust onto two very different life trajectories. The first, set on a course to learn, achieve and thrive, whilst the second’s efforts are focused on survival in a tough world.
In the years that follow, the degree of exposure to language, stories and books will either widen the gap between these children, or will be key to narrowing it. Babies and toddlers that hear more words develop a larger vocabulary. As a result, when they go to school, they read better because they understand more. Language and reading is key to understanding, and understanding is at the heart of learning. School children that struggle to comprehend and learn continue to fall further behind with each progressing year, until closing the gap is virtually impossible.
And so the cycles of poverty and inequality are repeated from generation to generation. Children who grow up in circumstances of violence, abuse and neglect, are more likely to be violent, abusive and neglectful parents. And in the end we all lose out on what could be an educated, economically productive and safe society for everybody.
Imagine if we could harness the full potential of the million babies born in South Africa each year! Young children hold the greatest promise for change in South Africa, because so much of what will determine our future is compressed into their first few years of life. Over half of our children grow up in conditions of poverty and social neglect. It’s an outrage, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to reshape our future – if we change their present.
What can we do to bring this change about? It’s not only about money and services, but also about how people in society relate to each other. It is not easy. We have different cultures, values, backgrounds, and interests – and we don’t know each other. But one thing brings us together – and that is a common desire for our children to have a better life.
Imagine what could happen if each of us found a way to help nurture just one child at risk? To be there for them and their parents, in small and practical ways? Like standing by a mother during pregnancy. Bringing a few books and toys into the home of a young baby. Telling stories and reading to a group of children every week. Or exposing them to new experiences, like seeing the sea or visiting the zoo for the first time.
The American Psychologist, Ann Masten, tried to understand why some children manage to thrive, despite their poverty. Her conclusions were so simple, so unremarkable yet so profound and hopeful. Long term studies across the world repeatedly showed that what is needed is a loving parent or caregiver; an additional caring adult standing by the child, and connections to opportunity – even modest opportunities – at crucial times in a child’s life.
She calls this the Ordinary Magic that can change a child’s future.
What will bring about the next real change in our country? Yes, education, jobs and employment will. But how do we get there? Invest in our young children. Include them in our circles of care and support. If we step in when it matters most, we can change a child’s journey… and ultimately, the story of our country. Who will bring about the next real change in the country? We will. Each and all of us.