Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
My speech at the UN, Empowering Mothers to Parent with the Brain in Mind
As a follow up to our Mother’s Day post last week, and in light of some of the pressing problems our country is facing at this moment in time, I thought it appropriate to revisit a speech I gave a few years ago.
In March of 2016, my daughter, Juliana Gaither, and I represented the REACH Family Institute and BrainFit Kids as part of a delegation from Big Ocean Women at the United Nations for the 60th Commission on the Status of Women. We were there to advocate for the right of families to be an integral part of the development and education of their children. I was a lead speaker at a special meeting on refugees and gave the following speech on the subject of “Empowering Mothers to Parent with the Brain in Mind.”
2016 United Nations, New York
60th Commission on the Status of Women
We live in a troubled world… a world plagued by extreme poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, human trafficking, natural disasters, violence, terrorism, war and the related humanitarian crises and forced migration of entire populations.
It is for this reason that 193 nations negotiated for 3 years to create “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, a lofty set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The purpose is nothing less than a complete transformation of our world. I propose to you that this transformation will only happen if we first transform our children’s lives.
Imagine a world in which all children are valued… a world where every child, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity or level of ability, is treasured as a precious gift.
Imagine a world in which all children are compassionate… a world where every child goes out of their way to help the physical, spiritual, or emotional hurts or pains of another.
Imagine a world in which all children are capable… a world where every child is reaching his or her God-given potential, whatever that potential may be.
Our children are our future. They are the teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, public servants, politicians and leaders of tomorrow. Imagine those valued, compassionate and capable children as adults taking their rightful places in leading their communities.
Ending poverty, hunger, war and all of the other problems that the 2030 Agenda proposes to solve will only happen if those who are working to solve these problems value one another, have respect for human dignity, treat others with compassion, and are highly capable in every sense of the term.
I believe that is a world worth fighting for. The driving vision of the REACH Family Institute, the organization I co-founded and co-direct, is the creation of such a world… one in which all children are valued, compassionate and capable. It’s our purpose, our raison d’être, our why.
The good news is we already know how to transform children’s lives. In fact, we have 40 years of experience doing it with children of every level of ability, with families of every race and social class throughout the world, including thousands of families living in extreme poverty.
Goal #4 of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Goal #4.2 is to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
Since we are discussing “empowering the refugee family”, how can we do this in the context of the refugee crisis currently gripping the world’s attention? The key to success lies in the two greatest assets that every child has – the family and the magnificent human brain.
It is absolutely essential that we focus on these two things because refugees typically live in conditions of poverty. Their children are susceptible to the neurological consequences of poverty. Additionally, many refugee children suffer both psychological and neurological effects of their traumatic experiences. Given that they are living in a very different culture amongst people who speak a different language, the added burden of these neurological impacts places these children at significant risk.
Memories from a Vietnamese Refugee
Recently, I met a Vietnamese woman who came to one of our workshops hoping to learn something that might help her brain-injured sister. After the workshop, she stayed to speak with me. Her story is a sad illustration of what can happen to refugee children and also a splendid example of the triumph of the human spirit.
On April 5th of 1975, her family became part of the wave of Vietnamese refugees who escaped to Guam. Her father was an infantryman in the South Vietnamese army so his family was at great risk. She was 5 years old at the time and her only memory of the experience is spending a long time on a grey, metal boat. Her youngest sister was born three days before they fled. She was a perfectly fine, healthy baby at birth. But within days of escaping, she developed severe jaundice. Weak and listless, she clung to life. Many died along the way and as they did they were buried at sea. Fearing she would be tossed overboard if she were discovered, her father wrapped her in newspaper and told his wife to hold her tight to her body. There was nothing else to do but hope and pray that she survived the trip.
Upon reaching Guam, the baby was given medical care, diagnosed with a severe brain-injury and her parents told she would never learn to speak or move. Unfortunately, the die was cast for her. Upon reaching the US, given no hope for her future, her parents did the best they could to care for her and settled into the task of assimilating into American culture and raising their other 8 children.
Today, 40 years later, this refugee family, now totaling 12, is a testament to the American dream. The children are grown adults living successful lives with families of their own. The parents, who sacrificed so much to protect them and give them the chance for a future, are enjoying their golden years.
Parent with the Brain in Mind
How might this child’s life be different today? If someone had empowered her parents with the knowledge and tools to unleash her hidden potential she might be very different.
The first key is to empower the family.
Placing the family, particularly mothers, at the center of early childhood development is crucial for several reasons. First, the family is ultimately responsible for and uniquely positioned to have the greatest effect on human development, including education. Second, because mothers and fathers are the most influential teachers their children will ever have. There is no greater or more dynamic learning team than that of the family. Mothers, in particular, when able to trust their instincts, know exactly what their children need and when they need it. The third and final reason is the power of love. Parents love their children more than anyone else in the world. That includes poor, uneducated parents. It includes refugee parents. Love knows no university and it knows no social class.
The second key is the magnificent human brain.
According to James Heckman, University of Chicago professor and 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, “Early experiences can translate into school readiness, academic success, and lifetime well-being. Success builds upon success. When more children in a community are ready to learn, community-wide levels of human and social capital rise.”
The “Investing in Children” report done by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation concluded that resources focused on children early in life have a multiplier effect on society. The long term financial return on investments in children under the age of five is 400% – 800%, based on increased individual earnings, decreased government spending on special education, remediation and welfare costs, and those costs related to criminal activity.
Unfortunately, despite this recognition, for many children brain development happens by chance. Few parents, even affluent parents, demonstrate an understanding of the link between brain development and long-term outcomes. Most parents do nothing to actively promote brain development and learning.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! A child’s future no longer needs to be left to chance. Our 40 years of neuroscience research and practical clinical experience demonstrate that early attention to brain development pays big dividends. Through our work with the poor, we proved that any parent is capable of transforming their child’s life provided they have three things – knowledge, determination and, most of all, love.
I want to tell you one final story to illustrate what happens when we empower families, including poor families, with the knowledge and tools necessary for them to maximize their child’s neurological potential.
In Venezuela, we saw a family with a 6-month old girl born profoundly brain-injured. She was blind, deaf, immobile, and very sick, with frequent seizures and under heavy anti-convulsant medication. The mother was in a severe state of depression. We evaluated the girl, designed and taught a program to try to improve her function, and urged the parents to get counseling to help them through their grief.
Six months later with just one look in the mother’s eyes, we knew things were going very well. Mom and Dad looked 10 years younger. We discussed the changes – beginning to see, to hear, to move, reduced seizures, good health – all of which are absolute miracles the parents created. Then we talked about the next steps. As we concluded, Dad was telling us how happy they were with the changes in their little girl. His last sentence was “The best thing about this program is that now we know there will be a tomorrow”.
Now we know there will be a tomorrow! Hope for the future based on the concrete results of dedication, effort, and love applied in the present. God created mothers and fathers so that they can ensure their children will have a tomorrow. Let us not allow any professional or bureaucrat to take this greatest of all gifts away from them.
The gift of a child is also the gift of parenthood. It is a life-transforming gift, unleashing stores of love, devotion, and compassion of which people never dreamed they were capable. When these qualities are directed towards any child, particularly the brain-injured child, there is a ripple effect of change that goes well beyond the changes in the child. It changes the parents, the brothers and sisters, the extended family, the local community and, eventually, the larger society.