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Ways of Seeing by Cheryl Mitchell: On babies, bullies and buffers

When I was a child, our family used to go to Asbury Park once a year. I was afraid of most of the rides, but loved the bumper cars. They were little self-contained units with steering wheels, accelerators, and brakes. A long pole reached up from each car to a metal flap that touched the ceiling of the ride. When the ride was turned on, electricity from the ceiling allowed the child driver of each car to careen recklessly around the arena, attempting to smash into as many other cars as possible or avoid being smashed into if that was your style.
The ride itself was surrounded by a high rubber barrier that kept the cars in a fairly limited space (rather like the demolition derbies that so many of us enjoy watching at Field Days). And each car had its own substantial rubber bumper to prevent the impact from doing more than eliciting screams of terror and delight from the young drivers. After a short time, the electricity was turned off, everything stopped, and we children would beg our parents to let us ride just one more time..
This concept of barriers, or buffers, has gained new resonance for me recently. The more I learn about the long-term impacts of adverse childhood experiences, the more worried I am for the future of children in our country and state. Years ago, with the development of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology, we were able to understand more fully the dramatic growth taking place in baby brains during the first 1000 days of life, and the way external influences (for better and worse) could affect the development of the young child. We thought we had a handle on helping parents understand these dynamics so that they could better prepare their children for school. This was correct, but, as it turned out, a very narrow view of what benefits children (and society) could gain from paying careful attention to the very young.
With further research provided by ACES (the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study), we have learned that the experiences of early childhood affect not only a child’s cognitive development but also the foundations of their world view, social emotional well-being, approach to learning, and long term health. In fact, the damage that can be done by unrelenting, uninterrupted, and unbuffered adverse experiences can change not only brain architecture, but also DNA.
Early unbuffered adverse experiences are a huge contributing factor to later chronic diseases including seven of the 10 major causes of death in adults. We all know that a little bit of stress is good: It motivates, excites, and challenges us much as the bumper car ride gave kids a small sense of thrill and also a small sense of mastery. But stress that is never turned off, has no outer bounds, and has no bumpers or buffers, is extremely bad for children and adults.
The good news, from groundbreaking research, is that adverse early experiences are not a life sentence and are preventable and reversible. Neuroplasticity allows for repair and redirection, if the proper supports are given. In Addison County we are beginning a project to help prevent adverse experiences from happening in the first place, and to buffer or mitigate their effects on children who experience them.
The Paula Project, named after a beloved and brilliant pediatrician who passed away last November, is bringing together pediatricians and other primary care providers, with the network of strength-based childcare programs in our county. It is making real the desire physicians expressed to be able to prescribe high quality, family strengthening childcare for families about whom they have concerns. And it could make real the desire that families will actually be able to afford the services they need. There is already great excitement within the philanthropic and research communities about this approach.
Many people in Vermont and the nation look to Addison County as a fore-runner with great innovations. If we can be successful in implementing this direct connection between the healthcare and childcare communities, we may eventually save millions of children from poor life trajectories and save communities from huge healthcare costs.
I love the idea that we can allow all children to grow with the kinds of challenges that will promote their greatest capacity, the kinds of boundaries that will keep them safe, and the kinds of services that will buffer them from unrelenting negative experiences. I love the idea that we can work in partnership with parents and community members to promote the health of all our children.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at [email protected].

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