Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: ‘Nurturing Care’ for all is critical

This is part three of four win-win solutions to the current challenges facing our school districts and small rural towns. The focus is on Nurturing Care. Great progress this spring! Community School Legislation and Child Care Legislation have passed, school districts are considering innovative ideas from local citizens, we are emerging from COVID, and substantial federal funding is becoming available. These four significant changes could potentially all be implemented this year:

•  Remove the burden of health care from employers.

•  Permit and encourage pre-school parity.

•  Assure Nurturing Care from pregnancy through pre-school.

•  Incentivize towns and school districts to work together.

What is Nurturing Care? It is the love and attention we assume surrounds all children from birth. We take for granted the presence of responsive adults who delight in watching children grow and who do everything possible to shield them from harm. We assume all babies are fed, sheltered, given the health care and love they need. That toddlers have opportunities to explore, learn, make mistakes, and become resilient. That two-year-olds are encouraged to express themselves in words, art, and actions, and thus learn the reciprocal kindnesses that make society possible.

Why is Nurturing Care from pregnancy to the pre-school years important? This is when the architecture of the brain and the inclinations of the heart have their foundation. The World Bank, the World Health Organization and UNICEF all believe that Nurturing Care during the critical years of brain development provides the best possible foundation for healthy, prosperous societies. Their Framework Document says:

“Over the last three decades, scientific findings from a range of disciplines have converged. They prove that, during pregnancy and the first three years after birth, we lay down critical elements of our health, wellbeing and productivity, which will last throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood. A newborn baby’s brain contains almost all the neurons it will ever have. By age two, massive numbers of neuronal connections have been made in response to interactions with the environment, and especially interactions with caregivers.”

The five elements of Nurturing Care that they identify are almost the same as the social determinants of health identified by the CDC in our country:

•  Safety and Security

•  Good Health

•  Adequate Nutrition

•  Responsive Caregiving

•  Opportunities for Early Learning.

We take it for granted that parents have the capacity and knowledge to provide nurturing care — and we do know that all parents want to do the best for their children — but adults who are depressed, anxious, stressed, ill, addicted or struggling to keep their financial or emotional heads above water could use a little extra community support. I and the other Early Care and Learning Partnership Board members believe that the family pediatrician or primary care doctor should be allowed to prescribe Nurturing Care (in the form of specialized services, home visiting, or high-quality childcare) for their young patients. And we believe these services should be paid for as a preventive health benefit. The World Bank and the World Health Organization provide data to show that giving children a positive start improves not only the life-long health of the individual, but also the prosperity of the community.

Of the four changes I’m suggesting, this may take the most effort to implement because it contradicts our American “Me First” mentality, which is fortunately giving way to the “We are all in this together” understanding from our collective pandemic experience. It also faces the misconception that health care is something provided by a pill and a surgical intervention. This too is beginning to change as the contributions of exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, social connections and prevention become more evident and accepted.

We can build a culture of Nurturing Care for all families in Vermont. The Parent/Child Center has shown it is possible for young teen families. Now the women in the Nurturing Care master’s degree program are developing approaches and materials that can be shared across the state. We have the global Nurturing Care Framework to guide our work, and the local experience to bring it to life.

Change takes time and the time has come to make that change.

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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