Parenting: The Social Justice Issue of Our Time

The saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” used to refer to the power a king’s mother wielded over the throne, but a new study proves that this old maxim still holds true for modern families. According to research by Columbia University and the London School of Economics, the degree to which parents promptly, generously and consistently respond to their infants and toddlers’ needs predicts a host of future social factors.

Kids poorly attached

The project examined data from 14,000 children and reviewed over 100 previous studies and arrived at two startling conclusions. First, poor parent-child attachment may be even more a cause of social problems than it is caused by social problems. Second, up to 40 percent of children in the U.S. — including children in suburban, middle-class households — are insecurely attached to their parents, leading to profound social and economic implications.

Researchers noted that insecurely attached children are more likely to exhibit greater language and behavioral deficits prior to entering school, compared to their more securely attached peers. The research shows that these foundational deficits due to insecure attachment continue throughout children’s lives, increasing the likelihood that they will experience poorer school outcomes, poorer economic prospects, be more likely to experience depression, addiction and delinquency, and lead less satisfying adult lives and relationships as well. The picture is even worse for insecurely attached children growing up in poverty, where insecure attachment before age 4 strongly predicted a failure to complete school and, in general, increased the likelihood that insecurely attached children would be stuck in a cycle of intergenerational poverty.

What is attachment?

“Attachment” refers to the process by which parents’ interactions with their children actually stimulate and strengthen structures in the brain responsible for such traits as self-control, empathy, insight, moral reasoning, emotional stability and expressiveness, and the capacity to regulate stress and aggression. In all, attachment is responsible for fostering at least eight different skills associated with the “social brain,” the part of the brain concerned with regulating social behavior.  These skills include things like empathy, moral reasoning, the ability to control aggression and stress reactions, the ability to exhibit self-control and insight, the ability to collaborate and work well with others, and the belief that one can take active steps to improve one’s mood and circumstances.

The presence or absence of these skills don’t just impact family life, they impact a person’s ability to create and participate in a just society.  Although it can be  jarring to think of attachment in these terms, this idea is completely consistent with the Catholic view that family life is the first “school of virtue” where children all the qualities necessary to create a civilization of love.  Attachment is, in a sense, the paper in the metaphorical notebook the family uses in its school of love to communicate the instructions for living a healthy, abundant, just, godly life.  The more well-attached a child is, the more “pages” a parent has available on which to write lessons for godly living.  Trying to communicate concepts like generosity, and justice, and chastity, and self-control to a poorly attached child is like trying to write words on notebook with not enough pages, or no pages at all.  You can’t write on air.  And although a parent may try to communicate these lessons, without attachment they cannot stick.

When parents provide children with generous affection, respond promptly to their infant’s cries and toddler’s needs for comfort, and employ gentle, authoritative approaches to discipline (as opposed to heavy-handed, authoritarian approaches) children develop “secure attachment.” They exhibit a superior ability for negotiating environmental challenges, especially ones that involve goal setting and dealing effectively with other people.

Insecure attachments, by contrast, emerge when parents are not “tuned in” to their infant’s social signals, especially their cries of distress during infancy. When infants learn early that their cries will be responded to, they also learn that their needs will be met, and they are likely to form a secure attachment to their parents. However, when caregivers are less responsive to their baby’s cues, infants are more likely to learn that the world is not a safe place — leading them to become needy, frustrated or withdrawn. The researchers argue that we could go a long way toward alleviating poverty, poor school completion rates, soaring depression rates and many other common social problems if parents — including middle-class parents — could be encouraged to use parenting practices that promoted healthy attachment.

Family and society

Catholicism teaches that the family is the building block of society, but we often fail to realize the practical significance of these words. The parenting methods we choose to employ in the family “school of love” become a kind of first catechism in building a just society, what Pope St. John Paul II referred to as a “civilization of love.”

In our book, The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too) my wife and I note that works of mercy like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, instructing the ignorant and all the rest of the corporal and spiritual works must take their place as the spiritual heart of the home if they are to be either credible or effective tools of social action. Promptly responding to a baby’s cry, cheerfully providing a drink for the little one who wakes us at night, patiently negotiating a teenager’s wardrobe, and gently instructing children in the path of virtue are not just “things parents do” to get through the day in one piece. They are powerful tools of social change. God wants to change the world through our families. When we turn our hearts toward them and their hearts toward us, we do just that.

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Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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