The gray-haired professor stood before a group of unsuspecting students, pointed her finger at each student, and with a force of power, said: “If you do not stand up for young children, who will?”
At that moment God pierced my heart, called my name, and set me on my life’s journey (Isaiah 43:1). It has been a journey that has taken me from a public school teacher to a leader of children’s ministries, writer and editor of Christian curriculum, adjunct professor, consultant, parent, and grandparent. For more years than seems possible, I have been trying to show up, stand up, and speak up for children.
Children and teens, in record numbers, are suffering from chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. According to the Center on the Developing Child, even infants and toddlers are not too young to have mental health problems. “Young children are capable of surprisingly deep and intense feelings of sadness (including depression, grief, anxiety, and anger (which can result in unmanageable aggression), in addition to the heights of joy and happiness for which they are better known” (Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains, Working Paper 2).
Mr. Rogers reminded his neighborhood friends, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Children are screaming and yelling through their meltdowns, anger, and frustration for the helpers to be physically and emotionally present with them. They are looking for their helpers!
News Flash! Parents and teachers are the most significant helpers available to children!
Why do we need to help?
1. The brain is under construction.
Every child is born with a unique arrangement of the of the 86-100 billion neurons (brain cells) that are present at birth. Some are connected in neural pathways, but about 80 percent of the neurons are floating around in the brain looking for where to connect.
The connections made in the early years have a lasting impact on the developing brain in motor skills, emotions, language, and behavioral control. Like a house, the brain is only a strong as its foundation.
2. The brain is experience-dependent.
The brain is wired through everyday experiences. These everyday experiences, good or bad, impact the brain’s wiring. The higher-level thinking brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is one of the last structures to mature, not until the mid-twenties. Therefore, children do not possess the capacity to judge an experience as good or bad. Children abused or neglected learn to expect abusive treatment. Too much chronic stress can interrupt and slow the development of the growing brain.
Because the job of the amygdala (emotional center) is to keep us alive, the brain is subconsciously surveying the environment for threats to safety and security. This process is called neuroception.
3. The brain is wired for relationships.
God placed within us the need for relationships. Dr. Daniel Siegel states: “Relationships are a form of experience, and they change the structure (wiring) of our brains.” He continues by emphasizing that: “The kinds of relationships they (children) experience will lay the groundwork for how they relate to others for the rest of their lives” (The Whole-Brain Child, p. 125; Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson).
When a child’s glance meets the loving eyes of a caregiver, the child’s mind is absorbing a sense of who he is and developing a deep emotional bond known as a secure attachment. Love and attachment are also an important first step in spiritual development.
“Momma, were you looking for me?” Olivia called from her room. When her mother responded with no, sadness spread across her face. She was looking for reassurance to the questions: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter? Olivia needed a yes, but received a no.
Nothing affects the developing brains of children more than physical and emotional separation from their attachment figures. Today’s culture encourages adults to begin way too early to disconnect from children. Parents are told to let babies “cry it out” and begin schooling in infancy. Children are sent to “time-out” or “time-away” at the very moment they need soothing and connecting—not disconnecting.
How do we show up?
1. Slow down.
The recent pandemic gave me the gift of spending every weekday with my granddaughter for over a year. When the world went inside, we went outside to explore the “forest” and trails in our neighborhood. The greatest lesson she taught me is that the helpers need to slow down. The immature brains of young children operate out of the “in the present moment” right hemisphere. This allows them to stop and watch the ladybugs, admire shiny “gemstone” rocks, and wonder at the sounds of locusts.
Living in the moment also provides what Deborah Schein, in her book Inspiring Wonder, Awe, and Empathy, calls “spiritual moments.” Moments that allow children to experience calm and quiet. Walking barefoot in the grass, hearing birds chirp, and feeling a cool breeze allow the brain’s emotional center to reset by lowering blood pressure and ridding the body of stress hormones. These spiritual moments also nurture the innate response to God that children possess.
2. Trust the child’s need for play.
Active play outdoors and in nature with its existing risks is essential for healthy brain development. Children thrive by challenging their bodies. Curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving skills are nurtured through unstructured play. Play allows children’s bodies to thrive and develop physical strength for balance and coordination.
Children need helpers who allow them to explore without always being told, “Be careful!” Simply stating, “Let me know if you need help,” frees children to explore, discover, and challenge themselves and learn how to take control over their own lives. This is foundational for learning self-regulation.
3. Listen and watch.
Listening and observing children requires the belief that childhood is a time to be cherished and preserved. It requires putting down and turning off electronic devices. It requires seeing beyond arms splattered in shaving cream, feet covered in paint, and hands dripping with mud to the intent, concentration, and well-being of the child. It requires being slow to speak, making eye contact, and acknowledging that the child is seen and heard.
A Winning Formula
The bottom line is the brain is organized to act and feel before it thinks! One caring, nurturing adult using the following formula can make the difference in a child’s well-being. And without being too presumptuous, I believe if we, as the helpers, could get this right, we could change the world!
Connection + Relationship + Secure Attachment = Healthy Development
About the Author
Mary Ann Bradberry’s experience in the field of childhood Christian education spans over 40 years as a teacher, childhood minister, curriculum writer and editor, speaker, trainer, and most recently, the Executive Director of Texas Baptist Church Weekday Association. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and a graduate degree in Early Childhood Education from North Texas State University in Denton, Texas. She has done extensive study in the area of brain development of young children. She co-authored the book Teaching Preschoolers: First Steps Toward Faith. She has also been an online adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University. Mary Ann and her husband, Doran, attend Real Life Church in Austin, Texas.