Hugs: a potent anti-poverty tool

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 6:42 p.m. MDT

In his October 20 column for the New York Times, Nicholos Kristof argues that the cycle of poverty can be broken with early childhood education and parenting programs.

Kristof cites two studies as evidence. The first comes from neurologist Michael Meaney at McGill University in Quebec Canada. Meany noticed that some mother rats spent a lot of time licking and grooming their babies. The variation a mother's attention appears to impact the offspring in significant ways. Rats who were licked and groomed were better at finding their way through mazes, they were more social and curious. Postmortem tests suggested that licking lead to differences in brain anatomy--licked rats were better able to control stress responses.

The human version of licking and grooming--hugging, kissing and reading to our children--appears to have a similar impact.

In the 1970s researchers at the University of Minnesota began following about 250 children of first-time low income mothers. They found that whether the child received supportive parenting in the first few years of their lives as as good a predictor of who would graduate from high school as IQ.

These findings "illuminate one way that poverty replicates itself from generation to generation," writes Kristof. "Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force."

In his book "How Children Succeed," Paul Tough writes that if we want to end poverty can't just talk about welfare and tax policy. "There is not antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable," Tough writes that grit, resilience and optimism will help.

These, contrary to popular wisdom, are things that can be taught.

“The character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which kids grow up. That means the rest of us — society as a whole — can do an enormous amount to influence their development,” wrote Tough.

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