Sometimes these days you hear people complain about ageism – it happens far more than it used to, probably because people are living longer. But I think we may be missing something if we don’t consider that varying perspectives on ‘age’ issues happen at both ends of life’s spectrum. Could we be experiencing real problems of age-related issues very early on in life? Are we blind to this possibility? We make serious errors when we consider older people incapable of certain tasks, when they are not only capable of them, but actually a lot more wise and careful than those who would judge them otherwise. Is it possible, as a total corollary, that we consider babies and toddlers are able to cope with certain stresses and demands on them that in fact they are unable to manage? This is in fact the case today, I am sure.
Listen to today’s announcement on childcare from campaigning politicians:- “30 hours a week for all two to four year olds would benefit 1.3 million extra children….” Two year olds are toddlers! Benefit them? They will vary in their coping mechanisms at 2, but 12 weeks previously they were 21 month old babies: they don’t suddenly, miraculously, become independent children 12 weeks later. True some mothers need considerable support and help in caring for their babies, for many reasons, and for these few, yes, benefit there may be. But….
Babies and toddlers are not meant to be independent (yet). They are meant to be clingy! Throughout evolution they have had deeply embedded patterns in their brains whereby they instinctively understand that the source of food and warmth, and therefore of life itself, lies with the mother. Thus separation from her is not just undesirable, but is internalised as a profound threat to their very existence: in their undeveloped brains, the wolves are still prowling out there. Substitute parenting, substitute formula milk, and substitute sources of comfort are not yet embedded in those primitive parts of their brain. Thus we make demands on infants in their very early months, and indeed also early years, that these precious little creatures are not yet capable of managing. They can become seriously stressed.
We are, as a society, careering towards a world in which it is daily encouraged, as a norm, to place massive stresses on those in our society least able to cope: indeed tiny children don’t even have a stress management system in place. The way we treat a developing infant over the first two to three years, day by day, will ‘programme’ into their brains a self-regulatory system. One-to-one loving responsive care, with a daily constant administration of comfort, sensitively applied to their various stresses throughout the earliest years, will ensure the developing little person will be able to cope with any knocks later in life, with resilience and stability. Neglecting to give this comfort will mean, in varying degrees, that the child will not develop a healthy stress management system. There will be ‘bugs’ in the ‘programming’.
A final word about ageism: how is it that I read so much about government funding and ‘intervention’ for state (or private) out-of-home care of “pre-school children”? What does that ‘pre-school’ term mean, and is it a homogenous grouping with the same requirements for all: i.e. simply “Childcare”? Does it mean babies and toddlers, who can’t talk very clearly, or express their wishes and their problems plainly, and are totally dependent. Or does it mean the three and four year olds who can very readily tell you what is on their minds and are learning independence. What age group is being addressed? Never, ever, should the emotional and practical needs of the 0 – 3 age group be clubbed together with those of the 4 and 5 year olds….they are vastly different. Admittedly the later two’s are a bit of a ‘fudge’ time in some respects, with a whole lot of variables as to how coping and speech skills will have developed, and how far separation anxiety has evaporated or remained. But let us have no more pre-school ageism, otherwise serious errors of approach will inevitably occur with varying deeply problematic consequences, sometimes throughout the lives of those concerned.