"Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man." ~ St Francis Xavier
All children are vulnerable and dependent, and can be permanently harmed physically and emotionally by deprivation. Deprivation can occur, due to the child's needs not being met, or a lack of emotional care or warmth. The results can be heart-rending and tragic.
The most resilient children, come from homes where their dependency needs are met consistently and where there is a goodness-of-fit model. This means, that the parenting style of the parent is attuned and adapted to the temperament of the child. A child who is shy and introverted should not be forced to be an extrovert, or belittled for their inherent temperament, but encouraged with care and sensitivity, emphasising the childs positive character traits and competencies.
Welfare departments are full of children who have not had their dependency needs met. Children, who have experienced emotional deprivation and have not experienced a warm emotional, reciprocal relationship with a caregiver, can develop into teenagers and adults, who do not have the social skills to relate well with others, or they may be vulnerable to exploitation due to their hunger for care and attention.
A child may encounter deprivation for many reasons, such as a parent having a mental illness, intellectual disability, being in prison, poverty or lack of parenting skills. Also, children who are deprived of the attachment of a caregiver, appropriate intellectual stimulation and reciprocal interactions, can become cognitively impaired, which can lead to language impoverishment and failure to develop a theory of mind. A theory of mind, is the cognitive ability, which usually begins to develop at around 18 months of age, where the child has a concept of self and a basic understanding that others have different thoughts, ideas , motivations and beliefs. At the same time the theory of mind unfolds, so does the secondary emotions of empathy and sympathy and self-conscious emotions of shame, embarrassment and guilt which, when in the right balance are integral to a caring, generous society. A child who has not been nurtured, may have difficulty feeling shame, pride or guilt and empathy when they faced with the victim of their unfeeling actions.
The brain of a baby is unfinished at birth, the genes provide the basic structural framework, but it is the environment which will have a profound influence. So while the genetic (nature) is undoubtedly important, the story of children like Genie, who was raised in extreme isolation, demonstrates how environment is profoundly important (nurture). Genie, was locked in her bedroom and strapped to a potty chair for most of her life, until she was discovered by Los Angeles authorities on November 4, 1970. Her case was compared with Victor of Aveyron, another feral child. Kept in a crib, enclosed with a metal cover, Genie's father would beat her and bark at her like a dog if she made a noise. When she was found at the age of 13, her only words were short phrases like "stop it" and "no more". Because, her muscles had wasted, Genie walked with a strange "bunny walk" and held up her hands like claws. Eventually, Genie learnt some basic words and sign language, with intensive therapy, but her story is a complex and sad one.
Child development is complex and children are dependent and vulnerable and yet children are also part of a wider society, which also helps shape development. Bronfenbrenner and his Ecological Systems Theory, identifies five environmental systems which influence and shape the development of a child. He saw, not only the family as relevant, but the peer group, neighbourhood and even the society, culture, religion or economic system in which the child is brought up. This theory, also demonstrates that child development is bidirectional; that a child who has an 'easy' temperament will perhaps evoke more patience and care then a fretful and distractable child.
Children are dependent and vulnerable and each child deserves to be brought up by a sensitive, caring, caregiver and a generous society, where the children's individual needs are met in a personal and considered way. To use words wiser than my own: "Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it." ~Harold Hulbert