Let’s Get Intersectional
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When I became pregnant almost 4 years ago, my response to impending parenthood was to do research–lots of it. I read articles and books on all aspects of parenting that I could get my hands on, and being a political scientist, I even hoarded research on political development related to parenting. Motherhood, for me, turned out to shape and expand my understanding of the socialization processes that feed into trafficking, and how far back and how deep the roots of trafficking go.
Here are examples of three different families, varying in terms of resources, advantages, and communication styles.
The first family: The parents help kids educate themselves to best of abilities, teach their kids to surround themselves with people who are productive, not destructive, and they assume that education would include college and their child would become a professional. They try to expose their kids to as much as possible (playgroups, museum trips, sports, extracurricular activities) and were even careful about what foods the kids ate. They might move houses specifically to put kids in better schools. Parents are active in school to get to know teachers, observe what is happening with kids’ learning and help where necessary. And the family is very close emotionally. Help never stops; parents assume parenting continues even in adulthood.
The second family: A single mom who had rough life growing up but managed to provide for her kids all on her own. Getting pregnant and having a kid was a turning point where she realized she had to be more responsible. She is not into hugging and kissing, she loves her kids but is not “touchy feely” because in real life you have to be tough, you can’t be soft. All her kids got physical discipline, and there aren’t many parent-child conversations over dinner; but she has been able to provide the necessities, good clothes, etc. and a chance at college; she pushes them to go to college, but believes it’s her job to coach and it’s her kids’ job to perform. It’s up to her kids whether they succeed or not; at some point she can’t help them and they’re on their own. Some of her kids are doing well, some aren’t.
The third family: Just a child alone, abandoned by his parents, raised mostly by his grandparents in extreme poverty. He can hear his grandfather having sex at night with girlfriend and see him beat his grandmother; his cousin taught him how to rob people and is in jail. People are dying around him: sicknesses, drug addiction; motorbike accidents. He has gone through many transitions and there is a lot of instability with his living situation. He begins to get in trouble himself; acknowledges his mom had it hard and he didn’t always help her. Graduation seems out of reach. He has dreams about his future, but prospects look bleak, like never more than just dreams.
These examples illustrate the different kinds of environments kids can grow up in, depending on levels of poverty and other risk factors. You can probably guess which families and which kids are most vulnerable to trafficking–but the reasons why go even deeper than we might first expect.
How Parenting Affects Child Development in Key Factors
Recent research shows:
Young children’s early experiences and socioeconomic environment shape their neurobiological development and the effects are powerful and long-lasting. Almost every aspect of early human development–from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy–is affected by the environments and experiences from the prenatal period and extending through early childhood years. Early experiences alter the architecture of the brain.
The roots of many cognitive and behavioral differences that appear in middle childhood and adolescence are often already present by 18 months old.
Healthy infant and child brain development requires connecting with caring, consistent adults. The key mechanism is “give-and-take learning,” where the child sends a signal and an adult responds. A caring, nurturing, consistent parent can help reduce the impact of external stresses and help their children build resilience against things that would otherwise be damaging.
How this works:
Nurturing, affection, warmth, active involvement, and reasoned discipline leads to greater socio-emotional competence among children. The stronger the parents’ bond with their child, the better their chances for success in life. The more trust is built in the early days, months, and years as the baby matures, the more able the child is to grow in resilience and independence.
Children who grow up with parents who listen and talk with them frequently develop more advanced language skills than kids whose parents rarely engage them in conversation. Furthermore, other important skills acquired in early childhood like grit, social sensitivity, optimism, self-control, conscientiousness, and emotional stability are critical predictors for life success. They lead to greater physical health, school success, college enrollment, employment, and lifetime earnings, and can help keep people out of trouble. These skills are at least as important as cognitive skills in predicting measures of success.
Meanwhile, chronic neglect and toxic stress is often associated with a wider range of developmental consequences (for example: deficits in IQ, mental health, social adjustment, and brain architecture) than outright physical abuse. Neuroscientists and psychologists have identified an important set of brain functions–“executive functions”–that help in concentration, impulse control, mental flexibility, and memory. Deficiencies in executive functions show up in learning disabilities and ADHD. Under normal circumstances, with supportive caregivers, executive functions develop especially quickly during ages 3 to 5. Children who experience chronic stress (neglect, abuse, violent environment, parental substance abuse, etc.) during that period are more likely to have impaired executive functioning. They have more problems concentrating, controlling impulsive behavior, and following directions.
This leaves them less able to solve problems, cope with adversity, and organize their lives.
It can lead to learning difficulties and physical and mental health problems like depression, alcoholism, obesity, and heart disease.
Children who grow in poverty are at higher risk for elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. They often have trouble concentrating because their brains have been trained to maintain constant surveillance of the environment for new threats.
How This Relates to Trafficking
You can probably guess where I’m headed with this. Resilience is a term you’ll start to hear more about from us in the coming months, because it turns out to be an incredibly important concept to trafficking prevention.
Poverty (and statelessness, as a related element to exclusion from society and jobs) has been identified as a key reason people become vulnerable to trafficking. The obvious cause is the economic risk: people need money to survive, become desperate, and the sex industry is so lucrative.
The less obvious cause is developmental risk: how poverty and adversity shape childhood development in ways that can either help kids confront adversity or can put them at risk of further harm. Loving relationships of support and trust can help kids develop the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral tools to overcome challenges. However, deficiencies in development often contribute to even more fractured relationships, behavioral problems that in turn lead to punishments, isolation, and an ever downward spiral–especially in a culture where mental health issues are often highly misunderstood and a diagnosis of something like ADHD can lead to absolutely ludicrous medication producing a near catatonic state and removal of a child from their home (true story).
This is not to set up any false dichotomy between “good” parents and “bad” parents, or to say that one set of behaviors will necessarily produce a certain outcome. Life is more complicated than that, as any parent knows. But loving and consistent parenting, and community/societal resources to support effective parenting are factors that converge to help foster resilience, so that despite poverty and despite adversity, we can help shield and empower children to protect them from risk and encourage them to rise above challenges.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.