Reading Nicholas Kristof’s column, “A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug,” in today’s New York Times, about the “landmark warning” recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics saying “toxic stress can harm children for life,” I was struck once again by the deep insecurity, not to mention impoverishment, of the modern mind. No matter how obvious the observation, how eternal the topic, how great the works of literature that have tackled any given theme, or how insightful the philosophers who have studied a matter, the modern mind cannot fathom reaching a conclusion without relying on scientific studies.
Kristof notes that “two decades of scientific research” have led scientists to conclude that when parents abuse alcohol or drugs, or threaten or beat their children, or even when they never cuddle their crying children, or read or tell them stories, the children end up as adults with serious problems. Because poor parents are themselves stressed, they tend to raise their children in abusive situations more often than parents who aren’t poor. Thus “toxic stress” shows up more often in poor families, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
In particular, Kristof reports that new scientific studies demonstrate the physical effects of parental abuse of children—showing, for example, how specific hormones released by a stressed child affect both the body and the development of the brain, and how the brain is then permanently molded in a bad way. When bad things happen to babies and small children, the science says, it becomes exceedingly difficult to repair the damage later on. Infants and young children subject to early stress grow into stressed children who cannot learn, no matter how much remedial effort is made, and from there they turn into stressed adults with a variety of physical ailments, such as diabetes and heart disease, or often exhibit criminal behavior.
The science in its particulars is all well and good, but the conclusions drawn are what any reasonably educated person already knows. Perhaps Kristof is right that scientific studies about how “toxic stress” on infants and young children affects their future will have “revolutionary implications for medicine.” (Do I see more drugs aimed at small children on the horizon? Heaven help us if this leads yet again to eugenics.) But he’s wrongheaded to think that merely because science demonstrates something, society will take action. Will the new science on “toxic stress” in small children be able to “more effectively chip away at poverty and crime,” as Kristof suggests? I doubt it. To do the latter requires political will, not science. This, in turn, requires a society in accord when it comes to its social and economic priorities—something we certainly do not have in America.
The works of two great philosophers on the matter of infancy and early childhood—Plato, in the Republic and the Laws, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Émile—offer as much wisdom on childrearing as that offered by the conclusions reached by scientific studies. Even putting aside their sometimes questionable and quirky ideas on such matters as whether to swaddle infants (Plato, yes, Rousseau, no), we see both philosophers deeply in favor of rocking and holding (i.e., cuddling) infants and small children. To this they each add the importance of play and storytelling, not to mention the affection of family.
Today, because we live in a post-Darwin age of “social constructs,” we find the idea of “man’s nature” too teleological for our taste. To Plato and Rousseau, however, it would have been preposterous to discuss child rearing without embedding it in this idea. How can you tell how to direct the education of a child without having in mind an idea of the adult you want?
Where Plato argued man’s nature lay in his ability to reason, and the goal of child rearing was to produce reasoning citizens, Rousseau argued man’s nature lay in his essential goodness. For Rousseau, the goal was to try to recapitulate that natural goodness, destroyed when society was formed and men turned vain and competitive, by raising children in such a way that they ended up good and decent–that is, “virtuous”–citizens. In both cases, rearing the young was the most important thing a society does, and how a society chooses to rear its young determines whether it ends up with denatured human beings (like the Spartans), good citizens (as described, differently, by Plato and Rousseau), or natural human beings (as in Rousseau’s “ideal” of his imaginary Émile).
Without any ideas about “man’s nature,” our thinking about the purpose of raising children inevitably lands on the lowest common denominator–searching for a means by which to make children end up “successful” adults–measured, of course, mostly by how much money they end up with. Plato and Rousseau, by contrast, aimed for healthy citizens (in Rousseau’s case, healthy citizens meaning happy citizens).
In any event, we live in a sorry time if we need either science or philosophy to tell us that infants and small children need cuddling.