I spent this week with a group of global class scholars and scientists at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies under the auspices of the Ernst Strungmann Forum (www.esforum.de). We gathered to blend what is known–and not known–about formative childhoods and how they are related to peace. Being modern humans, we compared strategies for how to remember pin numbers, deal with Facebook and early stages of sore throats. And by bringing biology, social sciences, some ecclesiastical and a few UN inclined thinkers into learning range of each other we also found new and very old knowledge about life and how it works.
First, don’t overlook the obvious and known, especially for the first 1,000 days. Do not overlook the critical role of mother. And do not overvalue the role of professionals, especially those who wish to be paid for their knowledge.
Encourage women’s networks that embody the most basic primate intelligence in neighborhoods. What biology wants is that as soon as anyone is pregnant, the neighborhood swarms with touch, food, safety, protection from smoking and toxins, inclusion and secondarily, “medical prehab” relevant for the birth process. They are likely to emerge naturally–as biological as breathing in and out–but perhaps in more toxic or wounded environments may need a kind of social trellis to grow on.
At birth through first 8 months, never let the child be untouched, alone or unattended. Focus on food, safety and avoid stress. Protect the mother and make her aware of her safety and honored role. Protect those bonds that protect the mother-child dyad and honor them, too. Our current measurement tools are too crude to map these more complex bio/social/chemical/electrical webs, but we should assume they are critical as we we wait for footnotes.
From 8 months to 3 years encourage Mother’s clubs, father’s clubs, food and safety, community worker visitation encouragement and connection to other key potentially key assets. Flood the social network with encouragement about their relevance and ensure their connection to other material assets. Even grumpy economists note evidence from Mexico that positive conditions work better than no conditions at all). Remember that we are working with the most fundamental primal longings of the heart (David Olds), not against them.
Don’t medicalize, decenter or denigrate the trusted network around the mother. Constantly feed back to the intimate and peri-intimate social network about their success and relevance, especially as those networks extend beyond the intimate and cross over into more institutional or political domains such as schooling or public health.
Use the encouragements of spirit, ritual, celebration, visioning and honoring that are the strong suit of every grounded faith tradition. Constantly honor the profoundly sacred meaning of the most mundane and practical aspects of the work of protecting the prospects of the child and the next generation. Flood the social systems with positive feedback about its success at each of the crucial transitions in early life journey, especially when that success is achieved against structural violations of poverty or intentional deprivation linked to race or ethnicity.
Can we imagine a virtuous cycle over the next several generations that would tend toward less violence, more ecological wisdom, gratitude, and kindness? Yes.
This would be the natural fruit of a complex ecology of associations midwifed by hopeful people over decades. By complex associations I mean the ever-morphing interconnection of government, academic, faith, health, media, philanthropy, non-governmental and some we don’t have names for, yet, as we become Googleized.
All of these interconnected assets experience will experience increased confidence and stability as they are more conscious of being part of a generative phenomenon of life. Each is dignified by its intimate usefulness, rather like mitochondria are made happy by being utterly absorbed into the life of the cell.
As much as our Larger Life depends on each mother/child dyad, it also thrives with the dawning realization of continuous intergenerativity of infants-children-youth-adolescents-young adults-adults and elders.
All are us –all the time all our lives– play a biological and spiritual part in generating the life and well-bring of each other and thus the whole. Normal life is bio-social-spiritual. And the more mundane the activity, the more completely it is so.
Even the very young notice that their adults can be depended on to act with intentionality in their favor toward their good life as possible. Slightly older, but still-young children notice adults showing the same care for others slightly younger. Older children and adolescents notice themselves beginning to fulfill expectations of playing similar roles at part of the nurturing web and often notice themselves playing a key role in the care of those who are old. And then they experience an oxcytocin bath in puberty as they seek a mate and drive toward their own children.
This associational ecology emerges out of and in tension with–conflict, disparity, tension and wounding. Antonovsky considered the banal violations of humanity as the norm, not the exception. He wrote after the horrors of World War Two on the very soil of which we met. But much of world today remain broken– and still breaking–by active and structural violence. But is it more dangerous than the lion-filled African Savanna which our nomadic bands faced? Probably not. We are not nomads, but can learn from them (notes Doug Fry). Our radically social species thrived because of our complex fluid dynamic human systems as smart and tough as the world. We created social webs safe enough to bring another baby into for about 1,000 generations. This is the human way. Of life.
If we humans navigate the next century’s difficult passage, it will be because humble leaders will have learned to work with the whole dynamic array of complex human associations to nurture a generation of new generations capable of new generations. We will have found our life in a more complex ecology of human associations capable of creative freedom. This week in Frankfurt–no stranger to overwhelming suffering and astonishing creative freedom–nurtured my hope that we may pull that off.