When we are born we are laid, like foundlings, at the foot of the bridge of sighs that we will spend our lives traversing.
At our beginnings, only its foundations exist. By the time we are toddlers it will have been built well into its arc. When we are six, it will be descending to the other side. At about age ten, it will have arrived.
As we cross it over a lifetime, we add the embellishments. The lamp posts, the paving stones, the flowers and potted trees. The stalls along its sides that house various delights.
If we have a mind to — and the will and the stamina — we can even change the direction of the bridge. But it’s a big job. It means moving the foundations, shifting the supportive structures, lifting the paving stones and changing the roadway.
The interesting thing about this is that we have no choice about the original bridge. It is built by others. It is a matter of our lives and their bridges. And this poses a huge moral issue for all adults, for all governments, for all of society.
It is they who build the bridges. The babies, the preschool children, the youngsters, have no say. At their stage there is no such thing as free will, or freedom of choice, or participation. The bridges are built without even their knowledge.
I was reminded of this by reading that the number of underweight babies being born in Toronto has risen by 10 to 15 per cent in the past five years. The main reason, according to public health officials, is the mothers’ « inadequate nutrition, excessive stress, substance abuse, or lack of decent housing, education, or health care.’’
It’s fair to expect, I’d say, that without outside help for the mothers, the children are not going to receive the nurturing they need, and by that I mean not just good nutrition, but good stimulation. And if those are lacking, the bridges the children will trod as adults will be meaner places than should be their right. Not only they will they be the poorer for it, but so will society.
It is in those early years that nerve cells (or neurons) are activated through stimulation. It is also in those early years that nerve cells that have not been activated are thrown out by the body. At that point a person has his or her quota for life. If you end up short on cells, you also end up short on abilities. You can compensate later in life — that’s when you change the direction of the bridge — but by then it’s never easy.
Nerve cells that govern things like emotional control, vision, and social attachment get activated up until about age two. Those for learning abilities until about age four. Those for language until about age ten. Afterward you make do with what you’ve got.
There are about 9,000 babies born each year in Toronto. In 1991, about 6 per cent weighed less than 2.5 kilograms. By 1994 the percentage was 6.9 per cent. Preliminary figures indicate that for 1995 it will be 6.6 to 6.8 per cent. That’s more than a full percentage point over the provincial and national rates.
As parents we face no greater moral imperative than to create the best bridges possible for our children, and that means learning what kind of stimulation they need and making sure they get it.
Similarly for our governments. What greater moral obligation do they have than to look first to the needs of babies and preschool children? If the economic argument comes back that the first thing to do is strengthen the economy through tax cuts because that’s how to generate jobs, revenue, and the ability to assist, there is a simple answer.
In today’s world, and increasingly in the future, the ability to prosper economically is going to come in societies with ideas, with the ability to innovate. Those that focus on nurturing preschoolers, those that foster a climate of inventiveness at all stages of life, will be the ones that prevail.
Tax cuts for those who want to buy silk ties or tractors for their hobby farms may be nice for those who crave them. But these are not the sorts of things that sustainable societies are going to be fashioned from.