Charity focus: What About The Children?

When I read the article by Dr Pam Jarvis in Yorkshire Bylines, I wrote to the Editor of my local Bylines to say how impressed I was by Dr Jarvis’s insight into the needs of young children, particularly because of my trusteeship of the charity What About The Children? The Editor-in-Chief asked me to let you know something about this unusual charity.

What About The Children? was founded in 1993 by an amazing woman, Doreen Goodman (after whom our biennial lecture is named), in response to the tragic murder of a toddler by two young boys. She was shocked that the majority of people didn’t see the link between the terrible act and the two boys’ childhood of neglect and exposure to violence.

The charity’s purpose is to draw attention to the essential emotional needs of the under-threes to politicians, policy-makers, health professionals, parents and the public. We are a small charity, but we boast that we punch above our weight! We are represented at all party parliamentary group meetings (APPGs) and contribute to important initiatives such as the First 1001 Days Movement. This is a group of over 100 organisations and professionals working together to campaign on the importance of the emotional wellbeing of babies, and we have fruitful connections with similar organizations in Holland and New Zealand. We host a very well-regarded annual conference, with eminent speakers from all over the world. This year, when the conference had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, we arranged for the four speakers to give their lectures as a series of on-line webinar presentations. We publish a monthly blog on our website and you can follow us on Twitter.

The charity, which has no religious or political affiliation, is run by a group of unpaid volunteers from a range of backgrounds, who contribute expertise, knowledge and experience, underpinned by a collective commitment to speak out for the emotional needs of children too young to speak for themselves. Our funding comes from donations and bequests.

Babies are born with never-changing emotional needs and how these needs are met will determine if they can thrive as they grow. What About The Children? is unique among charities concerned with the development of children in its recognition, right from its beginnings twenty-five years ago, of the importance of scientific research in finding out why the first three years of a child’s life are so important. We are supported by notable academics/researchers from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, biology and the medical sciences. International research papers are collated, from which summaries are made available for the public on our website.

Babies are born needing to be fed – everyone knows that – but, equally essential, but not so well understood, is their need to be loved. During those first three years, they flourish with consistent, appropriately responsive loving care, which they experience through cuddles, eye-contact, smiles and conversation – yes, conversation! Before babies can form words, they learn to communicate and discover the ‘give and take’ of conversation through the responsive, sensitive, loving interaction with the prime carer. They can ‘explain’ what they need, and derive comfort and trust from appropriate responses and begin to form a secure attachment. As babies grow they will build on this secure bond to form relationships with other caring individuals. These sensitive interactions are the basis of good relationships, which are so important both for the individual child and society.

While this is happening, the baby’s brain is developing – and developing at its fastest during those first years – nearly 90 per cent of that development is done by the age of three. On the What About The Children? Website you can read the scientific explanation of how the brain develops, how it works, and find out how these early loving interactions are essential for emotional and physical health. Through scientific advances we can now actually measure what is happening in the brain – through scans and through measuring the presence of hormones. Did you know that eye-contact between the loving primary carer and the baby actually produces hormones which cause an exchange of love and feelings of happiness? Do you remember the terrible discovery of orphanages in Romania, where babies were left in cots, with no loving cuddles, no talking, no love? When these babies’ brains were scanned, there were empty gaps where the parts of the brain which control emotional stability, self-control and the ability to feel empathy should be found – the pathways that link this part of the brain had atrophied through lack of use.

This is, of course, an extreme illustration, but when we look at our society today, with a growing number of children suffering from poor mental health, low self-esteem and anxiety, and with surveys reporting children saying they’re not happy, we think it’s a good idea to find out why.

When babies don’t experience sufficient appropriately responsive care to establish that special bond, and don’t receive the assurance that they are loved, is that why they are not enjoying happy childhoods? Rather than spending huge sums of money later on trying to deal with consequent mental and health problems, wouldn’t it be better to invest in relationships in the first three years to prevent these problems developing in the first place? What About The Children? wants to promote an informed conversation in which these questions are faced and policies are devised which enable parents to fulfil their vitally important role in bringing up happy, physically and mentally healthy children, who will then be able to make a positive contribution to society.

All sorts of ideas need to be examined:

  • should infant brain development and the science of childcare be part of the school curriculum;
  • should mothers be given financial help to be able to be their babies’ main carer in the critical first three years; should childcare workers receive better pay;
  • should programmes like Sure Start Children’s Centres be reinstated …..?

What About The Children? wants the best outcome for children through better informed public understanding of the importance of the relationship between parents and babies in creating a happier society.