Stress and the Cuddle Deficiency

Hugs are free. As a mother of three, I gave them away with abandon — until my kids reached the age where they made rules about public displays of affection. Can economic hardship get in the way of something as basic as a mother-child snuggle?

Nick Kristof had a great column about ways that parents can help kids succeed, even while growing up in poverty. He cites a series of studies that show kids of affectionate, supportive parents do better in school and in life.

As I said, hugs are free. But a dad who just rode three buses to put in a job application, only to be told the position is filled, might not be in a cuddly mood. A mother suffering with a toothache because she can’t afford to go to the dentist is less likely to take a child in her lap and read aloud. As Kristof explains:

Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.

There was also an NIH report released in August arguing that the stress of poverty affects kids’ ability to learn:

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds, according to a theory by a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health. The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds.

It comes as no surprise that it’s stressful to be poor. What most of us don’t realize is how that stress pervades every area of a family’s life together. Most parents want to do what’s best for their kids. But the more stress a family is under, the harder it is to be a model parent all the time. Make no mistake: Many low-income parents do an outstanding job. But they to did it while coping with calls from creditors, winter jackets that have grown too small and neighborhoods where there’s no safe place to play.

There’s a school of thought that we should help the poor — but not too much. We fear that too much support will create dependency. A friend who worked in a soup kitchen was amazed at how often people would ask, “Do you think the people who eat there really need it?” She always answered, “Oh, not at all. They come for the ambiance.”

We want to cut low-income families off any kind of public assistance as quickly as possible, whether they’re in a job that will allow them to pay for good daycare or not. We want to make sure there’s no television in that subsidized apartment, even though entertainment is at a premium when the playground is unsafe and a trip to the movies is an unthinkable luxury. We don’t want them to starve, but we don’t want things to be too easy. At some level, our policies feed this chronic stress.

We love rags-to-riches stories of people who grew up in poverty and achieved great things. These stories are so compelling because they are the exception, not the rule. What social workers have known forever is now backed up by science: The extreme stress of growing up in poverty can put a kid on track for a lifetime of poverty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen firsthand how simply providing clean diapers for low-income families comes as a huge relief to parents. There are a thousand “little things” that can trip up a poor family. The weight of all those little things can get in the way of what more fortunate families take for granted: rolling around in a leaf pile together, giggling over cups of cocoa on a snow day, a big hug after blowing out all the candles. These are little things, too, but they have an enormous effect that can last a lifetime.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in The Huffington Post, on November 2. 2012.

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