Almost immediately after entering the world, some animals fend for themselves.
Turtles instinctively make their way to the ocean immediately after they hatch, and giraffes struggle to their feet within hours of birth, despite their enormous size. Human babies, by contrast, remain for many years heavily reliant on others. We enter the world vulnerable and often leave it in the same state.
The time taken to achieve self-sufficiency is the price paid for more developed brains that accommodate curious minds, capacity for complex reasoning and greater social integration. The attention required during the early stages of a child’s development is balanced with the unrivalled joy at seeing your child’s world expand, from house to garden to neighbourhood and, later, to a much wider world. Parents accompany their children through these curious but fragile early stages.
Early childhood is a determining period. The emotional, social and intellectual wellbeing of an adult can often be traced to early childhood. Intellectual inequality is born of circumstances very early in a child’s life; the number of words a child hears before the age of five strongly determines his or her intellectual capacity in adulthood. Where a child’s immediate environment is not ideal, the collective must help address the imbalance.
Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy, is the source of inspiration for South Australia’s early childhood policy. The Reggio Emilia approach is largely inspired on theories promulgated by the thinking and work of Loris Malaguzzi, who created municipal schools for young children in the second half of the 20th century. Core to the Reggio Emilia model is the conviction that education (in the broadest sense of the word) should guide economic development, which in turn should adapt to the needs and aspirations of the community.
In Australia, there is a tendency to do the opposite: our broader policy settings, including education policy, hold economic growth as their ultimate priority. We have been discouraged to consider a person’s emotional and social development critical to education, which is seen merely as a means of preparing young people to contribute to the nation’s economic development.
Parents are encouraged to return to work as soon as possible, paying vast sums for the care of their children before their school life begins. That same impulse to send family members into the care of others is such that many spend their final years in aged-care facilities, sometimes with limited contact with family members.
Elephants are perhaps closest to humans in the extended period required for early development. Elephants can take up to a year to learn how to control their trunk; they feed from their mothers’ milk for up to a decade, and rely on others for their protection from predators for an extended period. Elephants survive this vulnerable and important developmental period through the force of tight family ties.
A herd of elephants also slows to suit the speed of an ailing, or elderly member. When a mother elephant is dying, other members of the herd stay with her, caressing her with their trunks and communicating constantly. By contrast, elderly members of our society have less frequent contact with family members.
The child’s world gradually expands as its physical and mental capacities grow, but at the other end of the life cycle, it contracts until one’s existence is limited, confined to one’s community or even nursing home. A truly evolved society enhances the life of older generations, and ensures the connection between generations remain strong.
As our focus remains fixed on career advancement, encouraged by politicians who wish to maximise the productive capacity of the workforce, time spent imparting knowledge and tenderness to children and providing care and comfort to ageing members of our community reduces. If societies are judged by the way it nurtures and cares for those at the beginning and end of their life cycles, many are failing.