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Doing better by our children to avoid toxic stress

Six-year-old Carolyn Hoagland (C)  laugh

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a major new "policy statement" on toxic stress and its effect on children.

Toxic stress is defined (in contrast to tolerable stress) as "the excessive or prolonged activation of the physiologic stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection afforded by stable, responsible relationships." 

A growing body of science has shown toxic stress is linked to disruptions of the developing nervous, cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems, and "disruptions can lead to lifelong impairments in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health."

Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times parses the issue in one of his recent columns. Today KPCC had Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician who is a leader in early childhood development research, in the office to talk. Shonkoff is also director of Harvard's Center on the Developing Child.

Here are a few nuggets from a wide-ranging discussion:

Early childhood development is not only just about parents raising their kids; it is also much larger.

"For me, the big emphasis early on was on the moral imperative," Shonkoff said. "Once you know this stuff, it's not possible to walk away and shrug your shoulders. Over the last 10 years there's a heavy economic investment argument as well. This is about human capital, ultimately workforce productivity in the global economy, the early roots of antisocial behavior in incarceration. You can go down the list," Shonkoff said.

A big issue is trying to "leverage the science" to actually bring about societal improvements. Often the science and the actual policies do not match up.

Shonkoff said the political culture in the States is a "really lousy political culture for raising kids."

"It's overly focused on individual responsibilitiy, pull yourself up by your boostraps, take care of yours I'll take care of mine...in the end, it's about rugged individualism." 

Science seems to show that it takes a village, literally, to raise a child. And the statement is full of such language: the need for "collaborative efforts;" "investments...into home-, school-, and center-based services," and more.

Shonkoff said he has worked to inform and educate people about what the research shows.

"We have to start getting more serious about trying to figure out what we should be doing different," Shonkoff said.

"...There is this really dysfunctional polarization between people who say 'just throwing more money at things isn't going to make a diffference, and nothing works,' and the people who say 'we know exactly what to do, if only we had the political will and put the money into this we could solve this problem.' That is not true. What we need is something in between. We have a lot of knowledge about this stuff, we should be able to be doing better."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@LATams).

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