Guest author: James G. Henderson, Ph.D., Carolina Friends School, Durham, NC, USA
Why Love Matters (Routledge, 2004) gets my vote as the most important book of the twenty-first century. Not only does author Sue Gerhardt make a compelling case for the importance of nurture in the first year of life; she also writes in a style crafted carefully to appeal to professional and lay readers alike.
Much has been learned about brain function in the last twenty years, and Gerhardt thoroughly examines this body of knowledge to identify vital information for parents, pediatric specialists, and policymakers to absorb. Nobody doubts that babies are precious, but Gerhardt persuasively demonstrates just how much individuals, families, and societies depend on successful early parenting.
“Babies come into the world with a need for social interaction to help develop and organize their brains. If they don’t get enough empathic, attuned attention—in other words, if they don’t have a parent who is interested in them and reacting positively to them—than important parts of their brain simply will not develop as well.”
Devoted, consistent attention is what babies need to thrive. Love is communicated to a baby who is tenderly held, smiled at, talked to, and played with attentively. Babies who do not benefit from such loving attention are at high risk for emotional, educational, and health challenges in the years that follow. Societies that do not support early parenting do so at their own peril. As Gerhardt suggests, improving “the relationship between parents and their babies is a much more cost effective (and less painful) way of improving mental health than any number of adult therapeutic treatments.”
The United States faces a crisis in the parenting of babies and young children. Due to changes in the proximity of extended family and greater demands on adults of both genders to prioritize work life, today’s babies are at risk. Too many parents are too busy and too poorly informed about how to parent a baby. Common but critical problems related to eating, sleeping, and crying, and to parent-child attachment, can derail a family already under stress. If not properly addressed, such problems can alter the developmental trajectories of children. Moreover, as greater and greater economic pressure is placed on healthcare and early childhood education dollars, professionals who serve these families practice under the weight of ever-increasing responsibilities.
Why Love Matters makes a strong case for the importance of helping new moms and dads understand and respond effectively to their babies. Programs such as Gerhardt’s own OXPIP program in the UK, and Jan Tedder’s HUG Your Baby program in the US, are able to offer parents precisely this kind of guidance. Why Love Matters boldly suggests that the future of the next generation may depend on the success of such programs.