My mother loved the summer camp she remembered from her childhood so, each year in June, I was sent off to embrace her memories. The camp was located near a lake named Catherine, a name that means innocent. The lake was welcoming, but like other deceptively innocent surfaces, the water could be dangerous for inexperienced swimmers.
A small group of counsellors, who had barely tumbled out of their childhoods, monitored the safety of exuberant campers who swam like graceless fish. Campers were instructed to swim in pairs called “buddies” and, periodically, a counsellor blew her whistle. Campers were instructed to "Stop, look and listen."Each camper held up the hand of her buddy and listened for the calls of other campers. After each camper accounted for herself and her buddy, the counsellor again blew her whistle and swimming resumed.
Time passed, and my childhood experiences became a kaleidoscope of memories. One memory is of a “What do you want to be when you grow up?” conversation. I told my 11-year-old friend that I planned to become a psychologist. She asked me what a psychologist does. I wasn’t entirely certain but her lack of interest spared me embarrassment. Without waiting for a response, my friend told me that she wanted to become a ballerina. I immediately recognized the ballerina of my friend’s dream: frothy tutu, delicate adornment, and wild applause. A ballerina had also danced in my dreams yet, shortly before recital two years earlier, my ballet teacher had quietly suggested that my mother withdraw me from the after-school dance program. Two decades passed before I understood that a teacher’s skills can be evaluated by student performance.
Conversations with my friend ended when my nomadic Jewish family moved, again, between New York and Florida. I don’t know if my friend ever stood en pointe outside of her dreams. However, as time passed, I not only figured out what a psychologist does---I became one.
During my years in graduate school, l learned a great deal about human development. Research based on neuroimaging has confirmed that the human brain is not fully functional until young adulthood, and that experience affects the brain’s function. Whatever the realities of genetic endowment, all people are affected by the conditions of their environments throughout the life cycle.
The human brain is responsive to the environment from its beginning as a neural tube in the embryo. Uterine glands and, later, the maternal circulatory system delivers nutrients essential to life. Neurotoxins can also be delivered to the developing embryo and fetus in the uterine environment, including alcohol, tobacco, medications, illegal substances, infections and pollutants.
Following birth, adverse environmental conditions can affect the structure of the brain and the physiological processes that facilitate its function. These conditions can be toxic and are disproportionately harmful to people in poor communities. Water and soil are contaminated by industrial waste, outdoor air is polluted by fumes from adjacent highways, and mould, fungi and insects pollute indoor air in substandard buildings.
Health disparities in American children and adults are clearly correlated with disparate economic and social conditions. Poor air quality, for example, is a causal factor in health-related disabilities that are associated with lung disease, kidney disease, cancer, heart disease and diseases of the central nervous system.
Critical resources, including adequate nutrition, shelter and healthcare, tend to be disproportionately inaccessible to people who live in conditions of poverty. People with disabilities and members of other minority groups are over-represented in these communities. People with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable to conditions of violence and to the harmful levels of stress associated with such exposure.
Emotional security influences development throughout the life cycle, but is most critical in infancy and early childhood Young children depend on others for physical survival and for the emotional security that builds a resilient foundation for other relationships. Children rely on relationships to orient themselves as they explore their world and their identity. Sound relationships help children to develop both the confidence and the constraint to safely journey from familiar shores to the promise of realities that are sensed but unrevealed.
Decades of professional and personal experience have enriched my understanding since I completed graduate school. Nonetheless, my counsellors’ water safety instructions remain the wisest counsel I’ve received about security in uncertain circumstances; reach for a friend, focus your attention, and trust your perceptions.
The perils of life are real, but so are the protections. The greatest security of all lies inside of us, in the lifeline of trust that connects us to our strengths and to the strengths of our relationships.
So, “Stop, look and listen”—and hold a trusted hand.