"We are all born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end," quoted from Disraeli,is how Perry and Szalavitz start an exploration of how children learn to love-or not. Perry is an international expert on how childhood trauma, abuse or neglect leaves developmental gaps in a young girl or boy's brain. More importantly, he tells what we can do about it. Szalavitz is an award-winning science journalist who creates a coherent narrative of the ten children and their families who are the characters of this book. No work of fiction is as compelling as entering the lives of these young children and their journey to young adulthood.
Humans need the capacity for empathy-without it, the ability to love is lost. These children are hungry, even desperate for love, and hungry for learning, but the deficits in brain development due to the trauma, drama and chaos of the first four years of life, during which their brains were literally organizing, resonates down their early years. Perry makes the case that all the "Golden Rules" in major religions show how "morality depends on our ability to see the world from other points of view. And this starts with mirror neurons." Right there is what makes this book unique; what we experience as religious, moral and ethical choices in life all begin with what our brains are capable of. "Empathy is the basis of compassionate action...the foundation of trust, which is necessary for the successful functioning of everything from relations to families to governments and, yes, to economies."
What I love about Perry's approach, though, is the lack of moralizing. Here's what happened to this kid's brain and when; here's the consequences of that, now and in the future. Let's find out where the gaps are in brain development, fill in the gaps, and help the kid make better choices. It's a simple process of science-based assessment and treatment, with positive outcomes. It's not easy, but doable. Children, families, schools, neighborhoods, county/state child welfare systems, all benefit when the kid moves from raging and hurting to soothing and healing.
Perry doesn't offer psycho-pablum, such as "all kids are resilient, they'll get over it." When early trauma is intermittent and moderate, a child can be resilient; but when the trauma is sustained and severe, the child is vulnerable, not resilient, and needs help delivered in a way that maximizes brain change and healing. These children need connection, need claiming and consistency, not shuttling them from one foster family or treatment center to another.
Perry prescribes six "R's" in his approach: playful engagement needs to be rhythmic (to affect deep down in the brainstem), repetitive (creating patterns), relational (safe, stable), relevant (geared to child's developmental stage, not chronological age), rewarding (pleasurable) and respectful (of the child, family and culture). Without intervention, they rage, act out, hurt themselves, their families, other children, end up in detention, homeless, insane or in prison. As a society, we need to make good choices about how we spend our charitable and tax dollars on child trauma and neglect; otherwise these children make brain-traumatized choices that cost them and us much pain, injury, money and lives. No empathy breeds impaired, broken and lost relationships; loving, thoughtful care creates well brains, good choices and productive lives.