Good for Children, Good for Society

“Children’s development is the wealth of nations.” The expression, borrowed from Adam Smith, has a strange resonance when children’s development is ever less a priority for our rulers whose policies call into question the fundamentals of solidarity that have enabled our collective wealth, our development in the broader sense, understood as the evolution of psycho-motor behaviors, language, intelligence, learning and sociability.

The subject is rarely covered by the media and generates rather mediocre political discussion. And yet, what better guarantee of sustainable development can there be for our societies than the harmonious development of our descendants! This major issue’s lack of visibility in the public debate comes on top of another, just as major, confusion: the idea that only the weakest and most destitute endure the consequences of failures in education and care. Nothing could be more wrong. Several epidemiological research projects on a global scale have allowed us to collect a body of knowledge on which to base our remarks.

Children’s first experiences, the stimulation from their entourage, their exposure to knowledge, to learning and to emotional and cognitive awakenings exert a form of “neural sculpture.” The child can subsequently develop the cerebral structures that in their turn are determinant for behavior around this primary foundation. The impact of the environment on health and psycho-social development goes through several forms of mediation: some are at the very heart of the family; others are more directly linked to the environment in a broader sense: access to health care, exposure to (noise or chemical) pollution, to violence …

There is clear evidence of the direct relationship that exists between health indicators, life expectancy and child development on the one hand and people’s socioeconomic level on the other. The whole field of personal and social development is affected by greater or lesser socioeconomic affluence. But there’s another less well-known aspect: each individual’s health and development are directly linked to the indicators for the collectivity to which he belongs. In countries with a steep social gradient (the disparity between the most destitute and the most affluent), that distance between people operates negatively on collective health.

Several studies corroborate that assertion. One, concluded in the United States in 1996, shows that the most equalitarian countries are also those where life expectancy is the highest. Moreover, it has been possible to document that the countries which maintained an equitable income distribution during the 1970’s and 1980’s subsequently enjoyed more significant life-expectancy improvements than those countries which had accepted (or had to undergo) more inequitable distribution of their wealth during the same period.

Another study, done in Sweden and the United Kingdom, shows that, for all social classes together, life expectancy is higher in (very equalitarian) Sweden. In spite of their greater “purchasing power,” their health, and their education, Britain’s affluent classes live shorter lives than do Swedes. Great inequalities also have a highly negative influence on those who believe they are escaping the effects of inequalitarian policies. Equality is not good for the poor only. It is also good for the rich.

Better than any other indicator, the growth and development of children are the expression of the health, nutrition, intellectual awakening and general well-being of this supremely important sector of our societies (their future).

Our responsibilities extend beyond the psycho-social development of our own children. We must all, to the full extent of our powers of influence, contribute to making the necessary political changes. Never miss the opportunity to remind our governments (which, in France, is preparing to eliminate the children’s advocate) of these realities.

The Stiglitz commission has proposed the creation of new indicators of our general well-being. Every day, pediatricians measure the close relationship that exists between a child’s development and his environment. Why don’t we acknowledge that children’s physical growth and psycho-motor development are the mirrors of society, and, in this regard, are reliable – simple and inexpensive – indicators that reflect the reality of a sustainable development?

Philippe Vuaillat is an engineer and screenwriter; Horacio Lejarraga is president of the Argentine Pediatrics Society.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.