Sunday, January 15, 2012

Real characters harbor real dreams
... and real fears

A few days ago, I read an article in the Times, "A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug" by op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. The gist is that while many factors contribute to poverty and delinquency in youth, a perhaps overlooked factor is "toxic stress" that can harm a child even before birth.
"It's not the natural stresses of childhood that pose a problem. Every baby or small child will be hungry or frightened at some moment. [Toxic stress is] the lack of a comforting, stable, protective, adult presence to help a child recover [from these normal stresses] that changes things." -- NYT parenting blog
Photo courtesy of Giglig

Toxic stress can have lasting debilitating effects, preventing the development of healthy coping mechanisms and contributing to behavioral, intellectual, and health problems.

“You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits” -- Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician (link)

Eliminating toxic stress also seems to be a key step toward breaking child abuse cycles.

As a Life Book Writer, working with nonprofit children's services and CPS, I'm always interested in searching out root problems and finding solutions to them.

As a fiction writer, these articles made me think about a post written by kidlit author Pat Esden. She asks the implicit question What is your main character's greatest fear? I've been struggling to get a good hold on my book's MC, and this question really hit home. I decided I'd ask Emily, but that aside...

What a person fears is at the root of a person's hopes and dreams. If I dream about making a difference in the world, going out with a bang, or whatnot, it's because I fear being irrelevant, overlooked, useless.

Thinking about fears, I read Small Voices, Big Dreams' second annual survey, which polls 100 children (ages 10-12) in 36 developing nations and 6 developed nations using 6 open-ended questions:
  1. What would you do as president [leader] to improve children’s lives?
  2. If you could grow up to be anything you wanted, what would you be?
  3. If you could spend the day doing anything you wanted, what would you do?
  4. Where do you feel safest?
  5. When you think about staying safe and healthy every day, what is the one thing you worry about most?
  6. If you were the president [leader] of your country, what is the one thing you would do to protect children? 
Among other things, the results show that
“Children in the poorest countries are placing their hopes and dreams on their ability to learn, and they want to use their education to improve their communities.” --Anne Lynam Goddard, president and CEO of ChildFund International (link)

When I grow up ....
In developing countries, most children want to be teachers or doctors
In developed countries, most children want to be artists or professional athletes.

Our hopes and dreams point back to our fears, I believe, at every age.

Our environments dictate these fears, too. And if our earliest environments are saturated with toxic stress? --An odd idea, being suffocated by a lack of something. But isn't that what hunger is? What poverty, fear, disease, war are: simply the lack of food, lack of security, lack of health, and lack of peace? -- If even before birth, we're missing stability and the sense of safety that equips us to deal with natural stressors, how much more susceptible will we be to the effects of these stressors?


As a human being, I hope these articles help raise awareness about the need for solutions.

As writers presenting reality as it is or could be, what are some of the things your characters have feared most or wished for hardest?