"I grew up poor, but I didn't know it."
Many of us have heard and been inspired by rags to riches stories told by adults who overcame risk factors in their childhood, and avoided becoming products of their environment.
Poor upbringing, single-parent family homes, resource-deprived neighborhoods and communities are all conditions that many young children confront, but still manage to excel and beat the odds stacked against them.
So what is it that separates the stories of triumph from those of defeat?
More often than not, the common denominator is the presence of a loving and supportive parent who offered positive reinforcement and understood the importance of making the most of a bad situation in order to protect their child's future.
Research shows that positive parenting provides a protective buffer that shields children from harsh realities.
When a baby is born, her brain is akin to a clean slate. Every single person, place or thing that she encounters during the first three years of life will shape her mental foundation for learning about and understanding of the world around her.
It is critically important for all parents to focus on filling a baby's brain with positive experiences, and to maintain a nurturing home environment in order to encourage optimal development. Unfortunately, for some parents the task is easier said than done.
Unique family circumstances such as low income, low parental education levels, and/or maternal depression can greatly hinder a parents' ability to give their children the affection, time, and attention that all babies need to feel protected and loved.
According to The Urban Child Institute, children born into middle and/or high-income families with both parents present have access to more resources to support healthy early childhood development and to promote kindergarten readiness. But for young children who are subjected to lesser living conditions, the transition into childhood and even adulthood may prove to be more challenging.
The high stress and anxiety levels that each of these unique circumstances creates can cause parents to unknowingly put their child at risk for slower developmental progress.
How is this possible?
Newborn and infant children thrive in positive environments. Positive experiences, positive interactions with adults, and positive surroundings all offer a security blanket that babies ages zero to three need to develop self-control, self-confidence, and the ability to think independently. These are skills that are needed to excel inside and outside of the classroom.
The same positivity pays philosophy is applicable during any stage of life. Even as we mature into adulthood and later begin our careers, we are still driven by positive people, positive feedback, and positive reinforcement of our talents and abilities offered by teachers, parents, colleagues, and peers.
And even when adults experience setbacks, harsh treatment or any sort of negativity, we have the trouble-shooting skills needed to bounce back and keep pressing forward.
But when a young child endures hardship, the clean mental slate that she is born with can quickly become soiled by negative emotions and feelings that may be detrimental to her overall social, and emotional stability.
Because baby brains aren't yet equipped to process and overcome adversity, parents who find themselves raising children under less than ideal circumstances must commit to bear the brunt of the misfortune and do what they can to ensure the stress and anxiety that they feel is not transferred to the child.
This may mean finding ways to maximize limited resources by taking advantage of free services, seeking support from other family members, and essentially devoting one's self to the task of ensuring that your child is positioned to enjoy a better life.
The Urban Child Institute has found that the environment in which a child is raised from birth to age three can often predict future life outcomes, but it is also evident that demographics do not always determine destiny.
Currently more than half of the children who live in Memphis are considered poor or low-income with 39 percent living below the federal poverty level. However, through positive parenting and more community resources like quality pre-K to support early childhood development, it is possible to ensure that those children do not grow up and perpetuate cycles of poverty and despair.
No matter the circumstances surrounding a child's birth and introduction to the world, all parents typically share a common desire to see their children succeed in school and in life.
Maintaining a positive attitude and responsive living environment are essential to the parenting process, and will encourage continued progress throughout a child's early developmental stages and beyond.
(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)