The Centre for Social Justice recently released an in-depth survey of people across Britain that found family breakdown was one of the most significant determinants of poor life outcomes.
When someone experiences trauma in childhood, linked to an unhappy home life of familial conflict, doubled the probability of someone experiencing homelessness, doubled the probability of someone experiencing trouble with the police, almost doubles the probability that someone underachieves at school, and increases significantly the probability that someone will experience either alcoholism, teen pregnancy, mental health issues and debt problems. Put simply, our home environments growing up have a huge impact on how our lives turn out.
American social scientist Dr Robert Putnam has researched this simple link extensively. His book Our Kids detailed how the most casual interactions between a child and their parents can have a big impact on life outcomes. He found that compliments and physical affection were closely linked with happier, healthier and more prosperous children.
The more compliments and hugs (within reason) a child receives, the better they are likely to develop cognitively. Children raised in positive environments become more adventurous and inquisitive, with better verbal communication and a natural optimism. On the other side of the tracks, a child who is raised constantly receiving abuse or criticism is less likely to develop healthily.
Academics in America tested DNA sequence development in children who faced adversity. They found that children between the ages of three and 15 who experienced violence, low socio-economic status, maternal depression, family disruption, and institutionalisation were more likely to “show signs of accelerated erosion of telomeric ends from an early age”. This is crucial because telomeres protect our genetic development and their erosion is an indicator of shortened life expectancy.
Elsewhere, Professor Gordon Harold of the University of Sussex studied children of divorced parents and found that when “children blamed themselves for the conflicts between their parents, they were more likely to have behavioural problems, such as anti-social behaviour” and when a child felt “threatened, or fearful that the family would split up, the child was more likely to experience emotional problems, such as depression”.
The importance of childhood as a formative period comes up over and over again. A policy programme introduced by Bill Clinton in the mid-90s gave support to families who lived in poor and dangerous neighbourhoods to move to richer and safer neighbourhoods. The theory was that families would benefit from not living around drug use, crime, and anti-social behaviour with little prospects for economic mobility.