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The Myth of Bootstraps

An open letter to Ben Carson and parents everywhere.

Listen up, Dr. Carson.

Drop the politics and face the facts. There is a reality we all live within, a common ground to seek out and stand on together. Scientific thought is the foundation of the medical world you practiced within for years. There are some basic truths that apply to all of us.

If you’re a parent—Democrat, Republican or otherwise—then when it comes to raising children, ignore that reality at your own risk. By kindergarten children have been imprinted in ways that affect a lifetime, a fact we must actively acknowledge to support their development. Dr. Carson’s empty belief that welfare, Early Intervention and similar programs do nothing but foster dependency has long been disproven. The mythical bootstraps, the ones kids are supposed to pull themselves up by to overcome poverty, don’t exist.

For starters, know this: The brain rewires itself based on experience all the time. Even our individual genetics are not fixed. Our body chooses what genes to express based on our environment. By the age of five, for example, excessive stress sets up a lifetime with an overly active fight or flight response, a decreased ability to handle adversity. That’s not a child’s fault, that’s the reality of life.

And this: Language development predicts school success. Children raised in poverty are typically exposed to a fraction of the spoken language as compared to their middle and upper class peers. And then there’s the idea of background knowledge, the need to know basic information related to a topic beforehand to be able to pick up new ideas easily. Exposure to background knowledge is also decreased in homes scrambling to survive, without adequate family time or resources. By the start of school, life is already not a level playing field.

Motivation isn’t a fixed, inherent trait. It also doesn’t last without actual abilities that allow kids to accomplish goals. Around school, success starts with specific pre-academic, language-based skills. It’s not only home environment that matters; research shows helping a family move to a community with better resources alone makes it more likely children will succeed. Resilience arises from life experiences such as stable, positive relationships and being provided specific tools for handling stress—all of which require adult involvement and proactive supports from an early age.

The iconic image of the rugged individual thriving against all odds makes a great story but in real life is quite uncommon. If you or anyone you know overcame adversity all on their own, congratulations. You’re the exception that proves the rule. While many children find a way forward, it’s an uneven starting line. Countless lives are undermined before children have even begun to develop both the motivation and the skills they need to succeed in school and elsewhere.

Appropriate supports for families are the only true bootstraps, a community reaching across party politics and pulling everyone up together. The cycle requires breaking, not passively admonishing people to care more and try harder. Early intervention programs alone have been shown to have nearly a 10 to 1 return for every dollar the government spends by improving school performance and decreasing everything from substance abuse to teen pregnancy—in other words, the government saves a million dollars later for every $100,000 of services provided now. There is no compassionate conservative policy that relies on people rallying themselves past the hurdles we throw at them, it’s little more than an excuse to look the other way. Sustaining a social safety net does not create dependency but builds resilience instead.

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