I tried hard to avoid writing a column about politics this month. There are a couple of issues in my own life I could have written about, the mental and physical health of people I love, why they don’t deserve what’s happening to them, how lucky we are to at least have insurance coverage that keeps us from bankruptcy, for example. But, it’s not always about me, I guess.

There are so many ways in which my life has been a piece of cake compared to that of many of my friends. I am thankful every day for the luck of being born to parents who wanted to have me, who loved me, who valued education, saving money and volunteering for the good of the community, and in whose home I felt safe, warm, appreciated and where I never went to bed hungry.

One of the reasons all children deserve to live in families like mine, where they feel safe and loved, has to do with the healthy development of their brains. Like building a house, a strong foundation lays the groundwork for all that comes later. The cracks can be fixed, the plumbing repaired, the wiring corrected, but it’s better and cheaper to do it right from the beginning.

In his requisite apology for remarks about drug dealers coming from other states and impregnating young white women, the governor recently explained, “I was going impromptu and my brain didn’t catch up to my mouth.”

Brain science has revealed that kind of behavior is exactly what can happen when a young child is repeatedly exposed to high levels of toxic stress — the “fight-or-flight” stress that is self-protective when needed, but highly disruptive when those hormones don’t return to a normal level after the threat is gone. Exposure to domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse in the home create that level of stress for children.

In young children whose brains are developing, the fight-or-flight hormone doesn’t recede from the brain, and its presence actually inhibits vital synapses from connecting and forming a strong foundation. That brain foundation is critical for the development of healthy social and emotional behavior, including empathy and self control.

That’s why we as a community, a state and a nation have a stake in making sure parents have support they need to be their children’s best teacher, and why we need quality early infant and toddler care for all children. Programs that provide in-home support for parents of infants and childcare that provides individual attention from caregivers save taxpayers more than $125,000 throughout a child’s lifetime.

In a state where eight out of 10 women work, and four of those 10 women are the primary or the only wage earner in the family, it’s imperative for our future prosperity that we change the antiquated systems of caring for our youngest residents. Flexible quality childcare, early education, paid sick leave and wage policies that reflect the fact that women make up the majority of minimum-wage earners are in Maine’s long-term interest.

The quality of empathy is pretty much a requirement for one coming to the right conclusion: “My family struggled and I came out alright. Others weren’t that lucky and what would make it a better life for a child today?”

That kind of thinking about policy changes is critical now. The research couldn’t be more clear. What we do with children today makes a difference to us all in terms of the state’s future prosperity.

We all have a role to play. Whether it’s volunteering in a classroom, reading to children at the library, being a mentor to kids who could use a caring adult in their lives, becoming one of the Community Investors providing a helping hand for those working to move out of poverty, or talking with your legislators about the need for early quality care and education for infants and toddlers, it’s in your long-term interest. It can also make you feel good in the short term.

As for the governor and his comments, it takes a lot of work to undo the cultural biases we are exposed to from birth. Underneath skin color and any characteristic we’re born with, from hair color to gender, we want the same things for ourselves and our children: safety, security, love and acceptance from the time we take our first breath.

It’s in our interest to provide that for our own children and support that for children who might not get it. Not only will it make a difference in our future prosperity, it will make us more likely to keep their mouths from outpacing their brains.

Karen Heck is a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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