What’s your plan to create great childhoods?

Beautiful blue and silver pinwheels are popping up all over North Carolina! Have you ever wondered why they “bloom” at this time of year? April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Pinwheels for Prevention® were adopted as the national symbol of child abuse prevention in 2008. The pinwheel represents the great childhoods we want for all children. The pinwheel gardens give us an opportunity to start conversations about child maltreatment upstream so that prevention is the priority.

What does it mean to foster “great childhoods?” At Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, we are focused on catalyzing communities, agencies and people like you to develop plans to ensure that all children grow up in safe, stable, nurturing homes and communities that foster their healthy growth and development. People notice the pinwheel gardens and ask about them — providing opportunities to share stories about the many ways that we can take steps to support parents and children to create childhood experiences that foster healthy, resilient, productive adults.

Researchers have discovered that the toxic stress that results from abuse and neglect during childhood can trigger hormones that impact children’s bodies and brains, putting them at greater risk for disease, poor school performance, poverty and even early death. While we know this, we also know that Protective Factors are proven to prevent abuse and neglect and strengthen families. And there are many ways you — in your home, in your faith community, in your school, in your workplace, and in your community — can support upstream Protective Factors to help create the safe, nurturing childhoods we want everyone to have in North Carolina.

We foster great childhoods because it’s good for children — and also because it is good for our bottom lines. Prevent Child Abuse America has estimated that the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in North Carolina exceeds $2 billion — in child welfare, health care, education, criminal justice and lost worker productivity. Wouldn’t you rather invest upstream to prevent that?

Here are ways you can support upstream Protective Factors:

1. Volunteer to be a consistent, caring adult in a child’s life. Read at pre-school, rock babies in the NICU or be a Big Brother/Big Sister. A child's relationship with a consistent, caring adult in the early years is associated later in life with better academic grades, healthier behaviors, more positive peer interactions, and an increased ability to cope with stress. Children's early experiences of being nurtured and developing a positive relationship with a caring adult affect all aspects of behavior and development.

2. Encourage parents to take parenting classes and read about child development. There is extensive research linking healthy child development to effective parenting. Children thrive when parents provide not only affection, but also respectful communication and listening, consistent rules and expectations, and safe opportunities that promote independence. Successful parenting fosters psychological adjustment, helps children succeed in school, encourages curiosity about the world, and motivates children to achieve. We dream of a day when all parents expect to have a parenting support group or class!

3. Connect with young parents to provide a listening ear and a place for social support. Parents with a social network of emotionally supportive friends, family, and neighbors often find that it is easier to care for their children and themselves. Most parents need people they can call on once in a while when they need a sympathetic listener, advice, or concrete support. Research has shown that parents who are isolated, with few social connections, are at higher risk for child abuse and neglect.

4. Support agencies that provide direct supports to families. Many factors affect a family's ability to care for their children. Families who can meet their own basic needs for food, clothing, housing, and transportation — and who know how to access essential services such as childcare, health care, and mental health services to address family-specific needs — are better able to ensure the safety and well-being of their children. Partnering with parents to identify and access resources in the community may help prevent the stress that sometimes precipitates child maltreatment. Providing concrete supports may also help prevent the unintended neglect that sometimes occurs when parents are unable to provide for their children.

During Child Abuse Prevention Month and throughout the year, we want North Carolinians from Murphy to Manteo to get engaged to support parents and children so that every child has the opportunity to grow up safe and loved. What’s your plan to go upstream to create great childhoods?

Sharon Hirsch is president & CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina.