A poor excuse for a childhood

By Wang Yuke (HK Edition)

The HK government is working hard to foster the upward mobility of children in poverty but it’s a hard road, since much of the problem stems from the city’s other big issue, poor housing. Wang Yuke reports.

We hear about the struggles of poor children, needing more “opportunities” to break the cycle of poverty, but research shows poor kids need more than that. They’re practically beat before they start. A joint study released in March by the Society for Community Organization and Hong Kong Chiropractic College showed nearly 80 percent of 142 children living in cramped housing developed early signs of spinal disorders, and neurological imbalances ultimately leading to chemical and electrical abnormalities affecting the nervous system.

Kids raised in poverty are programmed by unhealthy conditions, to adult lives with bad eyesight, awkward physical coordination, muscle weakness, curvature of the spine, even paralysis. It’s small wonder that these kids are more susceptible to depression and disruptive behavior, says psychologist Catherine McBride, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). The early unhealthy environment is quite likely to afflict them for the rest of their lives. The joint study, conducted from October 2015 to February 2016, concluded that 97 percent of abnormalities among underprivileged school children, came from poor living conditions. All children in the study lived in cramped, inadequate housing.

Primary Six student Zak-ming always complained of backaches and a stiff neck, Chen, his mother, said. Closer examination showed the boy was developing a spinal curvature from living in cramped quarters.

The subdivided flat he shares with his mother measures about 60 square feet. Crammed into that space are a converted bunk bed and a narrow desk, enough for a flat screen television. Zak-ming hurries to finish his homework at a free cram school run by a community organization. If he has to write at home, he has a collapsible desk his mother lays out on the bed.

Zak-ming spends most of his free time lying on his stomach reading. He’s developed eyestrain. His eyesight is getting worse. The bunk bed is almost as high as the ceiling, so he can’t sit up straight. Chen worries about what will happen as he grows.

They share a kitchen with a neighbor. Chen prepares basic meals, mostly vegetables on an induction cooker. There’s not enough money for meat. They get a delivery of meat once a week from local charities, so Zak-ming is poorly nourished. Nutritionist Ruth Chan Suk-mei of CUHK observes that lack of adequate nourishment, and limited variety of foods, interfere with normal growth and physical development. Those conditions contribute to poor health overall.

Inadequate nutrition

Poor kids typically suffer from inadequate protein, calcium, fiber and vitamins. Deficiencies of iron are also common. Children lacking in iron are prone to anemia which leaves them feeling weak, and unable to think clearly.

Professor Chan notes children in poor families eat too much canned food, instant food and leftovers, all high in sodium, increasing the risk of high blood pressure in later life.

While some underprivileged kids are thin and frail looking, others are overweight. Obesity among under privileged children results from diets heavy in fats and carbohydrates – inexpensive foods that provide high calories but poor nutrition, says Chan.

Lack of vitamins B1, C and E, and magnesium, which regulate neurological mechanisms, can lead to behavioral and emotional problems, remarks Chan.

These inbuilt afflictions that underprivileged children carry around drag down their sense of well-being, leaving them behind their peers when it comes to learning and social adaptation. Feelings of being “less than” their peers is humiliating which presents another stress factor. It’s not hard to see why depression is common among poor kids.

Depression is the result of low self-esteem, says McBride. She adds that while there is no definitive research showing that withdrawal is common among children of poor families, the empirical evidence found in these cramped unhealthy conditions is overwhelming.

Zak-ming is a quiet lad. His features are expressionless when he speaks. He avoids direct eye contact, especially with people he doesn’t know.

“He’s a little withdrawn, not as sociable as his peers. He never invites his friends over, and he doesn’t visit their place,” the mother sighed.

The boy whispered, “I want to bring them home, but I don’t dare, because my house has no place to play around. It’s awkward. What would my friends think of me?”

Kids who grow up poor feel shame. They cocoon themselves in their shabby homes to avoid facing their peers. The problem doesn’t get any better. It gets worse as they get older, says McBride. She explains that some children get past their emotional disorders as they mature, others, who are the most painfully shy and frustrated, are likely to have behavioral and emotional problems even in adulthood.

The evidence is found in studies of stress management. Researchers have learned that chronic stress reprograms the body’s mechanisms for dealing with stress. Even when they come to adulthood, children who have grown up in poverty approach personal trials and social situations differently. This is shown by brain studies, comparing adults who grew up in poverty with those from more affluent homes. Among children of the poor, physical mechanisms regulating emotions and stress management have become suppressed and dysfunctional, compared to their more affluent peers. The suppression of normal controls may lead to sharp deviations from normal behavior, including serious social maladaptation.

These differences not only affect health and well-being, they also drag on intelligence and creativity.

Zak-ming finds life boring. He’s creative and loves building blocks, but it’s hard to be creative in that tiny space. Once, he bought the ingredients and tools for making sweet dumplings, but only managed to make a mess of the makeshift kitchen.

Poverty stunts a child’s creativity and deprives him of pleasure, concludes McBride. “They may face more difficulties when it comes to employment, because they are less attractive socially.”

Zak-ming does have learning difficulties. His English grades are a real headache for his mother. She says he rarely passes exams.

Lagging far behind

There’s a body of evidence showing that poor children begin falling behind their peers in English classes after age 4, or K2 (lower class in kindergarten), says McBride, adding poor proficiency in language plays a role in their shyness and social withdrawal. Attention deficit disorder is found frequently in children raised in substandard housing, because they have no space to study and concentrate on their work. Impoverished parents tend to be tougher on their children than those who are better off, McBride adds.

Hui Lai-hang, assistant professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, emphasizes that positive parenting helps kids get past many of the major difficulties.

Zak-ming’s mother came from Hunan province on a two-way exit permit. Soon after the boy was born, her husband vanished. Mother and son scraped by on her son’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance from the government every month. Chen, a non-local resident, isn’t qualified for assistance, nor is she allowed to work.

Life is a grind for her too, so she occupies herself during the day volunteering for social service work. “I can’t bear staying in the ‘walled’ room. It is suffocating. It drives me mad.” Depressed parents are more common in poor households as in more affluent homes. That has profound effects on the children.

In poor families, a parent’s anxiety creates a toxic family ambience that seriously affects the developing character traits of children, says McBride.

Providing poor families with comfortable housing and economic aid can effectively improve children’s well-being. That’s not practical, however, given the long waiting list for public housing. Tactful parenting is an effective and immediate alternative to help children living with the stigma of poverty. When parents have the right attitude, kids can enjoy themselves even in poorly accommodations, says McBride.

Chen Dandan, a single mother, has a Master’s degree in Child Psychology from the mainland. She met her ex-husband at a mainland university and married in Hong Kong. But since he abandoned Chen and their unborn kid, Chen has lived in a subdivided flat. Now she still lives there with her 5-year-old son, Doh-doh, who goes to kindergarten.

Doh-doh suffers the same trials as Zak-ming. He is shy and gets depressed. He knows his family is poor.

Chen Dandan remembers Doh-doh refusing to wear patched trousers, afraid of being ridiculed. She told him patiently that a person never should be defined by appearance.

Chen Dandan stays upbeat and while Doh-doh often gets down, he still calls himself a happy kid. He loves playing the piano but there’s no room in the apartment. She bought him a toy piano and teaches him to play on it. He’s acquired a repertoire of songs that he’s proud to perform for others. Doh-doh likes drawing best. Chen Dandan found him a free class where he can learn. “I’m conscious of not giving him hints that we’re poor or that living in the shabby house is shameful,” She says.

Not all parents have Chen Dandan’s understanding of how to cope with their children’s emotions. A study by the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong in November 2012 showed that most households in poverty surveyed had poor attainment in education. McBride suggests parents find as many inexpensive or free resources as possible to support their children’s interests.

Professor Hui acknowledges parental support is among the most important factors. Social workers and school psychologists should become more involved too. “Early intervention is the best way to prevent children from developing more serious forms of mood or behavioral disorders, however, psychological interventions come at a rather late stage in Hong Kong. This may be what Hong Kong needs now.”

Source from China Daily