Raising Resilient Children: Early Childhood Development and Catholic Social Teaching

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are a time of tremendous potential and enormous vulnerability. How well or how poorly mothers and children are nourished and cared for during this time has a profound impact on a child’s ability to grow, learn and thrive. This is because the first 1,000 days are when a child’s brain begins to grow and develop and when the foundations for their lifelong health are built.

This work of forging pathways out of poverty for children on the margins and preparing them for life success can happen through the global Catholic Church and its parish system; Home, Church, and School; when other infrastructure fails or is absent.
Raising Resilient Children explores the science of early childhood development and how parents, health professionals, and the Catholic Church can positively shape children’s future outcomes.

How do the science and theology of relationships and belonging intersect? Neil Boothby and Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. of the Institute for Educational Initiatives discuss the ways Catholic Social Teaching paints a directive to address the needs of children and those at the margins of society, while science, in turn, shows us how to do so on Wednesday, January 17, 2024.

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In the second session of Raising Resilient Children, “Early Childhood Development and Catholic Social Teaching,” Neil Boothby, director of the Global Center of the Development of the Whole Child welcomed guest Father Lou DelFra, C.S.C., director of Pastoral Life at the Alliance for Catholic Education, for a conversation that delved deeply into the harmonious relationship between science and faith, emphasizing the critical first thousand days of a child’s life. The informative and transformative dialogue revealed the importance of combining early childhood development insights with Catholic social traditions to foster resilience and well-being in children, particularly those facing adversity.

This unique session from the ThinkND series aimed at shedding light on the profound impact early years have on future outcomes by intertwining scientific breakthroughs in neuroscience with the tenets of faith upheld by the Catholic Church. Neil Boothby, esteemed director of the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child at the University of Notre Dame, facilitated the discussion with expertise and profound personal insight, beginning with a moving recount of the birth of his own child, Peter. The silent entrance of his son into the world provided a stark moment of awareness regarding the inherent individuality of every child and the immense parental responsibility to nurture and guide them.

Father Lou DelFra provided an enriching perspective from the viewpoint of Catholic social teachings, focusing on the inherent dignity of the human person and the roles and responsibilities of parents and communities. He highlighted the family unit’s status as the “domestic church,” the primary educator, and the fundamental need for responsive caregiving. Father Lou emphasized the right to growing up within nurturing communities that reflect the Church’s commitment to caring for the vulnerable, paralleling the protective and nurturing role demonstrated by Mary in the Catholic tradition.

Through their conversation, Neil and Father Lou revealed the compatibility and complementarity of faith and science in shaping the approach to childhood development. Enlightening their audience on the astonishing pace at which the brain develops within the first few years of life, Neil shared that a child’s neurological framework is constructed at a staggering rate of 250,000 nerve cells per minute. This highlighted the utmost importance of responsive caregiving in facilitating optimal brain development, as both responsive interactions and adequate nutrition are crucial in building brain capacity, shaping neuron development, and ensuring children understand their world as a predictable place.

Addressing the gravity of neglect, abuse, and adversity on children’s intellectual capacity and life expectancies, the discussion pointed to the monumental 30 million word gap that often reflects the impact of poverty on development. Such adversities leave epigenetic signatures that affect biology, leading to either resilience or risk, further reinforcing the need for intentional, nurturing care. Neil Boothby made a compelling case for prioritizing investment in early childhood development, drawing a clear line from the well-being of children to broader societal issues such as poverty alleviation.

In an increasingly fragmented society, the speakers tackled the challenges of loneliness and isolation, particularly among young people. They pondered social media’s role in augmenting this issue and the ensuing call for the Church and education institutions to foster a greater sense of community and connection. Father Lou reminded listeners of the Christian theology based on relationships, with the doctrine of the Trinity serving as the ultimate symbol for love and interconnection in shaping human identity.

Highlighting the measurable impact of Notre Dame’s engagement in countries like Haiti and Kenya, the conversation celebrated the influential role of the Church in fostering mindset shifts and encouraging nurturing behavior. This involvement operates in tandem with the efforts of the Global Center, where Boothby’s team endeavors to craft pathways out of adversity for vulnerable children through education and support systems pioneered in these faith-based communities.

Neil and Father Lou embraced the notion that faith-based institutions like the Catholic Church could serve as vectors for delivering developmental and nurturing messages to parents and communities, with Notre Dame’s commitment bolstering these efforts substantially. The Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child represents the University’s tangible dedication to this mission.

As the episode concluded, both Neil and Father Lou reiterated their joint appreciation for having the opportunity to explore and discuss such profound topics. Neil encouraged the audience to remain engaged with the Global Center and the ThinkND Learning Community, as these conversations and initiatives remain vitally important.

The episode, rich in its blend of science and spirituality, reinforces the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child’s commitment to offering insightful and thought-provoking research that speaks to the heart of human development and care for the “least of these.” The resounding message echoed between the lines of the conversation was a call to action, encouraging parents, caregivers, and communities to embrace the sacred responsibility of nurturing resilient children, built upon the firm foundations of early childhood development insights and the compassionate ethos of Catholic Social Teaching.


00:00 Podcast explores impact of early life experiences.
03:17 Catholic tradition reconciles science and faith beliefs.
08:08 Positive social interaction shapes brain development in children.
11:48 Genesis suggests human creation through relationships, not science.
14:17 Preacher’s analogy: Baby recognizing and smiling.
19:22 Catholic tradition emphasizes family as domestic church.
22:23 Focus shifting, education starts at birth.
25:22 Mary and Jesus’ role in social responsibility.
30:01 Engaging three pillars systematically in Haiti’s education.
33:39 Pediatricians key for child healthcare in the US.
36:18 Young people thrive in strong communities.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do the first thousand days set the stage for a child’s future cognition and emotional health, according to the breakthroughs in neuroscience discussed by Neil and Fr. Lou?
  2. How can contemporary science and Catholic social teaching work together to enhance our understanding and practices around early childhood development?
  3. What are the impacts of poverty on early childhood development, especially in the context of the ’30 million word gap,’ and how does Catholic social teaching address these disparities?
  4. Reflecting on the vulnerability of figures like Jesus and Mary, how can this perspective inform our approach to caring for the most vulnerable children in our societies?
  5. What role can the church play in countries like Haiti and Kenya in promoting resilient children and communities, as discussed by Neil and Fr. Lou?
  6. How do social media and modern lifestyle trends contribute to loneliness and isolation among young people, and what remedies do Neil and Fr. Lou suggest from both a scientific and a faith-based perspective?
  7. Discuss the theological concept of human beings created fully in relationships as presented by Fr. Lou. How does understanding the doctrine of the Trinity deepen our appreciation of interpersonal connections in shaping human development?
  8. In the context of raising resilient children, what are some ways that responsive caregiving can be promoted within families and supported by communities and institutions?
  9. How do we balance the need for technological advancement with maintaining meaningful human connections and a sense of community for healthy child development?
  10. From the dialogue between Neil and Fr. Lou, what are the potential strategies to ensure that caregiving messages from faith-based institutions are compatible with the latest scientific research on early childhood development?

  • On Raising Resilient Children: “The first thousand days are a time of tremendous potential and enormous vulnerability. How well, or how poorly mothers and children are nourished and cared for during this time has a profound impact on a child’s ability to grow, to learn and thrive. This is because the first thousand days are when a child’s brain begins to grow and develop, and when the foundations for lifelong health are built.” — Neil Boothby [00:00:18 → 00:00:34]
  • Science vs. Faith: “the Catholic tradition has always been that it’s a both/and for a very good reason, which is simply this: that we believe that the God who created the natural world, which can be explained scientifically, right?, is the same God who created the supernatural world, which is explained through revelation and faith. And so because it’s the same God who created both, those two worlds are ultimately compatible.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:03:45 → 00:04:10]
  • Early Brain Development: “We’re talking about a billion neurons within those first thousand days of life that are being built. So that’s like the infrastructure, the capacity, the intellectual capacity of our brains.” — Neil Boothby [00:07:16 → 00:07:28]
  • The Role of Family in Catholic Tradition: “The child’s first community is its family and so what Catholic social tradition would say is that parents have responsibilities to their children to ensure they’re cared for, to ensure that they’re fed, to ensure that they’re well sheltered, and to ensure that their mental capacities are flourishing.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:19:44 → 00:20:08]
  • The Impact of Parental Love on Child Development: “Loving your children and feeding them well, you’re actually building brain capacity, you’re informing all that neuron work that takes place… it’s a miracle when you think about the reality that when we love our children, when we pick them up, when we hold them, that that actually is becoming part of their biology. And it’s the biological origins of resilience, for example, or if they’re neglected – risk.” — Neil Boothby [00:08:26 → 00:08:35]
  • The Importance of Early Education: “The family needs to be the first and primary educator of their child, because what you’re saying, it seems to me, is education begins from the moment that baby comes into the world, even though it’s pre rational, if you will.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:22:58 → 00:23:13]
  • The Result of Adversity: “The church is uniquely positioned to activate, but before we get there – adversity, neglect, abuse…really works in the opposite direction in terms of reducing intellectual capacity and reducing life expectancies.”
    — Neil Boothby [00:23:54 → 00:24:15]
  • The Intersection of Spirituality and Child Development: “Those thousand days have gotta be filled with words, have gotta be filled with touch, have gotta be filled with love.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:33:18 → 00:33:24]
  • Transformational Education in Haiti: “in Haiti, we’re working with the Catholic church. We’re in, I think 320 schools, 200 of which are Catholic. And in those parish communities, the school is the literacy, the numeracy, the social emotional skills development. The family, there’s parent empowerment programs, which are introducing the science to parents. And then there’s the church component, which, for example, the priest and the sisters are integrating positive child development messages in sermons, in pre-baptism preparations and in early pregnancy, when couples or women are pregnant for the first time, getting them engaged in some of how we can raise resilient children.” — Neil Boothby [00:30:34 → 00:31:03]
  • The Impact of Social Media on Loneliness: “Social media, which should make us and does make us more interconnected in many ways, has also ushered in incredible isolation and loneliness.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:35:58 → 00:36:17]
  • Childcare Guidance and Religious Institutions: “In Haiti and Kenya, for example, the church is a very powerful institution, a very powerful voice, and priests and sisters can be quite influential and informing people, but also helping to shape, you know, mind mindset shifts, behavioral change.” — Neil Boothby [00:34:04 → 00:34:19]
  • The Importance of Community for Youth: “The single solitary human being is lifeless, you know? And only starts coming into its fullness in the context of community and relationship.” — Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C. [00:36:38 → 00:36:44]

Health and SocietyAlliance for Catholic EducationCatholic Social TeachingDigest164Early Childhood DevelopmentGlobal Center for the Development of the Whole ChildHaitiInstitute for Educational InitiativesPovertyUniversity of Notre Dame

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