Prevention Creates the Future by Transforming Culture by Dr. Jeff Linkenbach
Author’s note: My view of preventing child abuse and neglect is shaped by what I term the Science of the Positive—a framework which seeks to transform cultures by integrating spirit, science, and action. I believe positive solutions exist in every community, but are often hidden. When this hidden goodness is revealed in a way that does not simply change culture, but transforms it, safer, healthier communities emerge. What follows is a description of how this process works and how it can lead to a culture in which child abuse and neglect are not only unacceptable, but also one where prioritizing the needs of children is the key to positively transforming society.
Prevention Creates the Future
The best way to prepare for the future is to create it. Prevention is the process of proactively cultivating positive cultures, leading to a better future for children and their families. To create that future we must challenge some of the ways that we view, discuss and fund prevention. For example, while intervention policies and ways to stop incidents of child abuse and neglect are critical, such policies are by definition reactive. Prevention must move ‘upstream’ from the problem and address norms in the culture. This is where we must combine the ‘spirit’ of being proactive with prevention science to drive best practices.
Prevention Begins in the Community
Everyone who is part of a community is an active participant in creating that community’s culture. Communities, by their nature, want the best for their children, and citizens are driven by a strong sense of doing what is good. But there is often a drumbeat of negative conversation about parents and young people that hides this sense of goodness. The culture of a community can in-part be understood by the conversations that members have about themselves. It is critical that our community’s conversations reflect strong norms of prioritizing the needs of children. We must align our talk with our values.
The Science of the Positive™
When cultures of health and safety are transformed in positive ways, one result will be prevention of child abuse and neglect. The Science of the Positive is an important framework for bringing about this transformation by aligning the three core domains of spirit, science, and action.
- Spirit refers to meaning, essence, and values. We all share a common spirit of care and concern for the wellbeing of children.
- Science refers to understanding, investigation, and knowledge. Science guides discovery.
- Action refers to behaviors, practices, and habits. Best practices are actions guided by science.
Transformation occurs through the alignment of spirit followed by use of science to drive actions that improve conditions for children. Spirit first, then Science drives Actions.
Transformation versus Change
It is not enough to simply change behaviors that already exist. For prevention of child abuse and neglect, behaviors that damage children have to be stopped before they begin. In other words, change is often a temporary solution, the result, perhaps, of throwing money at a problem. When the money stops the problem returns. Change works within an existing framework and simply supports existing perceptions and definitions. Transformation, however, involves a process of shifting frameworks based upon careful consideration and then alteration of the underlying assumptions of those frameworks. It includes structural changes in the way people think about an issue and in the structures of society. The process of transforming cultural norms involves critical reflection in order to create a deep, structural shift in basic premises of thoughts, feelings and actions. This is how we begin to completely shift norms. An effective approach to prevention of child abuse and neglect must address both change and transformation. Change is necessary because abuse and neglect exist and the factors that cause them must be altered. Prevention is the goal because at its best, abuse and neglect will not exist, and when that happens, transformation will have taken place.
How to Bring about Transformation
Many people do not recognize the factors in their community that are essential in protecting children from abuse and neglect. These misperceptions are a problem because cultural norms exert a tremendous influence on conversations, attitudes, and the way people govern themselves. Transformation of culture involves bringing about a clear view of prevention factors—factors that already exist and need to be expanded. For example, most lawmakers and a majority of the public want to pass laws that increase support for early education. Standing in the way are the outspoken statements of special interest groups that skew the debate. The result is legislation that is less than effective in transforming antiquated laws into those that are aligned with deeper values of concern for children and the desire to do what is best for them. The transformation of culture involves transforming peoples’ views, mental structures, beliefs, conversations, and assumptions in ways that uncover the goodness and solutions in the community, leading to a healthy future. It’s not magic—it’s intentional and planned.
Prevention Matters Because Children Matter
America needs leaders who recognize the difference between transformation and change and act boldly to transform culture in a positive way. This means creating conditions through health and safety legislation that allow children and their communities to thrive. Prevention of child abuse and neglect represents a transformation of culture, one in which families are strong and children thrive because they feel safe, stable, and nurtured. This vision of safer communities, healthier people and a more democratic society is the hope and dream of America. The factors that are needed to accomplish this vision may be hidden, but they already exist and they can be revealed. When they are, we will find that prevention is at the core of our values.
For more from Dr. Jeff Linkenbach, including a detailed question and answer session, read the full “Prevention Creates the Future by Transforming Culture” paper.