When parents matter most
June is graduation month, and I love the stories of scholarships, internships, gap years and job plans. Call me sentimental, but the success of our communities’ children gives me hope. Their success is a measure of our collective commitment to each other, to a common purpose, to our future as a community and a nation. With those stories, I also find myself wondering about the fundamental ingredients of success for children. While there are many opinions about that, there is a rapidly expanding body of evidence that identifies early childhood as the period that most influences a child’s long-term success.
The first few years of a child’s life establish the essential brain pathways and the social-emotional health that provide a foundation for all the learning that follows. It is the brain’s most rapid period of development. It’s also the time when a child is most vulnerable. Consistent trauma and anxiety – what the experts call toxic stress – can literally poison the brain and body, and negatively affect physical and emotional health for life. Children need a safe, secure environment. They also need an environment full of positive verbal and social interactions, especially at home. In homes where verbal interaction is low, even those full of love and secure relationships, the IQs of children can be negatively impacted by age three. Oral language exposure builds critical brain architecture.
Success for children starts with parents. Unfortunately for our children, intervention in parenting is something we feel uncomfortable about both as parents and as organizations trying to help. Parenting is personal. It’s something we feel we should do well without much help, especially during a child’s infant and toddler years. That’s too bad because none of us is trained to be a parent and nothing is more important during those early years.
I remember breaking out in hives a few days before my daughter was born. I was scared. Was I competent to be a father? No one outside of my family was offering any help. Fortunately for me, family was nearby with advice, stacks of storybooks and impeccable babysitting skills. Parenting is an awesome responsibility. Thankfully, my daughter thrived.
Good parenting skills must be learned. While keeping a baby fed is instinctive, talking and reading to a newborn is not. Parents love their children. Life, however, is complex and parents come from a variety of life experiences. They often need support with their own health and security before they can focus on parenting. Preschools offer valuable assistant to parents, and decades of research make it very clear that quality preschools are a great investment. But preschools are not parents, and those first few years before preschool are critically important.
I can’t help wonder what we might accomplish with a big community commitment to parenting. What if parents and non-parents alike understood the developmental impact of parenting during a child’s first three years? What if we could take the stigma out of needing a little parenting help? What if we all invested in parenting support to provide every child with a fair and equal chance at life success?
We can. We can encourage parents, especially those with babies and toddlers, to reach out for guidance with their heads held high. We can trade screen time for time reading and talking with our children. And we can fund organizations that support families, parenting education and the healthy development of children. We should not turn our backs on those who need help in every stage of life. But when we get early childhood development right, we start to address the root cause of a host of community and societal challenges by setting up our children’s brains for success in infancy when it matters most.
Executive director, Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute