Americans are fond of saying that our children are our nation’s most valuable resource. But do our actions measure up to our words?
Certainly, if you ask people what they think about making high-quality, affordable early childhood care and enrichment opportunities available for everyone—not mandating them, but simply making them available—few, if any, would say they are opposed. This consensus is in part due to mounting research in neuroscience, public health, economics and social science that supports a simple conclusion: investing in early childhood benefits the development, wellbeing, and long-term health of children. We also know how to create, scale and support these social and educational programs—Head Start, for example—and make them accessible.
Nevertheless, not all children have an opportunity to experience high-quality early childcare, for the simple reason that we have chosen not to support universal access. So why aren’t we committed to ensuring these opportunities?
Our political discussions about early childhood tend to center on parents’ choices and responsibilities—on the need for parents to make good decisions for their young children. But wouldn’t a tighter safety net of opportunities and support make good decisions easier, and make parents less likely to stumble in their efforts?
Instead of casting aspersions on parents, we need a new conversation—one that places children and what is optimal for them at the center.
That’s what The Raising of America—a new, five-part documentary series—is trying to do. I’m proud to be a part of the film, which probes how conditions faced by young children and their families form the foundation for future success—both in school and in life.
In exploring the prolific data about the positive effects of quality early care on health, The Raising of America brings to light the consequences of our failure to provide adequate support for parents raising young children.
Our Experiences Shape Our Biology
In recent years, as the film shows, we’ve seen a gradual shift in the way we understand health. Medical professionals are now examining health outcomes through a more holistic lens. What we’ve learned is that health is profoundly influenced by socioeconomic factors seemingly outside of the healthcare system.
Study after study has shown that our experiences—positive as well as negative—influence the ways our biological systems develop and operate. We also know that children who live in high-stress homes and environments with a lot of concentrated disadvantage are most likely to have adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. A higher prevalence of ACEs can affect children’s emotional regulation, which in turn can impair optimal learning. A child who has difficulty regulating his or her emotions is not likely to be able to stay in the classroom and learn. And a child who drops out of school is less likely to succeed in life.
We’ve come to understand that where you live matters to your health. In a neighborhood that suffers from chronic poverty—with a lower ratio of caregivers to kids, low employment, unsafe housing, community violence and physical decay—the odds are stacked against optimal health and development.
Yet with all of this knowledge, we still haven’t bridged the gap between data and practice by offering universal early care and enrichment opportunities.
The Choice We’ve Made
It strikes me that as a society we have accepted the notion that the challenges parents face are all “just part of raising a child”—that it’s not imperative for all children to have access to the high-quality early care that they need to succeed.
I would love to give working parents a sense that they are not alone in their experience—that there are countless others like them who want to be great parents but are struggling to give their children what they need. This sense of community in itself can be powerful and galvanize positive action.
What if together we called for the consideration of health and wellbeing in all of our public policy choices? Adopting this new framework might help us understand that policies that support safe neighborhoods promote not only crime reduction, but also physical and mental health and educational success.
Families cannot meet the demands of both our economy and raising children alone. It’s my hope that the larger conversation we’re launching—through ongoing research and with The Raising of America—will prompt a closer look at how we can develop an opportunity agenda for our nation’s children, and steer a course that puts the needs of children front and center.
I hope this is the moment when society looks at the status of young children and declares that it does not have to be this way, that we can change the experience of childhood. Let’s get started.