Who’s responsible for children?

*given the current discourse on all things pre-K, I thought I would repost this piece from last year. as always, hope you find it helpful to your thinking.

I have two questions for you:  Who is responsible for the education of our children? Who is responsible for their development?

I wonder if you have different answers to these questions – perhaps schools and teachers figure prominently in your response to the first, and parents dominate the second? Certainly as a culture we have wildly different answers to these questions. Americans have no problem assigning responsibility to public institutions for the education of our children. Why, then, is it so hard for us to consider that the entirety of children’s development  – health, social and emotional development in addition to intellectual development- might be aided by the same?

The science has been clear, for decades, about the variety of influences on children’s development – from parents to peers to qualities of neighborhoods to schools to economic stability to social and cultural institutions and norms.  But yes, most scholars do not write for public consumption – so there’s that failure of translation of much of this scholarly knowledge. Further, one can’t underestimate the power of the individualism ideal in American life, and the pervasiveness of cultural (and commercial!) narratives about the familyBut even given those obstacles, why is it so easy for us to see the need for expertise and structure in the realm of children’s education, but not in children’s development?

In legislatures all over the country advocates are fighting drastic cuts and, in some states, wholesale elimination of early education programs, pre-K, subsidies for child care for low-income working families, home visitation services, after-school and youth development programs, mental health services and even eligibility for health coverage. That pretty clearly indicates that while we can understand the value of public investment in the academic proficiency of our children, we don’t yet understand the value of public investment in the overall well-being of our children.

This is precisely why I was pleased to see a policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics asserting the need for “a fundamental shift in the way the general public and policy makers view and invest in early childhood” if we are to hope to address the long-term impacts of “toxic stress” and early adversity.   There is hope – here is developmental science being put to public use!   (N.B. This is what The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, in its partnership with the non-profit FrameWorks Institute, has been working on for several years)

And then, an opinion piece from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, discussing the importance of the AAP’s release.  It was fantastic to see the importance of early childhood discussed in the pages of the Times, yet I couldn’t help notice how parent-and-child focused Kristof’s take on the issue was –  from how he defined the effects of poverty, to what he cited as causes of and solutions to toxic stress:

Affection seems to defuse toxic stress — keep those hugs and lullabies coming! — suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector.

Now just to be clear, this is Kristof’s interpretation – “affection” and “hugs” are not mentioned by the AAP. And that is precisely my point. It illustrates how difficult it is for us  – even a journalist as discerning and sophisticated as Kristof – to think beyond the family context alone when considering how best to promote children’s development.  In other words, because we consider child development the jurisdiction of parents, and consider parent effectiveness a matter of will and/or character, it is easier to recommend affection toward a child than it is to consider how early childhood development programs, access to health care, jobs that pay for parents, etc. might intervene to reduce the effects of adversity for entire populations of children.

This is what child advocates are up against in State Houses throughout the country – not to mention Congress: Trying to help policymakers understand that the healthy development of this country’s 75 million children can’t happen by assigning responsibility to families alone – because family well-being isn’t a function of will, it is a function of economic opportunity, access to jobs that pay, health care, education, affordable housing, healthy food, clean air and water.  The problem is, we don’t have a coherent cultural story about those influences, but we certainly have a coherent story about the influence of parents. And, as Daniel Kahneman reminds us,

The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.”

So what’s the lesson here?  We need to create and consistently articulate an alternative story that is explicit about how child development absolutely depends not just on the context within the home, but on the contexts in which families live (which play no small part in creating that context within the home).  No small undertaking, to be sure. But unless we do, we are asking advocates to go it alone, piecemeal, without coordination, to try to tell whatever story might help on this day in this state in front of this legislature to hold on to, e.g., Smart Start in NC, Healthy Families in California, after school programs in New Jersey, child care assistance in Ohi0, Medicaid in dozens of states and on and on.

I can only imagine what would be possible for our kids, and therefore our future, if we had a national effort that sought to coordinate and shape the work of those advocating for our children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual development into a big, new, cultural story about our collective, public, responsibility for the well-being of our children.

Science News that Advocates Can Use: Gay and lesbian parenting and child well-being

In 2009, when the legislature in my state, Maine, was considering legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I wrote a version of the following as an opinion piece for our local paper. Since the op-ed is no longer accessible online, I thought I would excerpt it here on my blog with the hope that it might prove useful to those who are working to make marriage legal for all citizens. Apologies to those expecting a piece on framing – I’m being selfish here by using this space to restate the conclusions from science on what constitutes a healthy family environment. 

As the legislature considers expanding civil marriage to all adults, regardless of sexual orientation, the public discourse on the issue should be informed by a fair rendering of the extant social science research on the relationship between policy and family functioning. Understanding that relationship helps us to create the systems of opportunity and equality fundamental to our values.

What do we know about optimal environments for child development? Nurturing, supportive, stable and responsive interactions with caring adults are what children need. What is bad for children’s development is exposure to violence, chronic stress, and social isolation.  And what does the social science literature attest, as regarding children born to or adopted by gay and lesbian parents? Healthy development and psychological well-being of children is unrelated to parents’ sexual orientation.

It is stress and conflict in the home that can disrupt children’s development, not parents’ sexual orientation. In a 2004 summary of research on lesbian and gay parents, the American Psychological Association asserted that, “results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.” The research also confirms that children of gay and lesbian parents are as likely to thrive as children of heterosexual parents.

It is not surprising, given the research findings, that the APA determined that children raised by a same-sex couple benefit from legal ties to each parent. Given the thousands of federal and state laws in which marital status is a factor in the determination of benefits (from those involving health care decision-making, property rights, retirement benefits, pensions and inheritance) the APA also concluded that it is discriminatory to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples, as any lesser status simply does not confer equivalent legal rights, benefits and privileges.

What the APA decisions remind us is that families’ health and well-being are affected by the legal, political and cultural contexts in which families live. And the climate of public opinion about social issues certainly affects us all. That is why it is troubling to see anti-gay/anti-lesbian prejudice, which has been a context of development for gay and lesbian citizens and their families, continue to pervade public conversations today.

Certainly, the decisions churches and other private institutions make about how best to serve their communities are private decisions, and are qualitatively different from the decisions we make together about the rights that we preserve and defend through policy and our public institutions.  The challenges in family environments that we should seek to address with policy are not based on sex, age, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation – they are based on differential access to jobs that pay, high quality health care, affordable housing, and healthy communities.

Again, the social science is clear:  When families do not have access to the systems and structures that provide equal opportunity, we put our children’s futures and the well-being of our communities at risk. That is what we should be worried about, what we should seek to address with policy and with due diligence. We all have a stake in overcoming prejudices brought about by living in a world that continues to struggle with understanding. We all have a stake in ensuring equal opportunity for all.

Lynn Davey, Ph.D.
Portland, ME
(The author is a developmental psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association) 

The Challenge of Communicating About Income Inequality

While scrolling thru my FB feed one morning, I saw a link posted to this piece on Mother Jones, “It’s the Inequality, Stupid. Eleven charts that explain what’s wrong with America” 

Here’s the first chart posted, showing average family income by income group.

This chart communicates striking inequality in income, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t say why this is the case. When data are left uninterpreted, when communicators fail to tell a story, they leave it to the reader to deduce, “What does this MEAN?”  And in that search for meaning, the reader relies on beliefs, values, and assumptions about how the world works to make sense of the data.  Take the chart above as an example – you looked at it, and you probably scanned it or studied it in an attempt to answer, “What does this mean?” What values shaped your thinking? Fairness? Self-direction? Opportunity?

The impact of values on political thinking is not news, and has been well documented in a variety of disciplines (social and political psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, political science, communications). That’s why it is a bit startling to see how frequently political communications fail to consider that sweet old news. Recently, Jonathan Haidt (see his recent book, The Righteous Mind and your morals.org for more) has offered a wealth of evidence that conservatives and liberals rely more or less heavily on some values than others to help shape their political impressions.

What does Haidt’s work suggest about the values-based stories that liberals and conservatives are likely to rely on to explain these income inequality data? Conservatives, who strongly endorse values of self-reliance and individual liberty, are likely to look at these data and conclude, “Some people work harder, earn more, reap what they sow, and that’s the way it should be. That is, in fact, fair.” It is far easier to draw that conclusion when data are about inequality in outcomes, as opposed to inequality in opportunity. Liberals strongly endorse values of social justice, and are likely to look at these data and conclude that the system is rigged, that inequality of opportunity is the cause of inequality in outcomes. But the data don’t necessarily tell that story. Not by a long shot.

But Jonathan Haidt has a recommendation for liberals on how to connect the dots:

If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness—which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades. (http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/how-to-get-the-rich-to-share-the-marbles/)

The data in the chart call into question distributive fairness, not procedural fairness. In his essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times, The Blurry Line Between Makers and Takers, economist Tyler Cowen takes on the question of the role of politics in income distribution, and in so doing invites reflection on that question of procedural fairness:

 Seven of the 10 most affluent counties in the nation are near Washington, D.C. That means a growing number of educated people are making a very good living advising, lobbying and otherwise influencing the federal government. This is a talent drain. It’s far from obvious that we are getting better policy as a result, and true wealth creation has not kept pace.

As Matthew Yglesias, a columnist for the online magazine Slate, has pointed out, there is also a subtler point about those wealthy Virginia and Maryland counties. They have high per capita incomes, not only because they attract educated, government-oriented professionals, but also because their zoning and building codes limit the supply of low-cost housing. That’s a significant government intervention that hurts lower-income people, who must pay more. Privilege-seeking through government is often most pernicious when it has a tidy front and a well-manicured green lawn.

Infographics are quite the rage. But infographics won’t be effective no matter how clever the design if the data representation does not capture the real story advocates are trying to tell. Until we tell stories, such as Cowen’s above, that paint a clearer picture of the causes of income inequality, we are not improving Americans understanding of this complex issue.

I’ll be looking for examples of data-based messaging that succeeds on this front, and would love to hear from you if you come across effective examples.