*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 family. But 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.