“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” – John F. Kennedy
As Kennedy said, children are our best hope for the future. As such, it is critical that we invest in them and help them to grow into healthy adults.
Dr. Stevens shares one of her primary concerns, “we are conflating . . . human development with schooling.” She goes on to add “It was really in the 1960s under Lyndon B. Johnson that this idea became a cornerstone of our thinking, that the public schools would play such a huge role in addressing poverty, advancing opportunity, and really serving as a primary kind of human development vehicle.” Dr. Stevens explains that the public school system and other non-parental programs can actually be detrimental to children, especially if it comes at the cost of families.
Addressing possible solutions other than expanding non-parental programs, Dr. Stevens identifies three types of families and how we can support them as they raise their children. She says that we need to celebrate parents who are able and willing to stay home with their children. “It’s not paid work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not crucially important work.” She goes on to discuss households that rely on two-parent incomes, as well as single parent households, explaining the importance of both ensuring they have access to quality childcare and finding creative ways for them to be able to raise their kids themselves.
Ultimately, however, she says, “I think what we need more focus on is helping parents understand how young children’s brains develop.” She goes on to explain that oftentimes parents and pediatricians, “underestimate how much just having eye contact with a baby and going back and forth in baby talk, that is actually the primary driver of brain development.” She encourages parents to be more proactive in engaging with their young children, and calls on pediatricians to remind parents of this importance.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Children are our future, and because of that their wellbeing and early development should be a priority in our communities and public policy. But quite often this falls prey to a variety of cultural priorities that actually run counter to the best interests of our children and our future.
Well, Dr. Katharine Stevens is the founder and CEO of the brand new Center on Child and Family Policy. She previously served as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where she led their early childhood program. Dr. Katharine Stevens, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
KATHARINE STEVENS: Thanks so much. I’m delighted to be here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So start off — why do you consider now to be a pivotal moment for early childhood?
KATHARINE STEVENS: Over the last ten years or so, there’s just been such a growth in awareness of how crucial the first period of human development is as a foundation for the rest of people’s lives. There’s been a rapidly growing body of brain science that helped us understand that, and it seeped its way into both the policy sphere and the sort of general public awareness.
So we’re just now really recognizing that this is a policy area that matters a great deal and that we haven’t thought enough about.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So is this part of the reason why you started the Center for Child and Family Development?
KATHARINE STEVENS: Yes, absolutely. We’re just now coming to understand that this is really important. There’s been a big increase in policy attention, media attention, to early childhood. So I think it needs more attention. At the same time, I’m hoping that the center on child and family policy will be able to provide a platform which is focused less on politics, less on programs, and more on what needs to happen to ensure that all young children have the opportunity to thrive. So our goal — our north star is the healthy development and wellbeing of young children. So that’s going to drive everything that we’re doing, and there’s just not enough organizations out there that are working in the space and taking that kind of approach.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. And we will get to that because I think a lot of people want to hear what can I be doing with my own children at home, with my grandchildren, but North Carolina Family Policy Council is a public policy organization, so let’s talk about that first and a little bit more. Why is public policy something we cannot ignore when we’re talking about early childhood development?
KATHARINE STEVENS: Our lives are influenced to such a degree now by policy, right, that it just kind of touches every area of our lives, and there’s kind of two things. One is we’re seeing that we’re not doing a good enough job to ensure that all young children are developing well. We’re seeing a lot of kids having a lot of problems these days, and I worry that our inclination is to extend policies that we’re familiar with for older children, extend those younger and younger and younger. And that’s just not the right approach for very early development. So that to me is really the key issue, that we need to be thinking about early childhood, from prenatal, say, to age five, as a very unique, absolutely crucial phase of life that we have to be thinking about in a whole new way.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. And I think it’s important for people who are listening to understand I mean you’re Ivy League. I mean you were educated at Columbia University, got a couple of degrees, I think, from there, so your perspective is not one necessarily as an outsider from some of these more what we might consider to be sort of liberal leanings in some of this training. I mean you’ve seeing this from having probably been immersed in it, so I think that’s important.
It sounds like you’re suggesting we need an adjustment to the lens by which we’re looking at early childhood policies. Do you have some specifics?
KATHARINE STEVENS: Yes. What I am seeing is that we are conflating — we’ve been for a long time now — conflating human development with schooling. So the way that early childhood is framed is with what you might describe as a “schoolified” lens. We really for the last half century have seen the public schools as the vehicle for human development, and it’s not always been that way. It was really in the 1960s under Lyndon B. Johnson that this idea became a cornerstone of our thinking, that the public schools would play such a huge role in addressing poverty, advancing opportunity, and really serving as a primary kind of human development vehicle. So as we’re now understanding that children are, in fact, learning from birth, because we’ve come in this way to conflate learning with school, which is actually incorrect to some considerable degree for older kids as well, now we’re thinking, oh, well, if they’re learning from birth, they need to be in school from birth. And that’s actually completely incorrect in terms of what we know about early development. And that thinking is narrowing our policy focus to expanding non-parental group programs at the expense of other really crucial parts of young children’s lives and in particular the healthcare system, early health, and most importantly families.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Now, what do you say to people — and I’ve even had — I had a pediatrician say to me one time, yeah, it’s great for you, you know, for your children to be home because you’re spending time with them but there’s so many children that they’re just lumps on a log all day long at home. The parents park them in front of television. So how do you address those kind of concerns when they come up?
KATHARINE STEVENS: There’s a large group of people who are home with their young children, and, one, is I think we need to be acknowledging and recognizing what an enormous contribution people, parents, mothers, or fathers, who are doing that, are making. I worry that we’re not celebrating enough that. We’re not talking forever, but staying home for two or three or four years with young children is enormously important work. It’s not paid work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not crucially important work. And the point isn’t to pay it; the point is to recognize how crucially important it is to our society. So that’s one group of people.
There’s another group of people who wish they could stay home with their own kids, but they can’t — a two-earner family where if one of them stops working, they’re going to literally go into poverty. So I am hoping that we can start thinking in more creative ways not about how to help that family pay for strangers to care for their children but how we can help them for two or three or four — even four years raise their kids themselves if they want to.
Then there’s a group of people who you just described who may not know or be able to do the kinds of parenting that children benefit from, and I actually think that pediatricians — that our healthcare system, which, you know, all children, essentially every young child in the whole country and their mother at least interact with the healthcare system. And I think we’re under-utilizing that system for parent education, to help parents understand how absolutely crucial they are and what that means — the consequences, you know, for better or for worse, and kind of what that looks like. Again, not forever, but for this really relatively short period of time.
And then there’s this last group of children who are living with one parent, and our general understanding is that that parent needs to be supporting the family. Those children are often very poor, and that’s actually a group where I think we should be focusing our effort in terms of childcare to make sure that a five-month-old baby from a family that’s quite poor with a mother who’s having to work full-time, it’s in our interest and I think it demonstrates respect and appropriate support for the mother to ensure that that child is in a really high-quality environment. So that’s kind of a separate case. That does not to me mean that the solution to this question across the board is non-parental group care for every child. For a lot of children, that’s not optimal, and it’s not what their parents want.
But I think what we need more focus on is helping parents understand how young children’s brains develop. They develop through ongoing, relatively intensive, responsive, nurturing interaction starting pretty much when they’re born, so having eye contact with your baby, talking to your baby, kind of the role that you play not just in making sure that they have good sleep hygiene but for people in the healthcare system to be kind or relentlessly emphasizing the interactions that children need to have with their parents and other close family members around them that being on your cell phone instead of interacting with your baby is actually — we could almost go so far as to say it’s actually damaging the child’s development. And that kind of knowledge I think could be enormously empowering for parents because I think they underestimate how much just having eye contact with a baby and going back and forth in baby talk, that is actually the primary driver of brain development.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk a little bit more about that because what does that do? So we’re not talking about — it doesn’t matter what the parent’s education level is, necessarily, even what they’re saying. What does it do? Does it open up some — physiologically, what does it — or what does it do to develop the brain?
KATHARINE STEVENS: We are profoundly interactive beings. We are hard-wired to develop through our interactions with other humans. And as a matter of fact, if you look at other animals, you look at monkeys, you look at elephants, you can see that that’s typical, that this kind of close, nurturing interaction is how we develop. Just very quickly, a baby is born with about a hundred billion brain cells, which is essentially the same brain cells that our brains have. However, what’s crucial about the way a brain functions is the connections between the brain cells, called synapses. Those when a baby is born, there are very few connections between the brain cells, so they have the brain cells but not the connections.
So starting actually before birth there’s a very rapid process that is literally wiring the brain that starting at birth about a million new connections per second are being developed. And what research has shown is that, as I said, the primary driver of forming those new connections is through human interactions and language based. So even before a baby is saying words that you understand, that the process of the baby makes a sound or says something and you — you reflect that, you say something back, that interaction is — babies live for that. If you’re with a baby, you’ll see the joy that kind of interaction brings to a bay, and what the brain science is showing us is that it is — that is actually what is building the synapses, the connections between brain cells for the first several years of life.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Before we go, Katharine Stevens, where can our listeners go to learn more about this fascinating topic but also your newly established Center for Child and Family Policy?
KATHARINE STEVENS: They can go to www.ccfp.org, which is our website, and I am on Twitter at KBStevens. And we’re eager for people to get in touch with ideas and questions. We’re eager to be in touch with people.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Sounds good. Dr. Katharine Stevens, CEO of the recently established Center on Child and Family Policy. Thanks so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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