Boosting Brains by Building a Parent Nation

December 15, 2022

It takes a village to raise a child, the old proverb tells us. But we need to expand our perspective, according to pediatric surgeon, social scientist and mom Dana Suskind. In her heartfelt work, Parent Nation, Suskind contends that it takes a nation to build a system that gives American families the support they need. Yet parents are left largely on their own during the first years of their children’s lives since public attention and funds have focused on K-12 schooling. Our failure to help children and parents during the early years of life means we have skipped over the phase that lays the foundation for lifelong learning. And our lapse goes against the findings of science and our country’s founding ideal of social justice for all.

We all suffer because we have not yet come to recognize “early education as a public good,” that helps children fulfill their promise, Suskind explains. We’ve also failed to realize that what’s good for parents is good for the USA because parents are the first architects of their children’s brains. Neuroscience shows us that education and learning begin at birth and that engaged, loving parents and caregivers are the key. They can build strong, curious minds by tuning in, talking more and taking turns with young children, what Suskind calls the 3Ts. “These interactions, which seem like simple banter between adult and child, provide critical neural nutrition for developing brains.”

Children who are school ready by the time they turn five are more likely to contribute to the country, Suskind points out. They have a better chance of reaching the middle class by age 40. They tend to have lower rates of chronic disease and substance abuse. Their prospects are better overall. And “the reason?” Suskind asks. “Skills build on skills, increasing in strength and solidity as they go. Children whose environment helps them build good brain foundations learn more efficiently as they get older and encounter more vocabulary, more ideas, more sophisticated math concepts”—in a virtuous cycle that builds on itself.

And the basis for this cognitive growth is parent and caregiver talk and interaction during those first critical years. The more time parents spend sharing books with their children, engaging in conversational storytelling and eliciting responses, the stronger the children’s long-term growth. And what parents do, Suskind concludes, “will reverberate through their children’s lives and through society as a whole.”

Parents want to give children their best, Suskind has witnessed as founder and codirector of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago. As part of her work with parents, she also led a home visiting program that followed children from 14 months through kindergarten, a research project that gave her and her team a window into families’ lives. What stood out was the parents’ commitment to using the 3Ts each day despite daunting odds Suskind recalls. “I began to see that the 3Ts had to work as part of something larger, as part of day-to-day lives in which parents have not just the knowledge but also the space and time—made possible by reasonable employment policies and access to high-quality child care—to make the most of their children’s promise.”

The big roadblock is our dogged focus on K-12, an outdated approach to education that goes back to Amos Comenius, a seventeenth-century theologian who thought children couldn’t learn before age six. His ideas guided the Puritan colonists to New England, where they set up the first schools in Massachusetts. The other colonies followed suit, and since then we have clung to our “tunnel-vision focus on K-12 education,” Suskind relates, “while ignoring the needs of our youngest children, whose brains are in their most formative period of life.”

These young learners have been left behind, Suskind contends, as the U.S. has spent billions on educational reforms like Race to the Top, Common Core Standards and the misnamed No Child Left Behind. These efforts have largely failed to raise educational performance because they come too late. So has the advent of universal pre-K for four-year-old children, which existed in nine states and several cities as of 2021. While pre-K is important, Suskind concedes, “it does not address the needs of very young children and their families, nor does it fix the tragic disparities in brain development that show up before the age of three.”

Many of the parents Suskind met in the course of her work did their best to nurture their children’s growing brains. But their efforts ran up against the hard financial facts of our day. Take Randy, a construction worker who Suskind worked with at TMW. “He believed in his power as a brain architect,” Suskind recalls, and strived to spend time interacting with his children. Yet the multiple jobs he took on to provide for his household left him little time at home. His wife Myra also found it hard to spend much time with the kids because she worked in a dental office. And with all the couple’s combined labor, their income didn’t go far enough to afford a high-quality child care program, where educators provided children with rich conversation and interaction.

For working parents like Randy and Myra, child care is the linchpin that can hold their lives together and extend the efforts they make with young children at home. “Just as parents are brain architects for their young children, so are the early child care providers with whom kids spend much of their time,” Suskind explains. Yet only 10 percent of child care settings are rated as very high quality, meaning they base their activities on what we know about building children’s brains. The remaining 90 percent vary widely, and too many are simply custodial. As a result, many children miss the key window for early language development that takes place between 18 and 24 months.

Granted, no child care provider can be as interested or invested in a child as their parents, Suskind concedes. But competent qualified educators like those who earn a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ are exposed to the latest research on brain development in young learners. As part of earning their credential, CDA® students study Essentials for Working with Young Children, an up-to-the-minute textbook that covers the major research findings that affect their professional work. Essentials explores the role of the environment in shaping brain development, the way experiences wire the brain, how children use gestures to accompany learning and the way children learn in different situations.

Educators who are aware of these findings and know how to apply them play a crucial role, as parents understand. With the stakes so high, parents up and down the economic ladder—most of whom work outside the home—become consumed with the search to find good child care they can afford. And the struggles they face affect us all. “Yet our persistent focus on ourselves as individuals blinds us to how dependent we are on certain kinds of social and institutional support,” Suskind points out. “After all, the Founding Fathers recognized that democracy required common schools to create a citizenry educated enough to be informed voters. Similarly, strong cognitive development benefits all of society in the form of a more educated workforce and other positive public outcomes.”

We are all linked, as Suskind stresses throughout her book. So, our society’s knowledge and beliefs make an impact on how parents raise their children. And there’s an abyss between what we say and what we do. We say parents are their children’s first teachers and then fail to tell them how to teach. We say children are our future but invest less in them than any other advanced country. We say we believe in the American Dream, but we have set up a society so unequal that the dream is beyond the reach of most. We say, in the name of American individualism, that parental choice is sacred. “Yet choice is only possible if there are realistic options, and most parents in our society don’t have them.”

To illustrate her point, Suskind asks us to consider two moms. One is a postdoc named Talia who was studying how parents talk about math but now spends her days at home with her two young children because of the high price of child care. Jade, on the other hand, spent 12 years when her children were young as a barista at Starbucks because her family needed the income. Talia wanted to work but couldn’t afford to. Jade wanted to stay home but couldn’t afford to. And choices like this don’t offer parents what they need to nurture our nation’s most precious resource: its children’s developing minds.

If we accept that early education is a public good, we must reimagine what we mean by the system of public education. That means looking beyond K-12 and understanding that such a system will need to address social, economic and environmental factors that affect parents and their children. It must encompass health care, paid leave, earned income tax credits, high-quality child care and the many other programs needed to build a continuum of care and education that begins at the time of birth.

Building a system like this is a job for a wide range of public agencies, health care providers, businesses—and parents. They, too, must have a seat at the table, so Suskind urges parents to join forces like seniors did to form the AARP. Parents have strength in numbers and share a special interest that unites them: the struggles they face in raising their children. “When society fails to support parents,” Suskind contends, “children get shortchanged.” So, parents must have the sense of vision to speak up for themselves and for their children “We must concern ourselves with things as they might become. We must concern ourselves with who our children can become and with the society we can become,” Suskind pleads. We must devote ourselves to boosting children’s brains by building a parent nation.


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