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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Early Years most important for parents and governments

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues that the most crucial investments we as a country can make are in the first five years of life, and that they pay for themselves. Yet these kinds of initiatives are underfinanced and serve only a tiny fraction of children in need. (From "For Obama's New Term, Start Here" by Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, January 23, 2013, excerpted below)
In Canada, and I suspect in the U.S., there is a journalistic bias about education and especially about parenting, shoving it off to the "Family Pages" as opposed to the "editorial" or the "news" sections of the dailies. It is as if issues around nutrition, physical and cognitive curiosity, exploration and eventually perceptions that grow into attitudes are less important than the latest budget decisions by some governmental body. Piecemeal funding of the growth and development of the first five years of life, especially among the poorest, least educated and highest risk population, and political debates about this demographic are easily and quickly dismissed as if these issues were relegated to the "afternoon tea parties" of elegant women's leagues and bridge parties. Whether this phenomenon is a left-over from the patriarchal hierarchy of values or not, is a subject for another time and place (although, it says here that we think it is!)
Nevertheless, social policy insofar as it focuses on the newborns, and the first five years of life, can include discussions of the most simple, and even personal matters.....like
When did parents last read to their young child?
When did parents last enrol their child in play activities that include socializing, competing, teasing and being teased, healthy snacks, brushing shoulders with other parents?
When did parents last take out their own memberships in the local library, demonstrating their own zest for reading, for questioning their reading, for engaging others in the matters discussed in their reading?
When did parents last enrol their young children in the local library....and library here refers to the storehouse of hard and soft cover books, DVD's, movies and documentaries?
When did parents take their children to the local produce store where they will find heaps of rainbows of various textures and tastes of fruits and vegetables not only to feast their eyes on, but also to feed their palates?
When did parents last explore the mysteries of the midnight sky, including the various stars and galaxies with their young children?
Kristof describes the work of two researchers/writers in two quite different neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, one of them referred to as the badlands....and the hands-off approach found there when referring to parenting style is simply unjust, not to mention lethargic and complacent.
We do not have to over-book our young children to offer them enrichment of the kind and degree they can appreciate; we can moderate our urges to have the hollywood version of the best kid on the block or in the school, or in the nursery school. However, we can never takes our 'hands off the wheel' when it comes to mentoring the growth of children from the very first signs of interest, curiousity and stimulation.
And we can also never take our feet off the pedal in requiring our governments to learn all there is to learn about what generates healthy, curious, imaginative and interactive engaged young bodies and minds....
And all the cliches about "they represent our future" and "kids need to learn to earn" and bumper stickers like "I have an honour student at X school" will never substitute for daily, hourly thinking, planning and responding to the questions, exclamations, urgings and sketchings of our youngest....
Let's stop talking about government programs, as if they were nothing more than "hand-outs" producing dependency; they can be role modelling examples for parents whose own opportunities were so stunted through a plethora of negative influences, none of which need to be or become a "life sentence" to repeating a similar scarcity in the next generations.
For Obama’s New Term, Start Here
By Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, January 23, 2013
What accounts for the cycles of poverty that leave so many people mired in the margins, and how can we break these cycles? Some depressing clues emerge from a new book, “Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance,” by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano.
Neuman and Celano focus on two neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In largely affluent Chestnut Hill, most children have access to personal computers and the shops have eight children’s books or magazines on sale for each child living there.
Take a 20-minute bus ride on Germantown Avenue and you’re in the Philadelphia Badlands, a low-income area inhabited mostly by working-class blacks and Hispanics. Here there are few children’s books, few private computers and only two public computers for every 100 children.
On top of that, there’s a difference in parenting strategies, the writers say. Upper-middle-class parents in America increasingly engage in competitive child-rearing. Parents send preschoolers to art classes and violin lessons and read “Harry Potter” books to bewildered children who don’t yet know what a wizard is.
Meanwhile, partly by necessity, working-class families often take a more hands-off attitude to child-raising. Neuman and Celano spent 40 hours monitoring parental reading in the public libraries in each neighborhood. That was easy in the Badlands — on an average day “not one adult entered the preschool area in the Badlands.”
When I was a third-grader, a friend struggling in school once went with me to the library, and my mother helped him get a library card. His grandmother then made him return it immediately, for fear that he would run up library fines.
The upshot is that many low-income children never reach the starting line, and poverty becomes self-replicating.
Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance.
Or take Head Start. Critics have noted that the advantage its preschoolers gain in test scores fades by third grade, but scholars also have found that Head Start has important impacts on graduates, including lessening the chance that they will be convicted of a crime years later.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues that the most crucial investments we as a country can make are in the first five years of life, and that they pay for themselves. Yet these kinds of initiatives are underfinanced and serve only a tiny fraction of children in need.
We don’t have any magic bullets. But randomized trials and long-term data give us a better sense of what works — and, for the most part, it’s what we’re not doing, like improved education, starting with early childhood programs for low-income families. Job-training for at-risk teenagers also has an excellent record. Marriage can be a powerful force, too, but there’s not much robust evidence about which programs work.
So, President Obama, to fulfill the vision for your second term, how about redeploying the resources we’ve spent on the war in Afghanistan to undertake nation-building at home — starting with children so that they will no longer be limited by their ZIP codes.

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