The Case for America’s Child Care Revolution : Planet Money: NPR


Parents of the world, unite!

OK, so Dana Suskind’s call to arms doesn’t quite have that revolutionary zeal. But it comes close. In his new book, mother nation, Suskind says that millions of children in America are being left behind during their first three years of life – years which, according to numerous scientific evidence, are crucial for the development of their brains. To fix this, she argues, America needs much stronger policies to support parents and caregivers at this early stage. Kindergarten — even pre-K — might just be too late.

“We have this powerful brain science that is so clear,” says Suskind. “Yet we have a society that is built in stark opposition to supporting children, helping families and carers put that into action.”

Suskind’s path to trying to revolutionize childcare and education in America began in an operating room. A pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, Suskind specializes in the implantation of cochlear hearing aids in deaf children. This procedure gives children the chance to hear for the first time in their lives.

While doing this remarkable work, Suskind began to notice a wide discrepancy in the results of his patients. After the procedure, some children learned to speak and understand spoken language with relative ease. Other children not so much. Children over 3 and disadvantaged children consistently fare less well. This bothered Suskind, so she began looking for answers in neuroscience and social science for the reasons.

At the University of Chicago, Suskind audited a class on child development, where she was introduced to a growing body of research that helped explain the disparities she saw. For Suskind, one study, in particular, struck a chord. The study found that – before the age of 4 – children growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. The finding resonated with Suskind because she saw this same socioeconomic disparity with her deaf patients — many of whom were born to hearing parents who were not fluent in sign language. This hampered these parents’ ability to communicate with their children. Suskind came to believe that the resulting effects on the brain development of these children might help explain why some of her patients found it difficult to communicate orally even after being given the physical means to hear.

It’s more than just the word count

About ten years ago, Suskind founded a research initiative and later wrote a bestselling book that each used the term “Thirty Million Words.” But in the years since, she has come to think that the slogan places too much emphasis on the number of words a child hears while their brain is forming. Really, it’s more complex than that. More importantly, she agrees with critics of the landmark study that originally found the 30 million word discrepancy. The study, for example, had only a small sample (42 families) and subsequent replicates found much smaller word gaps. Suskind now avoids using the 30 million number.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the scientific evidence remains the same, and it has only grown stronger over the past decade: About 85% of the physical brain is formed in the first three years of a child’s life. “It lays the groundwork for all further reflection and learning,” says Suskind. While the brains of older children and adults are relatively difficult to shape, baby brains are like silly putty. To use the jargon, the brains of children under three have a lot more “neuroplasticity” than older children and adults. This is why, for example, it is generally much easier for young children to learn new languages ​​than for adults.

Suskind’s main message: creating a nurturing and interactive environment for children aged zero to 3 years old is vital for their development – and many children are left behind during this critical time. Kindergarten – and even preschool – may be too late for interventions to attempt to close an opportunity gap that begins to open at birth. She argues that we need to start much earlier.

With his research organization, the University of Chicago’s TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, Suskind has developed strategies and programs to help parents create a more optimal environment for nurturing their children’s brains. They have done randomized controlled trials and published research showing that their strategies work.

Beyond individual parents

Since the launch of the TMW initiative, Suskind has had a great awakening. Working with parents, often from low-income communities, she has come to recognize that focusing on each parent’s choices and behaviors can do little. She struggles a bit in her new book, calling her original goal of changing society by simply educating parents “naive”. She continues to champion strategies to educate parents about brain science and give them the tools to stimulate their children’s brains. But more important, she says now, is tackling the structural forces in society that oppose parents.

“Although parents wanted the best for their children, it was like barrier after barrier after barrier placed in front of them,” says Suskind. Some of the parents who participated in the TMW initiative had to work several jobs and had less than an hour a day to devote to their child. Some parents fell ill, lost their jobs and their families became homeless. Others have been incarcerated, depriving their children of a two-parent household to raise and support them. All lacked the social infrastructure to support them, such as paid family leave or quality daycare to care for their children when they had to work.

In mother nationSuskind calls for new policies and a new culture “that truly values ​​the hard work and love of parents and caregivers and puts families, children, and their healthy brain development at the center.”

America, she says, is currently failing to do so. The data backs it up.

The average OECD country spends about $14,000 a year on the care of each toddler. America only spends about $500, or about less than 4% from the average. America is literally at the bottom of the list.

1 in 4 American mothers return to work within two weeks of the birth of a baby. America is one of only six nations in the world – and the only wealthy nation – that does not have some form of paid national leave.

About half of Americans live in “childcare deserts” that lack adequate facilities to care for their children. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reveals that only 10% of American child care centers provide high-quality care. “Child care providers are often paid less than dog walkers,” says Suskind. Meanwhile, the cost of child care has increased 65% since the 1980s.

About 11 million American children – or about 16% of all children in the country – live in poverty. Children under 5 are the poorest age group in America.

With institutions like K-12 public education, America is already spending billions upon billions educating the next generation. Suskind argues that we should focus more on the critical early years of children’s lives, when interventions can make a big, if not the biggest, difference. Many studies by leading economists show that when it comes to getting value for money from public spending, early childhood programs are by far the most cost-effective for society.

Building the “mother nation”

Child advocates have been calling for increased spending on children for decades. However, for the most part they lost again and again. This year alone, the expanded child tax credit – a kind of “social security for children” that has reduced child poverty by around 30% – expired. Congress failed to renew it.

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Despite America’s continuing failure to invest in children, Suskind found some hope in the story of another demographic of Americans. Old people, not children, were once the poorest age group in America. In the early 1930s, about half of all seniors lived in poverty.

But then, in the middle of the 20th century, old people got Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other benefits. When the tide turned against the welfare state and politicians started trying to cut benefits, Suskind says, a powerful organization was protecting the elderly: the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

AARP is powerful, she says, for several reasons. It provides senior citizens with a collective identity for political action. This helps cement a cohesive electoral bloc. And because of its structure, it has tons of resources. AARP is not just a lobbying organization for seniors. It’s a company. It offers a range of products that generate revenue. And, with approximately 38 million members, the organization has collective buying power that drives Corporate America to offer its members special discounts. These benefits encourage more seniors to become members.

“People often joke that people join AARP for the travel and insurance discounts — and they stay for the community and the impact,” Suskind says.

Suskind envisions a similar organization for parents, one that incentivizes them to become members with many benefits, creates a collective identity and cohesive constituency for political action, generates income by selling products and services, and then uses its resources for lobbying and campaigning. contributions to serve the interests of parents and children.

Small children may not be able to vote or organize, but their parents can.

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