early childhood: discover

by Michael Gerson

[The following is an excerpt from the book.]

Early childhood. For many Americans this phrase is automatically associated with the debate about universal pre-K. And while this is an important discussion to have, a vital component of the issue is often lost. For many low-income children, by the time they enter pre-K, they are already behind. With the odds stacked against them, the battle for economic and social opportunity begins before they even enter a classroom. It begins the day they are born. 

Interaction and imaginative play with adults, particularly parents, lays the critical foundation for adaptability and learning. At the same time, abuse, neglect or parental depression – known by scientists as toxic stress­ – can damage a child’s brain development. Whether positive or negative, these influences have a magnified impact on a child, one that will set a course for their future.

With the odds stacked against them, the battle for economic and social opportunity begins before they even enter a classroom. It begins the day they are born.

And leveling the playing field for all children begins not only with academic stimulation, but with cultivating their character. 

“Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor,” notes Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman.

According to Heckmanthis combination predicts a variety of good outcomes later in life, including higher employment, lower teen pregnancy, and higher wages. 

So then, how are we to approach a solution that cultivates these good outcomes when faced with the reality that many low-income children start behind from the day they are born?

While parents and their children are at the center of this solution, government and other social institutions have an important supporting role to play.

Yet, often in politics the individual and the state are seen as the only actors with little attention being paid to the breadth of institutions in society ranging from families to churches to non-profits. But it is within these communities that children are raised and develop emotionally, physically and socially. 

Pre-school may play a role for part of the day, but the early formation of skills and character mainly takes place in the interaction between parent and child. And it is not reasonable to believe that problems in this relationship can be solved by public policies that focus on the child alone. In short, high quality pre-school matters, but high quality parenting matters most.

 “The evidence of disparities in child-rearing environments and their consequences for adult outcomes is troubling in light of the shrinking proportion of children being raised in intact families,” points out Heckman.       

In short, high quality pre-school matters, but high quality parenting matters most.

Only about a third of African-American children, for example, live with two married parents. The task of raising children is difficult enough for two people; it can be overwhelming for one (though there are, of course, many admirable exceptions).

There is no one simple cause for the growing strains on families or the massive growth in single-parent families. Many families face the economic strains of stagnant wages, dual careers, declining blue-collar jobs, and long-term unemployment. Many communities have become fragmented and dysfunctional, offering less outside help – extended family, neighbors, mentors – in the task of childrearing. And cultural norms on marriage and the responsibilities of fatherhood have shifted in destructive ways. 

All of these factors – economic, social and moral – seem to reinforce and amplify each other, making it harder for two-parent families to form, stay together, earn a decent living, and give children the early attention they need and deserve.     

Public justice requires these deteriorating circumstances be confronted, but family policy is notoriously complex and difficult for government.  How it is possible for laws to build intact families or fill a parenting gap? The answer lies in the fact that while the government cannot mandate strong families, it can make them easier or harder to form and stay together.

For example, targeted initiatives like the Nurse Family Partnership, which provides nurse visitation to low-income mothers, could be expanded and better integrated with Medicaid. More broadly, federal policies, like an increased and fully refundable child tax credit, can help significantly. So would doubling the credit for all children three and under, recognizing the academic research that shows the foundational influence of those early years. 

In short, these policies would send the signal that some of the most important and consequential activities in life do not come with a paycheck and that some of the activities that make life most worth living can’t be measured in dollars. What happens in America’s homes matters as much, if not more, for its future, than what happens in Washington D.C.


There is no way to equalize the circumstances of our birth, but that does not mean we are powerless to address some obvious disparities in early childhood development.

Societies can be organized in ways that encourage families in their essential, character-forming role, or in ways that undermine them. It is the calling of government, and citizens, to find ways to work with other social institutions to empower parents and cultivate their skills – the skills that shape a mind, a heart and a future.

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Three: Engage the Solutions

Part Three: Engage the Solutions