Early childhood. For many Americans, this phrase is automatically associated with the debate about the necessity of universal pre-school. 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-school, 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 that will help set a course for their future.
So 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?
The answer requires us to go deeper than our typical public debates. Often in politics, the individual and the state are seen as the only actors and little attention is paid to the breadth of civil society, institutions such as families, churches and nonprofits. But it is primarily in these settings that children are raised and develop emotionally, physically and socially.
A government-run pre-school may play a role for part of the day, but the early formation of skills and character mainly takes place in the back and forth, ping pong interaction between parent and child. High-quality pre-school matters, but high-quality parenting matters most.
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—help from extended family, neighbors, and mentors— in the task of childrearing. And cultural norms on marriage and the responsibilities of fatherhood have shifted in destructive ways.
Public justice requires these deteriorating circumstances be confronted, but family policy is notoriously complex and difficult. How is it 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 it easier or harder for them to form and stay together.
Federal policies such as an increased and fully refundable Child Tax Credit can help create an economic environment more favorable to families. So would doubling the credit for all children three and under, recognizing the foundational influence of those early years, now evident in academic research.
In addition, paid maternity leave and paid family leave to care for children can help all parents—but particularly single parents and those with lower incomes— manage the competing roles of parent and provider.
There is no way to fully 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 roles, or in ways that undermine them.
It is the calling of government, and citizens, to find ways to work with other social institutions in empowering parents and cultivating their skills—the skills that shape a mind, a heart, and a future.