Last month, I had the privilege of sitting in on a class for parents. It was a required class as part of a court mandate resulting from a claim with the Department of Human Services. The class was filled to capacity, but the parents were engaged – asking questions, raising their hands with examples and generally striving to make the most of an opportunity to better themselves as parents.
Many of these parents have lost their children due to charges of abuse or neglect. The classes help them have a chance to regain custody. I expected a quieter crowd, perhaps reluctant to engage. But the enthusiasm and honesty in the room, partially due to the experience and talent of a wonderful parent educator, was a testament to the universal desire to be a good parent.
We all want the best for our children. We want to help our children live up to their potential. A growing body of research can guide us as parents.
The research can help us understand how a baby’s mind is formed and what we can do as parents to help our children be their best. Much of this research supports what many parents already do: read to their children, talk with them, interact with them. Some of the research tells us how to do these things better; how to ask questions and engage our children with the written words in ways that increase their understanding and brain development.
The parents in this parenting class need to have this information. The rest of us do, too. And as a society, we want parents to do a good job. As Professor James J. Heckman, Nobel prizewinner in economics, states in his article, The Economics of Inequality (American Educator, Spring 2011), “We need a capable and productive workforce that will compete successfully in the global economy. Underdeveloped human potential burdens our economy and leaves us with a workforce that is less than it could be.”
He goes on to make the case that while poverty has a strong affect on a child’s development, “Good parenting is more important than cash.” With the right skills parents of all backgrounds, whether they are rich or poor, can raise children to be strong and useful members of society. In fact, according to Professor Heckman, “An economically advantaged child exposed to low quality parenting is more disadvantaged than an economically disadvantaged child exposed to high quality parenting.”
When children do not receive the stimulation and support they need early in life, they are not able to grow into their full potential. As Nicholas Kristof reports in his column in the New York Times, ‘Cuddle Your Kid!’ (October 20, 2012), “One University of Minnesota study that began in the 1970s followed 267 children of first-time low-income mothers for nearly four decades. It found that whether a child received supportive parenting in the first few years of life was at least as good a predictor as I.Q. of whether he or she would graduate from high school.”
Positive parenting in the early years creates the healthy structures in the brain that support success later in life. As the twig grows, so grows the tree.
High-quality stimulation and interaction in a child’s first years is key. It is so important that Professor Heckman has put a price on investing in education for disadvantaged children from birth to age five. “Every dollar invested in high quality early childhood education,” he argues, “produces a 7% to 10% per year return on investment.” That’s a huge benefit to kids and to the community.
All of us benefit by supporting families and offering parents opportunities to learn how to be better parents. Lane County has many wonderful agencies and programs to support parents and families, including Parenting Now! (formerly Birth To Three); the Relief Nursery and its south County partner, Family Relief Nursery; Pearl Buck Preschool; Early Childhood Cares; Head Start; Healthy Start Healthy Families; and the network of Community Family Resource Centers, to name just a few.
We are lucky to live in a community that values our children. Let’s keep supporting these programs and the good work they do.
When Eowyn Orleck wrote this column,she was coordinator of LaneKids, a community initiative convened by United Way of Lane County to coordinate parenting education programs and supports for families in Lane County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org/