Co-author, Jackie Bezos
As mothers and grandmothers who have dedicated our lives to serving children, our own and others, we know firsthand how important a stable home, a positive emotional and learning environment and safe communities are for a child’s healthy development. Think about it: no one would construct a building without first laying a strong foundation. Yet too many children in New York City and in our nation are born into poverty and begin their lives without the most basic supports they need.
In New York City, over 150,000 children under five are poor. Last year, nearly 20,000 of these children slept in homeless shelters -- enough to fill Madison Square Garden. From the moment they’re born, children in poverty face an uphill struggle to survive, thrive and learn with so many odds stacked against them. These children are born with tremendous potential and if we want to help them, we must act immediately.
There is no time in life when the brain develops more rapidly than in the first years -- at an astonishing rate of 700-1,000 new neural connections every second. Each connection helps establish the architecture of the brain and is a precursor for functions including language, social skills, and problem solving that are crucial for a child’s success in school and life. This incredible time of development peaks before children reach preschool.
Babies are born wired for interaction. Consistent, positive communications between young children and the adults in their lives are crucial. Every time we interact with a child -- to read, giggle, sing and babble with them -- we’re not only building a brain, we are building the foundation for our collective future.
But preventable poverty and toxic stress can impede and derail a child’s early brain development. The school-readiness gap impacting poor children is big and deep and its implications lasting. A Children’s Defense Fund report, Ending Child Poverty Now, points to several studies including one that found by age four high-income children had heard 30 million more words than poor children. Another found poor preschoolers had already fallen behind those from wealthier families, and were less able to recognize letters, count to twenty, or write their names. By the time they entered kindergarten, children from poor families were six months or more behind in reading and math skills.
In addition to quality interactions with parents, grandparents and other caregivers, young children need access to a full continuum of high quality early learning opportunities so that every child, regardless of circumstance of birth or lottery of geography, is ready for school and has a fair chance to reach their fullest potential. This is not only the just but the smart and cost-effective thing to do. High quality early childhood programs have been shown to return $8.60 for every dollar invested.
Staff in quality voluntary home visiting programs, Early Head Start and Head Start Programs, Child Care and Pre-K Programs play critical roles in stimulating healthy brain development to buffer the negative impacts of poverty and produce lifelong benefits for disadvantaged children. But far too few young children get high quality early childhood development and learning supports. Early Head Start, which provides comprehensive services for poor infants and toddlers through home visiting, center-based and family child care serves only an estimated 4 percent of eligible children.
Together, we can and must close these opportunity gaps with urgency and persistence and create a more level playing field enabling all our children to succeed.
We are excited that Robin Hood, a poverty-fighting organization, is launching a new, groundbreaking initiative to build the first Early Learning Metropolis by partnering with organizations all across New York City to ensure every parent, grandparent, caregiver, and child care provider knows the best ways, based on up-to-date research, to spur children’s brain development in the first three years of life.
Research shows that spurring brain development is simple, and impactful. Every moment, no matter how small, is an opportunity to stimulate children’s brains -- bath time, meal time, bed time -- these every day moments are a chance to stimulate a child’s mind. Anyone can do it -- parents, grandparents, caregivers or teachers. It doesn’t require parents to spend money -- just attention and love. But imagine how much harder this is if you are living in a homeless shelter or don’t know where your next meal is coming from or feel unsafe and uncertain and lack private bath time or play space to enjoy your children.
Chilean Nobel literature laureate Gabriela Mistral wrote, “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is today.” From a child’s birth until age three, we have only a thousand days to help build their brains and chart the course for a lifetime of learning, making every day that passes a potential opportunity lost or gained.
So this Mother’s Day, we call on every parent, grandparent, early childhood provider and teacher to be brain builders, helping prepare our youngest children for a bright future. Together, we can change the trajectory of an entire generation of children beginning this year in New York City.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Jackie Bezos is the president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation.
Both serve on Robin Hood’s board.