Mind Matters — The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation

Recently, I happened upon a program on PBS which was part of a series: The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation (see raisingofamerica.org).

This media initiative, produced by California Newsreel, grapples with what I think is the worm eating at the heart of our country. The worm is our collective denial of the importance of a safe and supportive social framework for the growth and development of our children. Selfishly put, our children are our future. If for no other reason than that, we should treat them better.

We are lofty about “family values,” yet we are in the basement when it comes to global ranking of the well-being of our children.

“How is this possible?” you ask. The Raising of America series addresses how we got to this place and also how we can extricate ourselves from it. For one, children do not grow in a bubble. The stressors placed on parents become the stressors on them as well. The environment and societal structure are crucial to the maturation of the child even down to the cellular level. Quick example: The families and children in Flint, Michigan, depended upon the authorities to provide them with safe drinking water. Instead, the water was contaminated with lead. Children’s developing brains will suffer the deleterious long term effects.

While it is true that the most impoverished suffer most deeply from our society’s lackluster response to the needs of children and families, even the middle class and more affluent feel the stress of no supportive infrastructure. The United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid parental leave. While other countries legally provide generous paid leaves, sometimes beyond a year, a mother (father) is “lucky” to receive three months here. Isn’t it wonderful that the health benefits of breast feeding are finally being recognized? Yet a mother must return immediately to work. To compound that craziness—breast feeding is great—but often there is no space for mother to pump her milk at her workplace. Daycare is also an issue—a major expense that other developed nations subsidize. (The US does provide a minimal Child Care Tax Credit.) Moreover, good day care can be difficult to find. It was noted in the series that there is more oversight to cemeteries than there is to child day care centers.

The series also noted that “childcare in America is a frayed patchwork—uneven in quality, unaffordable to most, and failing many of our youngest children and their families. However, there was a brief moment in our history when there was affordable daycare. The episode “Once Upon a Time, when childcare for all wasn’t just a fairytale” explores how, during World War II, the Lanham Act funded a national network of child development centers for the “Rosie the Riveter” mothers of that day. When the war ended, the women went home and the childcare centers were shut down. In 1970, with the number of working mothers on the rise, Senator Walter Mondale introduced a “bill that would provide high quality childcare, and early education, home visiting, and other services…”

The bill, the Comprehensive Child Development Act (CCDA) passed Congress with bipartisan support. However, President Nixon, at the urging of conservative Patrick Buchanan vetoed the bill. This veto was actually the first invocation of the term “family values” to mean the exact opposite.

Ironically, now, there is a federally funded, high quality childcare program for the Armed Forces. It is wonderful that safe and nurturing environments have been established in the military community. We need to extend this to our entire community. No child left behind, perhaps?

Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD, is a Boston Medical Center pediatrician and founding director of Vital Village, a collaboration of agencies committed to families and children. Interviewed in “Raising of America” she affirms that if we can create safe and reliable social environments for young children, “the capacity of the brain and human spirit to thrive and develop is beyond what any of us could predict.”

Our children are our future. What are we waiting for?