Mind Matters — The Wisest Investment

In high school, I discovered Maria Montessori and her theories of childhood education that she developed in the early 1900’s. She stressed how important the early years of childhood, 0 to 5, were in the development of the healthy individual. She considered the young mind to be an absorbent mind, rapidly developing and in need of great nurturing and care. Since her time, neuroscience and early child development research corroborate her ideas. What is shocking, however, is that even though we know so much about the importance of prenatal care of the mother, and about the needs of infants and young children, we still give short shrift to both.

I have written about these issues and about the series that addresses them before, but we learn through repetition and, besides, the tenor of the times calls forth such repetition. If we don’t take an economic interest in our children and invest in them early on, there is no future!

The series I refer to is The Raising of America that was presented on PBS last year but can be obtained for screenings for organizations, schools, churches, and so on. The first episode points out how the stress of parents affects babies negatively. So what to do? Improve conditions for families with young children as an investment for the future of our nation! How? Provide maternity leave, pumping stations at work for nursing mothers, affordable day care: these would be starters!

Another episode asks, “Are we crazy about our kids?” Here, economists and investors speak out. They acknowledge, along with researchers, that the brain develops the most in the first five years of life. Robert Dugger, an investment banker, and James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist discuss not only how important the early years are in terms of development of trust and curiosity, but also how fallacious it is to assume that abilities, motivations, and skills are locked in at birth.

Arthur Rolnick, former senior vice president of The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, added to the conversation that the best investment for the nation is in its children—in early childhood education. He noted that moral arguments are all well and good but policy makers need more, financial incentives, perhaps.

The economists looked to studies that gave incontrovertible evidence that high quality early childhood education was a terrific investment not only for the individual children but the community as a whole. A Perry, Michigan, program was one such study: another was in Quebec. What was notable? That the “outcomes equal hard dollars.” Yes, the programs may have cost, but the returns far outweighed the initial investment. Children in such programs stayed in school, going on to earn a decent income thereby contributing more in taxes, and “less likely to incur the social costs of welfare and prison.”

Dugger asks himself daily why we don’t invest in our children. Dugger asserts that the budget crisis is not a shortage of money for child development, but the money is lobbied away in spending patterns antithetical to the health and welfare of our children. Rolnick adds that allowing cities and states “to try to lure each other’s companies with subsidies” does nothing, from a national perspective, to create new jobs! These maneuvers cost the taxpayer billions; meanwhile, children’s programs are cut.

The bottom line actually is the bottom line: the best economic investment this nation could make is in investing in its children.

Early childhood education is only one theme addressed in this series. Watch all the episodes and then consider—how would you like to invest in the children of America?