How to “Make America Great”: Invest in Its Children

There is only one sure way to “make America great”: to support the full development of all its children. The National Research Council of the Institute of Medicine’s review of the science of early childhood development is compelling and unequivocal:

  • All children are born ready to learn.
  • Nurturing relationships are essential for healthy maturation and development of capacities.
  • The needs of young children are not being effectively addressed in our stressful society.
  • Early childhood scientists, policy makers and programs must sponsor initiatives that support strong nurturing relationships between children and caregivers. (NRCIM, Neurons and Neighborhoods, 2000, pg.4)

The review concluded that stable loving relationships are central to healthy human development, forming the foundation and scaffold on which cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social and moral development unfold. A society that cares about the future and the well-being of children must therefore support caregivers — parents, teachers and child care workers — to ensure that they have the necessary training, resources, respect and compensation to support the healthy growth and development of the children in their care. (ibid, pg.349)

Relationship is the foundation for healthy development. It continues to be crucial long after early childhood, and plays a critical role during the school years in shaping the architecture and functioning of our brains. The quality of our relationships determines the depth of our verbal, social and mathematical skills, as well as the maturity of our executive functions — our working memory, attention span and ability to self-regulate our emotions. Children learn enthusiastically from adults they trust — from parents who make them feel safe and loved, and from teachers who are sensitive to their challenges and respectful of their special talents. Learning and maturation shut down when children feel stressed, misunderstood or judged.

We are all products, for good and for ill, of this complex interplay between nature and nurture. While we may come from different cultures and carry different intellectual and creative proclivities, we all share this primary need for connection, this need to be seen, understood and loved. When this basic need is not adequately met, development is inevitably stunted. When children are not able to thrive, they are unlikely to become wise, resilient adults who can create and maintain the structures and processes necessary for a healthy society.

Although many teachers strive to inspire and encourage their students, our schools are not typically structured to support the strong attachment relationships and safety that children require. Education policy makers, focused on what children need to know in order to meet our society’s vision of material success, have also failed to fully consider more basic questions — how children learn, what activities are appropriate at what ages, and how learning can become an engaging lifelong process of intellectual, emotional and moral development.

What if our leaders and policy makers decided to ensure that every child has the emotional support needed for full and healthy maturation? What would that investment cost and what might be its return? How can we restructure our public schools, in particular, to support healthy development with strong attachment relationships at their core? In this moment of intense social challenge, I can think of no more important questions.

In my recent book, What Are We Going to Learn Today: How All Children Can Become Enthusiastic Lifelong Learners, I describe what can happen when strong attachment relationships guide brain and character development through stories, the arts and hands-on experience. Having spent multiple years with one group of children, I confidently chart how the connections we forged with each other and with the natural world became bedrock for healthy growth. I recount how these students, as they matured, became creative problem solvers, able to ask probing questions, make connections and assess consequences — necessary survival skills for citizenship in the 21st century.

The true strength of a society should be measured, not by its GDP and hegemonic military presence, but by the percentage of its children who thrive and become contributing citizens. A society in which many children are not receiving what they need will never be vibrant and sustainable. All children need to be loved and want to learn; their survival now literally depends on it. We must stop letting them down.

Reference: National Research Council, Institute of Medicine. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, (National Academy Press), 2000.