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Why you should care about somebody else's child care and preschool

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 5, 2013 05:58 AM

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Did you know that during the first 3 years of life, 700 new neural connections form in the brain every second?

It's easy to understand why those years are so crucial: those connections decide what a child will be able to learn, and do, as they grow. The interactions children have with adults during those first three years can literally define the rest of their lives.

What's harder to understand is why we would ever let those years be squandered. And yet, we do: so very many children end up spending those years in situations where the adults don't, or can't, give them what they need.

More than half of U.S. women with children under age 3 are in the labor force, and 6 million infants and toddlers spend time in childcare--but high-quality care is scarce, and too expensive for many families.

The result? By age 2, toddlers in the lowest socioeconomic quintile are behind all other children in measures of cognitive skills and emotional attachment.

We should be ashamed.

There's more we should be ashamed of. Out of the 188 countries that have known maternity leave policies, the U.S. is one of only 8 that doesn't have paid maternity leave (check out this map--it's jaw-dropping).

Even worse: according to UNICEF, among the 29 "rich" countries in the world, the ones who should be able to take care of their children, the U.S. ranks 26th when it comes to child well-being. 26th, folks. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania are below us.

Before you shake your head in dismay and go back to whatever you were doing before you read this, happy that your child had or will have a good first three years of life, stop and think about what this means. Because this is about you and your family too.

These children live longer than three years, obviously. Some go on to struggle in school, requiring resources (read: money) to help them learn, resources that could have gone for more teachers, better libraries, new computers, better athletic facilities and other things that would make your child's education better.

When they struggle with school, many of these kids end up dropping out. Some go into low-wage jobs, where they stay the rest of their lives because they don't have the skills to get out. That means that as a country we need to pay for the food stamps, subsidized housing and other things they need to survive with their families. Some get into trouble--and create costs for the criminal justice system. This is money that could have been spent in so many other ways that could help you and your family.

These kids are also our future workforce, the ones that have everything to do with the success or failure of companies and of our economy generally. We need skilled, creative, well-adjusted workers in order to succeed. Remember, too, that they are the future voters, who will help decide who represents you and your family in public office.

Your future, and the future of your children, is connected to the educational and emotional well-being of these children--because all of our well-being is connected. The better they do, the better we all do. we really want to be the country that doesn't take care of its children? Are we really okay with being 26th out of 29? What does that say about us, about each and every one of us? The American Dream is dying; prosperity has become an accident of birth.

The good news is that there is something we can do. We need to put real money into high-quality learning experiences for infants and toddlers, including childcare, Early Head Start, Early Intervention and home visiting. These programs are investments that guarantee tremendous returns, in so many ways.

Come join ZERO TO THREE and more than a dozen national organizations in a virtual rally, Rally4Babies, on Monday, July 8th at 2:00 pm EST. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Katherine Sibelius will be there, as will U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other speakers. It's just a half hour out of your day--but what you learn could help children for a lifetime.

Get involved. Sign the petition to urge our elected leaders to ensure that all babies and toddlers get what they need. Don't let any more years--or lives--be squandered.

Do it for them--and for you.

Here is famous pediatrician T.Berry Brazelton explaining why this is so important:

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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