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Letter to the editor: Better parenting in the first three years of life

Friday, May 30, 2014 - 12:01 am

Recently there has been a lot of discussion in Indiana about the importance of pre-school education. I propose that we look even earlier, to the first three years of life. Neuroscientific evidence demonstrates that children’s brains are significantly “wired” by experiences in the womb and in the first three years of life — for better and for worse.

As a parenting consultant, I help parents understand and meet the emotional and relationship needs of their young children. The importance national organization Zero To Three gives to emotional needs is apparent in the title of its document, “Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness.” Of special interest to me is its recommendation that we provide not only programs of parenting education/support but “drop-in centers where parents can meet with program staff and other families on an informal basis.”

While Zero To Three sees benefits for “troubled” families, many professionals believe that all parents deserve research-based parenting information, support and access to parenting resource centers. Parenting is the most important and challenging job we will ever have, yet many parents feel they should “just know” what to do. Neither does our society systematically prepare our citizens for parenting.

If we want to produce curious, creative, caring, confident and competent lifelong learners who are also successful human beings, we must share with parents, professionals and future parents the converging evidence from fields such as neuroscience, psychology and health sciences. This evidence shows that it is empathetic and responsive caregiving that facilitates the optimal physical, cognitive and psychosocial development of children.

Unfortunately, what many “experts” have been recommending for decades is infant “independence-training” techniques such as leaving babies alone to “cry it out.” Neuroscientific research has shown that repeated episodes of prolonged, uncomforted distress can cause lasting damage to babies’ brains and anti-anxiety systems. This kind of “wiring” of the brain and various systems increases the risk for depression, anxiety and other psychological and physical problems. One of the reasons for this is that having their cries ignored erodes babies’ sense of security, self-efficacy and trust in their parents.

I hope the parents of Fort Wayne see the value in establishing and maintaining parenting resource centers, directed by someone knowledgeable about empathetic and responsive parenting. Children whose emotional needs have been consistently met, who feel secure and have close, trusting relationships with their parents, are much more likely to avoid the serious problems of adolescence. It is always more cost-effective, in terms of human suffering as well as in the spending of money, to invest in prevention rather than remediation or rehabilitation. Years ago I modified the old adage to say, “Where children are concerned, an ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure. It’s worth a thousand pounds of cure.” I salute the many parents who fully invest themselves in the development and well-being of their children.

Maureen McCarthy