California should put families, early childhood education first

President Barack Obama promoted early childhood education at a White House event last month.
President Barack Obama promoted early childhood education at a White House event last month. The Associated Press

Arguably, the single most important investment we can make for the future of our children, local communities, and broader society is in nurturing healthy families.

Many will suggest the future lies with whom we elect as public leaders, or a strong business sector that provides jobs and good wages, or a better educational system. All, of course, are critical to the future.

But where does anyone, including the next generation of leaders, get their start?

Values and attitudes about women, children and men, and their roles in society; about racial and socioeconomic differences; and about right and wrong, honesty and integrity are all predominantly learned in the home. And these are well on their way to being developed during the first five years of life.

James Heckman, a University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel laureate, has extensively studied the impact of early childhood development, which he says “drives success in school and life.” For those more interested in the economics of child development, he notes that “those seeking to reduce deficits and strengthen the economy should make significant investments in early childhood education.”

Jack Shonkoff, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, cites several reasons we fail to provide the support families and young children need.

First, many people have the misconception that infants, toddlers and preschoolers are “too young” to learn. Many do not have a clear understanding of effective approaches to early learning. And political rhetoric about the importance of early education is often not translated into reality when public officials are writing budgets.

Much more evidence exists that the best investment we can make is in the early development of our children, and the families and caregivers who raise them. Children need safe, nurturing family environments to set them on a path to a healthy, thriving future.

Parenting is not easy, and there is no one way to raise our children. Poverty can make it more difficult, as can a lack of education among parents. Violence, including child abuse, often happens in the home. Children with developmental challenges make parenting even more complicated. Parents and caregivers often need outside resources and a strong network around them.

The vast majority of parents want what is best for their children. When parents do not have this mindset, or are challenged beyond what they can handle, however, support resources are needed – especially in the earliest stages of a child’s development. Research demonstrates that waiting even until a child is 3 or 4 years old to address family dysfunction can lead to lingering problems.

We need to re-order priorities and develop partnerships across government, business, nonprofit and religious sectors to support families and their children. We must develop an integrated approach to child development that begins with prenatal care and continues through adolescence. Then, public policies and resources must be realigned to consistently support that holistic blueprint.

We would be wiser to invest more in remedying the causes of disadvantaged, disrupted and broken families than what California spends on prisons. Funding and supporting early childhood development must be a priority, not an afterthought.

Gregory Bourne of Davis is co-founder of Lead4Tomorrow, a California-based nonprofit focused on strengthening families, reducing violence and enhancing leadership.