Baby College: The importance of stimulating a child’s brain early on

Baby College: The importance of stimulating a child’s brain early on

The above link takes readers to a transcript of an episode of This American Life (TAL), an NPR show from WBEZ Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International.  The episode is called “Going Big.”  I will note, as the producers do at the top of the transcript, that “This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read” and they “strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page.” The episode, which highlights “three stories of people deciding they are going to pull out all the stops,” originally aired 9/26/08, but the content is still timely today.  I share below some of what is in the audio/transcript in Act One of the “Going Big” episode.

 In Act One, titled “Harlem Renaissance,” we learn of a man named Geoffrey Canada, who grew up poor in the South Bronx raised by a single mom on welfare and who “managed to make it out of the neighborhood to a good college in Maine, then off to Harvard.”  It was after returning to his old neighborhood and seeing things getting worse in Harlem, with fewer kids graduating from high school and with incarcerations as well as poverty on the rise, that Canada “decided to make a change and go big.”  

 Although Canada had a child when he was still in college and “a poor kid from a rough neighborhood on scholarship,” Canada had a second child in his mid-40’s.  He was now “a well-educated, upper middle class guy living in a big home in the suburbs, surrounded by trees and lawns and golf courses.”  He learned how to be a better parent the second time around when he realized every parent in the suburbs already knew what he was just discovering:  the importance of stimulating a child’s brain early on.  He found his suburban neighbors obsessed with preparing their infants using Baby Einstein tapes, flash cards and brain-building toys.  According to Canada:

I just found it fascinating that since I had raised my first children, the amount of information about what we should be doing in that period of time was really quite staggering. And I thought I was a pretty good parent in the early years. But now I’m looking and thinking I was not a great parent at all if you really looked at what they said is happening in a child’s developmental process between zero and three. And I found that Yvonne, my wife, and I were spending all kinds of time thinking about how to get little Geoffrey prepared for the world he was going to inherit when he became a grown man.

To his dismay, he did not see the same information floating around or the same parenting revolution occurring in the streets of Harlem.  Canada said, “There was nothing.  We couldn’t find one place that was teaching anything to children from zero to three.”  He states in the TAL episode that although the science around best development in children was in magazines and on TV and on the radio, “it was skipping Central Harlem.”  He began to think about how saving one kid with his organization while watching 10 more slip through his fingers wasn’t the answer.  He went before his board of directors and said “we have to rethink everything” to the point where teenage pregnancy and going to prison and dropping out would be considered strange behaviors, instead of something you just expect, the normal course of events.”

Canada started an organization called Harlem’s Children’s Zone in which he built “a comprehensive system of integrated services, going from cradle to grave,” including two charter schools, a health clinic, a family counseling center, a farmer’s marker and free tax preparation. 

As part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada created Baby College, where Harlem parents could be encouraged to rethink how to raise their kids, to show them what middle class parents are doing.  According to Paul Tough, the interviewer for the “Harlem Renaissance” episode for TAL, “scientists have concluded that the most effective time to intervene in the lives of poor kids is between the ages of zero and three.”  However, he points out that “the idea of trying to mess around in the private life of a disadvantaged family is one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”  Tough tells us that “it’s essentially telling poor parents there is a better way to raise your kids, and we’re going to tell you how,” but that, “somehow, that’s not what it feels like at Baby College,” where it “feels like a conversation, like we’re on your side,” and “like it’ll be fun.”

Tough goes on to tell listeners that “a lot of what gets taught in Baby College — that you should read to your kid every night, use timeouts instead of corporal punishment — is the stuff that Geoffrey Canada discovered in the suburbs.” He explains that “knowledge that over the last couple of decades has made its way into pretty much every middle and upper middle class home in America, but barely penetrated low-income neighborhoods like Harlem.”  He cites Hart and Risley’s study (inaccurately, I might add, but he explains the gist of the study well-enough) and quotes James Heckman, the economist at the University of Chicago and a researcher who, Tough says, “has done the best job of pulling” the evidence together about “the divide between the kids who make it and the kids who don’t starts in the very first years of life.”

Heckman found some good news and bad news in his research.  The bad news was that if kids don’t get very basic skills — the ability to communicate, how to solve simple mathematical puzzles, how to demonstrate self-control or self-motivation, how to be patient — than the odds are stacked against these kids for ever learning them.  But, Heckman found the reverse was also true:  if you can get to a poor child early on, in the first few years of life, even small interventions can have huge effects.  

In celebration of what James Heckman, Geoffrey Canada, writers/interviewers such as Paul Tough and others elsewhere have been doing and continue do to improve the lives of infants and toddlers, here are 10 crucial things you can do today to help get a 0- to 3-year old ready for school:

  1. Show him love by hugging him and thanking him for being your child.
  2. Be patient with him.
  3. Respond to what he has to say every time he tells you something, no matter how big, small, important or unimportant.
  4. Discipline using timeouts and language that teaches self-discipline rather than spanking, or worse.
  5. Read stories to your child daily and ask him at least 5 questions about every book you read.
  6. Name things around him, explain what the things are used for, tell him about all the parts the they have, make connections between those things and other things he knows about.
  7. Encourage him with guidance and supportive comments about his actions without discouraging him in terms of whom he is and mistakes he makes.
  8. Encourage him to make good choices that affect him, his world and others around him.
  9. Honor his feelings and encourage him to honor the feelings of others.
  10. Tell your child you love him.
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