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Beyond Guaranteed Preschool: Prepare Tomorrow’s Parents

According to a poll published this April, 63% of Americans strongly support a policy to guarantee affordable, quality early childhood education for every child. Democratic presidential front runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both recognize the importance of preschool education and are committed to increasing its availability.

Senator Obama has applauded the state of Illinois for taking the initiative and passing a law requiring pre-school for 3 and 4 year olds. While we also applaud Illinois for being the first state to pass such a law, we urge state legislators to go a step further and mandate that child-rearing classes be required before high school graduation.

Why child-rearing classes?

As Senator Obama pointed out in a 2006 speech, research shows that “by age three, roughly 85 % of the brain’s core structure is formed.” Senator Clinton makes a similar point when she writes “during the first three years of any child’s life, his or her brain expands to three times its size at birth. Infants and toddlers need to be stimulated, read to, and nurtured…”

If the first three years of a child’s life are so very important, than isn’t preschool much too late to ensure that our children are getting the right kind of mental stimulation? Many parents are unaware that verbal interaction stimulates brain development; they speak few words to their babies or toddlers, and rarely read to them. Nor do they provide play activities and toys that stimulate the brain’s verbal and spatial relations centers. Many think that corporal punishment is the only way to discipline children including toddlers. Some, like the 23 year old Chicago man, arrested March 12 for aggravated battery of his infant child, seem unaware that shaking a baby can lead to its death. Some children are so traumatized by severe physical punishment that their ability to learn and relate in a positive way to teachers is seriously impaired.

No one doubts that the most effective way to teach important skills-- reading, writing, math etc. -- is in schools. What could be more important than the skill of being a good parent? Young people must be provided with basic information about child development before they become parents. The future of our nation rests in large part on their competency as fathers and mothers.

Because they serve as a deterrent to teenage pregnancy, child-rearing classes should be mandatory in all our school no later than 5th grade -- some girls become pregnant as early as age twelve. Once young people understand how demanding children are emotionally and financially, girls lose their fantasy of a doll like baby that will provide unconditional love, and boys lose their belief that impregnating a lot of girls is cool. In June 2006, Senator Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage responsible fathering. Child-rearing classes are probably the single most effective way to do just that.

In developing child-rearing curricula there is no need to start from scratch. Some excellent programs exist already. Family and consumer science teachers in Illinois and elsewhere are already qualified to teach these courses. Programs for younger children often include a monthly class visit by a parent and baby or toddler. The rest of the month, with the help of trained teachers, students reflect on what they learned in the visit, and gain knowledge of the important role that parents play in supporting their children’s development physically, socially, emotionally, and in language and thinking. In addition these programs help students learn to care for each other, thus eliminating much bullying and conflict that currently impedes learning.

At a high school level, students are offered classes in child development akin to those taught at universities. Some programs use “Real Care Babies,” electronically programmed baby simulators. Each student has to take the “baby” home a few days a month. ”Babies” wake up several times a night as newborns do; they often cry during the day. They cannot be turned off and so students get a very real sense of the responsibilities of being a parent.

For as little as approximately $25 per student, the Illinois legislature could provide an effective and inexpensive intervention to further our children’s emotional and intellectual development.

De Paul University School for New Learning professor Dana McDermott, and social philosopher and author Myriam Miedzian are Board Members of Prepare Tomorrow's Parents (www.preparetomorrowsparents.org) which is sponsoring the 6th annual Prepare Tomorrow's Parents Month , from Mothers Day through Fathers Day.

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