8 Reasons to Believe in a Parent Nation
Parents cannot and should not be expected to go it alone when engaged in the important work of raising children. Unfortunately, that’s the reality for far too many families who are left to cobble together the time, resources, and child care they need, with little to no support from their workplaces or public institutions.
Raising Children is Teamwork, Not Solo Work
I believe this has a lot to do with the mythic idea of American individualism—the notion that Americans have to be tough and independent, that going it alone is virtuous. The result has been to convince parents they should be able to shoulder the enormous responsibility of early childhood care, development, and education on their own, without formal support. And that if we struggled to do so, the failure was ours alone.
We Can Lighten the Load by Sharing It
I wrote “Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise” to better understand the challenges parents face all across America, how we got here, and how we can come together to fight for a society that truly puts parents and children at the center.
We need to recognize that we can lighten the load by sharing it. What we need is a Parent Nation.
- A Parent Nation, as I see it, is a society that cherishes and supports the love and labor that go into nurturing, raising, and educating future generations. There is no limit on who can provide that love. So, I want to be clear that when I say “parent,” I mean any caring adult engaged in the work of raising a child.
- I truly believe that neuroscience gives us the blueprints to build a parent nation. Just as neuroscience tells us what to prioritize individually as parents, it can tell us what society should prioritize in order to optimize healthy brain development for all children. Neuroscience tells us that learning begins not on the first day of school, but on the first day of life. The brain’s incredible ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections is at its peak between birth and the age of three. While our brains remain plastic throughout our lives, they will never be more so than in the magical and essential early years.
- Neuroscience also shows us that environments matter tremendously. Stable, calm environments foster social-emotional skills and executive function, while disruptive environments impede their development. Our society robs far too many families of the opportunity to provide healthy environments, and the resulting toxic stress becomes a risk factor endangering healthy brain development. When the ultimate intellectual development of a child is hampered, we all lose.
- If brain science offers blueprints, it is parents who do the heavy lifting. Parents are the captains of their families’ ships, manning the helm. And just as every captain needs a crew, every parent needs and deserves policies that help them do what they do best.
- Parents are their children’s first and most powerful teachers, becoming educators the moment their child is born. Parents deserve a society that provides ample time off when they need it and high-quality child care when they’re at work—especially during kids’ first three years, when brain development is at its peak.
- The pandemic has been awful. But it has also been crystallizing. It reminded us no one is meant to parent entirely alone and that our child care and education systems need to be robust, welcoming, and accessible for all.
- Parents deserve to be happy (the Declaration of Independence even says so!), and kids thrive when their parents thrive. But the “happiness gap”—how happy parents are compared to non-parents—is bigger in the U.S. than any other wealthy nation, and studies link our unhappiness to a lack of governmental and workplace supports.
- We can’t achieve true civil rights, gender equality, or educational parity until parents have the necessary supports to build their children’s brains. We have to stop expecting parents to carry the entire responsibility for their children’s development—and then blaming and shaming them when they struggle to meet every one of their children’s needs. If all children are to flourish and grow up to participate equally in the economy and civic life of the nation, society must support healthy brain development from birth.
The first step to finding and fighting for change is to raise our expectations of society. Parents should expect and demand that employers, policymakers, and other community leaders do more to support them in the critically important job of raising children—our next generation.
Until we offer parents the support they need to meet their children’s developmental needs, our nation will continue to pay enormous social and economic costs for failing to do so.