It Takes a Parent Nation
I became a cochlear implant surgeon so I could provide children access to sound, hearing, and spoken language. Early in my practice, I noticed stark differences in my patients’ progress after surgery. Some children excelled developmentally. Others did not. Some learned to talk. Others did not. The ability to hear, it turned out, isn’t enough to unlock full capacity to learn and thrive. I could neither accept nor ignore the disparities I witnessed, but I didn’t understand them. So I began my journey outside the operating room and into the world of social science.
What I found surprised me.
The vast majority of brain development—close to 90 percent—happens within the first five years of a child’s life and is highly dependent on the early language environment. But we don’t do nearly enough to pass that science along to parents and caregivers—the people in the best position to put it to use.
I set out to change that with my first book, “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” and at the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, which I co-direct at the University of Chicago. My team and I spell out the neuroscience of early brain development and offer evidence-based strategies to help parents provide the kind of rich early-language environment that has been proven to help kids develop essential skills.
One of our most effective tools is the “3Ts” strategy: Tune in. Talk more. Take turns. It doesn’t require fancy gadgets or a specialized degree. It simply reminds parents that they are their children’s first and most powerful brain architects, and their loving, serve-and-return interactions build a healthy foundation for a lifetime of learning.
I was thrilled when parents eagerly read the book and participated in our programs. I was honored to help them feel more empowered in their parenting and humbled to play a small part in their kids’ development.
But the more deeply I engaged with families, the more troubled I became. The tools we teach only take parents so far before life—multiple jobs, no paid leave, a patchwork quilt of child care—intrudes again and again. And parents, rather than demanding more support, often feel ashamed that they can’t bear the enormous responsibility of child-rearing alone.
Neuroscience can point us toward a better way. Just as brain science tells us what to prioritize individually, so can it lay the coordinates for a society that better supports parents, leading us toward a brilliant North Star: healthy brain development for all children.
Neuroscience tells us that learning begins not on the first day of school, but the first day of life. It tells us children’s earliest and most impactful brain architects are their parents and caregivers. And it tells us clearly: environment matters. Stable, calm environments foster socioemotional skills and executive function; whereas disruptive environments impede them. Young children need time, enrichment, and protection. Believe it or not, parents do too!
Just as Head Start programs are proven to increase everything from children’s kindergarten readiness to their high school graduation rates, we know early investment in children and their caregivers pays dividends. And just as Head Start emphasizes four core tenets—education, health, parent involvement, and social services—so would a society that truly places parents and families at its center.
That’s why my focus now is on building a Parent Nation. In addition to the 3Ts, I want parents to practice the “3Fs.” Foster Community. Forge Collective Identity. Fight For Change.
It’s time for parents to elevate our expectations for society—our workplaces, our elected officials, our communities. It’s time for parents to have real choices when raising their children, not the false choices dictated by a society that keeps affordable health care, high quality child care and the American Dream out of the reach of too many families.
Parents cannot and should not be expected to go it alone when engaged in the important work of raising future generations. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In fact, it takes a nation. A Parent Nation.
On February 9, 2022, NHSA is hosting Dr. Suskind for a free webinar about supporting parents. Sign up today to receive a free copy of her forthcoming book, "Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise.”