When families get the support they need, everyone benefits. So let’s all fight for it as a ‘parent nation.’
Early in my practice as a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon, 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, wasn’t enough to unlock their full capacity to learn and thrive. I could neither accept nor ignore the disturbing disparities I saw, but I didn’t understand them. So I journeyed outside the operating room and into the world of social science.
What I found surprised me: The vast majority of brain growth — close to 90 percent — happens within the first five years of a child’s life and is highly dependent on their early language environment. I set out to share that science more broadly, both 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. (I even shared it with Rotary via this magazine in December 2018.) I was thrilled when people eagerly read the book and participated in our programs. But the more deeply I engaged with families, the more troubled I became. The strategies and science took parents only so far before problems too often intruded: multiple jobs, no paid leave, a patchwork quilt of child care, poverty, homelessness, and structural racism. And too many parents, rather than demanding more support, felt ashamed that they couldn’t bear the enormous responsibility of child-rearing alone and remained silent.
The world is home to more than 2 billion children. Until we make it easier for all parents to meet the developmental needs of their children so they reach their full potential, our society will fail to reach its own. That's why I want us to build what I call a "parent nation" — in the United States and around the globe. A parent nation, as I see it, is a society that cherishes and supports the nurturing, raising, and educating of future generations. And when I say "parent," I mean any caring adult. Just as Rotary's polio eradication efforts have lengthened and improved millions of young lives around the world, so can a concerted effort to help children reach their full promise.
A parent nation is a society in which parents and their allies feel a collective identity. Parents are a beautifully diverse group; I may not look or live like you do, but I love like you do. And that makes us partners. This collective identity gives us strength, which we can use to elevate our expectations for society. We can, and should, invite our workplaces, communities, and countries to provide parents the necessary
supports that children deserve.
Parents cannot and should not be expected to go it alone when it comes to raising children, but until they receive the support they need, society will continue to pay enormous social and economic costs. As the Lancet Early Childhood Development Series spells out, children who grow up in poverty may lose about a quarter of average adult income per year, which can double a nation's costs for education and health.
The United States' spending on early childhood care and education ranks near the bottom among developed nations. It is the only one of the 38 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that doesn't mandate paid parental leave. The vast majority of parents in the United States have to work outside the home, yet the child care system is fragmented and of an overwhelmingly low quality: About half of Americans live in child care deserts, and in a National Institute of Child Health and Development study, fewer than 10 percent of programs were judged high-quality.
There's a better way — and brain science can provide the roadmap. Scientific research reveals that learning begins not on the first day of school, but on the first day of life. Children's earliest and most impactful brain architects are their parents and caregivers. And environment matters: Stable, calm surroundings foster socioemotional skills and executive function, whereas disruptive environments impede them. Young children need time, enrichment, and protection. So do parents and caregivers.
Want to help create change on behalf of parents and children? Here are some ideas:
Visit parentnation.org to learn about organizations around the country.
Create a parent advisory board in your workplace, house of worship, or school district to ensure that all parents’ voices are being heard.
Start a diaper bank in your community. Diapers aren’t covered by food stamps, and some research has identified diaper need as a greater contributor to postpartum depression than food insecurity or housing instability.
Survey parents in your workplace to find out what would most benefit them, then share the results with leadership.
Create or join a Parent Village. Parent Villages are small groups of parents who come together to support one another, identify and discuss the needs of families in their community, and make a plan to get those needs met. Your village may be a group of co-workers, a collection of parents from your child’s school, a group of your neighbors, or fellow parishioners at your house of worship. Any combination of up to 10 committed change agents will do. You can find everything you need, including a suggested curriculum for your meetings, at parentnation.org.
Maternal and child health is one of The Rotary Foundation’s areas of focus. Give at rotary.org/donate.
In many countries, support for family and parenting is increasingly recognized as an important part of social policies and investment packages aimed at reducing poverty, decreasing inequality, and promoting positive parental and child well-being. UNICEF is advocating for at least six months of paid leave for all parents, safe and comfortable public and workplace locations for women to breastfeed, and universal access to quality, affordable child care from birth to the first day of first grade.
Nations that invest early and often in children see those investments pay off in dividends. Finland is home to some of the world's highest performing schools. It also boasts an extensive social safety net for families, including generous paid parental leave and heavily subsidized child care. Parents who choose to stay at home with their children get a monthly stipend until their youngest child is 3 years old.
To ensure that children meet their full potential, society must put them and their caregivers at the center. The way society views an entire segment of the population — parents — must change. And in turn the way parents view themselves and their expectations of support must change. But how?
By lifting our voices as one. Together the millions of parents in the United States and billions around the globe can fight for our needs and our children's needs — for high-quality child care, paid family leave, a child allowance. We can fight to address childhood poverty. We can demand that prenatal and pediatric care be holistic and include information about brain development. We can call on employers to institute family-friendly policies that are also good for their bottom line. If we form a coalition of parents, we can work together for the changes we need.
There's a great example of a group of formerly isolated individuals who banded together to achieve important, lasting change. In the mid-20th century, Americans over age 65 were the poorest, most underserved age bracket of the U.S. population. AARP's efforts over the past 60 years helped change all that. Today, there is no age group better served by society and government. The poverty rate among older Americans has declined by almost 70 percent. AARP unites constituents across socioeconomic, political, racial, and ethnic divides by focusing on rights that benefit everyone. Its success is legendary. When a group of people speak with one voice, it's amazing what they can accomplish.
Progress for children and their caregivers will require policy changes. Some solutions, such as paid family leave and subsidized child care, are obvious. Others, like portable benefits and fair workweek laws, are less so. I am not a policymaker or expert. But I can confidently say this: If brain science is the roadmap, it is parents who should do the steering. And the time to build a parent nation, to set our nation and world on a path to equality and prosperity, is now.
With Rotary's long and rich history of service above self, together we can build a parent nation.
The work of building a parent nation — a place where families are championed and cared for by their communities — belongs to all of us. Here are four stories of Rotarians who have already found ways to make the world better for parents and children.
A fitting solution
Kenton Lee was living in Kenya, eager to travel the world and expand his mind after college, when he found a small orphanage outside Nairobi that was in need of volunteers.
He signed on and quickly fell in love with the daily rhythm and roles, eating and playing and doing chores with the children. One day he was walking a group of kids to church and he noticed that a little girl, dressed in a beautiful white dress, was wearing shoes that were several sizes too small. She had cut open the front of the shoes to make room for her toes. "I looked around with new eyes at all the kids," Lee says. "Many of them either had no shoes or would cut open their shoes to let their toes out. It got in my gut, in my heart."
The orphanage director told Lee that the children's feet grew faster than the shoe donations could accommodate, leaving the children at risk of injury, discomfort, and disease as they navigated treacherous, sometimes trash-strewn paths. And barefoot children, Lee discovered, were often forced to miss school because shoes were a mandatory part of their uniforms. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there was a pair of shoes that could grow?'"
In 2008, Lee moved back to his Idaho hometown and set to work designing such a thing. He partnered with Proof of Concept, an Oregon-based shoe developer, to create a sandal made of leather and rubber that adjusts in three places to add length and width. He calls them: The Shoe That Grows.
Through the nonprofit Because International, Lee raises money to make and distribute shoes around the world. He partners with organizations to send the shoes with volunteers on service trips and offers a monthly giving club called The Sole, which sends shoes every month to children in crisis and refugee situations. Since 2014, he and 5,000 partner organizations around the world — including the Rotary Club of Nampa, Idaho, which he joined in 2011 — have distributed more than 350,000 pairs of shoes to more than 100 countries.
"A simple phrase I like to use is, 'small things can make a big difference,'" Lee says. "And shoes are one of those small things. They don't solve every problem for the kids. But they make a big difference."
In early March 2020, the Rotary Club of North Minneapolis was set to welcome a group of March of Dimes representatives to train Hennepin County health care providers in culturally relevant group prenatal care.
Natalie Johnson-Lee, the 2019-20 club president, and Jim Tincher, the 2020-21 president and a member of the club's maternal health committee, spearheaded the effort after learning that group prenatal care is linked to reductions in preterm births, increased breastfeeding, and better satisfaction with physician care. Co-facilitated with health care workers, culturally relevant group prenatal care and support brings pregnant women together and provides speakers, activities, culturally specific food, and on-site child care. "Once you see the research," Tincher says, "it makes perfect sense that the best way to build trust and confidence in health care is to surround someone with community, rather than isolate them."
But COVID-19 threw a wrench in the plans. The training was scheduled to begin on 12 March 2020. One day before, March of Dimes decided it wasn't safe to travel. Johnson-Lee and her team quickly pivoted to virtual (before "pivoting to virtual" became part of the national lexicon) and held the training anyway. That switch also led the Rotarians, invested as they were in maternal health, to create a program to provide Black expectant moms with virtual access to Black doulas for physical, emotional, and informational support. The women also received new-mom and baby kits, which contained diapers, wipes, onesies, herbal tea, slippers, and a journal, among other items.
"The research shows it's not enough to invite moms into a room and assume that fixes everything," Tincher says. "If you don't build it in a culturally appropriate way, it's not going to be effective. It comes back to what's going to make moms comfortable."
Getting through grief
Noelle Moore's baby girl Finley was born on 25 July 2013. Finley never left the hospital, having suffered severe medical complications during birth. She died three weeks later, leaving Moore devastated and lost, searching for a way to live in a world she never imagined inhabiting. "You never think something like this is going to happen to you," she says. "It's not even in your brain functionality. I never experienced such deep emotions. I knew grief when my dad had died, but when she died it was a completely different feeling."
Moore knew almost immediately that parenting Finley meant helping others in her name. "The only rationale I could come to for her death was that I had to make meaning out of it," she says.
She struggled to find a support system that acknowledged and accounted for the depth of a bereaved mother's loss. Counseling needed to be part of it, Moore knew, but she also needed help with funeral arrangements, paying bills, buying groceries. "I very clearly saw the large gap between hospital and home, and I knew I had to step into that," she says.
In 2014, she launched The Finley Project to provide a holistic healing process for people who experience infant loss.
The Finley Project helps with funeral arrangements, bill paying, housekeeping, meals, and counseling. Bereaved moms are assigned a volunteer support coordinator to help them find support groups and one-on-one counseling. "We hear a lot of moms say, 'Thank you for creating a sense of community. I feel less alone,'" says Moore, a member of the Rotary Club of Lake Mary, Florida.
Moore feels less alone too. "One of the things that encourages me and our families is that you're always a parent," she says. "Just because your child died doesn't mean you're not his or her mom or his or her father. You have an opportunity to honor and remember them for the remainder of your life."
Time to bond
It began, as do so many joyful moments, with Santa Claus.
John Ludlow was dressed as the jolly fellow for an annual holiday event at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, where children are reunited with their incarcerated mothers for crafts and other activities. Inspired by the warmth in the room and determined to give children and their mothers more such days, Ludlow and his wife, Sue-Ellen Ludlow, teamed up with Walt and Doris Wehler to create an annual summer gathering. It has come to be known as Through a Child's Eyes (TACE).
"It's a chance to solidify that family bond," says Kyle Bunch, who, with Brad Hansen, has overseen TACE on behalf of the Rotary Club of Wilsonville since the Ludlow and Wehler families retired their roles in 2019. "When the women are released, they're not strangers. The relationship's not sterile."
Through a Child's Eyes, which takes place over two days every July, features games, crafts, and food booths. More than 200 volunteers from two dozen nearby communities turn out to help.
"The interactions you're seeing with the kids," Bunch says, "sometimes it's a mom sitting on a beanbag [chair] and reading a story or doing a craft — you just see how happy they are. It's the thing that keeps them going during a life that's not great inside."
Around half of imprisoned people in the United States are parents of children under 18, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice-reform research and advocacy group. That means 2.7 million children have a parent serving time in prison or jail on any given day, and over 5.2 million have had an incarcerated parent at some point during their lives. Keeping parents and their kids connected through visitation can substantially decrease the negative impacts of incarceration on children, research shows, and is correlated with reduced recidivism rates by the parents, which in turn minimizes the retraumatization of the children.
"At our annual fundraiser for Rotary we have a special appeal for TACE, and we always have a recently released mother come and speak," Bunch says. "Every year we get to hear how that bond keeps them motivated, how the event itself is a motivation. It really does help keep the bonds strong."
• This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.