What do parents really need today?

March 28, 2008

Why is parenting so hard today? It’s always been hard but I think that modern life has made it harder.

For all of human time before the late 20th century, the family was a much larger unit than simply mum, dad and the kids. Today many families are just mum and the kids.  Could a Chimp mother raise her young all on her own? The value of the larger group is that it not only spreads the work load but also recharges the emotional battery of the mother. For successful parenting is not only about having the money to get the stuff and the help but also it is also about emotional energy. Modern life seems to have stripped parents of the emotional and the physical support that they really need.

Two generations ago, most new parents had a lot of help around. Young girls had looked after real babies. Babies were not scary novelties but old hat. Most women had learned as girls what works and what did not. Most were taught by osmosis by observing their sisters, their mother and their aunts. There was always someone to talk to who would not judge – all were sisters of the mystery of raising kids. There was also help with all the workload. Young mothers had sisters, aunts and your mother were close by. There were fewer economic pressures that took the mother away from her baby. Not all families had this support but most did. The timeless stuctrure that all primates use to raise the next generation was there. It did not work for all but it worked for most of us.

This essential emotional and physical structure for raising primates, indeed for raising most mammals, has been eroded and even destroyed by aspects of our modern life.

Today, for many mums, the first baby they hold is their own. They have no hard earned experience. The baby is indeed a mystery and many worry a lot about whether they are doing the right thing. Competing books by “experts” often make you feel even worse. Who is there to support you emotionally? Your girl friends are busy and maybe your sisters and mother live far away?

I think of my own family. My daughter is in Toronto. Her mother in on PEI. Hope has no extended family to draw on at all. She has a mortgage, a full time job and soon a long commute. She has a husband with a challenging business of his own who travels a lot. She is going to be fully stretched without much help when she has a baby. She has a middle class income and will be able to afford daycare. but who will support her emotionally?

What about a single mum with no income and no supportive partner. She is confined to her room and her baby. What future does she dream of at night?

When you are unsure of what to do, how do you feel? When you are alone and exhausted and your baby has returned from daycare and wont eat or go to bed are you strong? When you are alone and exhausted and there is no daycare for your baby and no work and hence no money for you, how might your feelings affect your relationship with your baby? When the man in your life treats you badly how does this affect and hence your baby? When you have no one to talk to that you trust, how do you feel and how does this affect your baby? If no one grooms you, can you groom your baby?

This is the challenge that most mothers face today – rich or poor- they are often drained emotionally and physically. There is not much emotional strength left for the baby.

What kind of support so mums need? If all had access to good daycare, more on what good means in a later post, at least some of the physical drain would be reduced. Also for many, it would be possible to be in the workforce and have the chance o have some economic stability. We all know how draining it is to have money worries and to be dependent.

But my bet is that, just as a baby monkey will chose love and affection over food, our primary need is emotional support. Sure we need to know how best to feed and look after our baby. But we tend not to hear advice from experts. We best take advice from people we know love and trust us. Look at the two girls in the picture. They are experimenting together.

So yes, a great thing would be to have a universal daycare on PEI. But the real gap to be filled is the emotional support gap. Here is link to the next chapter that offer you more detail as to why mums and why their emotional health is so central.

Can this be done? Are there some models that we can learm from? Can we in this modern world find a way of filling in the gap that has been left by the death of the extended family.

I think that there is and I look forward to sharing this with you later.


Still no reply….

March 28, 2008

You may recall that April and Jane , our Co-Chairs wrote to Sarah Henry in the Department of Social Services seeking answers to many questions regarding the complex issues that we are currently dealing with in relation to child care and early learning.  We asked for a reply by March 7, 2008 for the following reasons:

  • The government’s own fast track schedule for changing the act
  • If the department had done the required research to consider any changes, all that we asked for should be ready and pose no problem.

On March 7, 2008 we received the following reply from Sarah via email.

Good morning Jane and April,

Thank you for your letter, and interest in the Child Care Facilities
Act and Regulations. A response is being prepared and will be mailed to
the address provided.

I look forward to our continued conversations about supporting children
and families in Prince Edward Island.



Sarah Henry
Early Childhood Services
Department of Social Service and Seniors
Province of Prince Edward Island
161 St. Peters Road, P.O. Box 2000
Charlottetown, PEI      C1A 7N8
Tel: (902) 894-0260
Fax: (902) 368-6169
Email: skhenry@ihis.org

Well it is now March 28, 2008 and still nothing has come to us via email or regular mail, despite several follow-up attempts.  Guess it is time to step things up a bit…

Why is working with parents and very young children the key?

March 27, 2008

We have seen in the prior post that by grade 3, the battle is largely lost. We can also see that there is a gap between children as they enter school in grade 1. It looks like a small gap but this gap is the key to both the problem and the opportunity.

See the tiny gap between the blue and the red kids before the age of six? Well now let’s follow this gap back to age 0 and see what it means and why understanding this gap is so important if we are to find ways of helping all kids reach their potential.

This takes us right back to 0. We can first see a gap at the age of 2. One group of kids can understand 300 words. The other only 150. This tiny difference seems insignificant doesn’t it? But it is not. It drives two separate trajectories that we see later in school. By the age of 15, the 150 word kids are stuck at a grade 5 level. The 300 word kids are operating at the level of a 2nd year university student.

There is little chance of helping the 150 word child do any better without a very different approach to school – I will talk about what we can do there later –  and the 300 word child almost needs no school to get where she has got to . She is naturally going to be able to learn and to behave as a social being.

What the gap and the trajectories show us is that the strategic place to work to help all our kids reach their full potential is before they arrive in school.

By the way, the difference in outcome is not restricted to reading and doing well in school. It is also connected to addictions, to health, to behaviour and to obesity.  (Here is a link to the costs of not thriving before the age of 6)

So we have to ask – what happened to set these two groups off onto such a different path for life? If we can understand what happens then we have a chance of helping make it possible for most kids to do better.

All the research boils down to one thing that is expressed in two types of action by parents.

It’s all about the nature of the relationship that a baby has with her parents. We learn from mainly our mums when we are very little if we are safe and cared for. This sets up our world view for life.

Parents who treat us as objects – we are clean and tidy, fed regularly etc but are talked at and seen as a thing and not worthy of much affection don’t thrive. Parents who don’t seem to care much and are all over the place even if they are affectionate, make us feel unsafe. Both these kinds of parents of course have their own issues. They too might have been treated like an object and are ordered around. They too may not have been made to feel safe.

What gives children the best chance are parents who are firm about the important things. Who give up lots of space and respect for the rest and who pay attention and are engaged in a loving way.

Makes some sense right? But how does this affect the child? Part of the answer is in language and how the brain gets wired by experience. The two key pathways to high potential are conversation and touch and as you will see they are all part of the same pathway.

By 4 the children in the high potential group had heard an accumulation of 50 million words. The low potential children had heard only about 10 million. A 40 million word difference! By 4, the language pathway has almost closed and while a child that has heard only 10 million words can speak, it lives mainly in an instrumental world. Its ability to perceive the symbolic world, which is now the core of our society,  is very small and the opportunity to add back 40 million words is not possible. Many 4 year olds from a high talk family have a wider vocab than the parents of the low potential child!

It’s not just the words either. It is how the words are said. Babies hear only tone. They hear affection or indifference or anger. The baby that hears a lot of words that makes her feel respected and loved might be sitting on her mothers lap and have her mother playing with her toes and doing “This little Piggy.” This is engagement.  A baby that only hears a few words may be being scolded or told to shut up – she is being treated like an object.

Why is this important?

It is because we are primates.  The core process for all development and for social stability in all primate societies is Grooming. Grooming for humans has two aspects. Babies need to be touched. Baby monkeys will choose touch over food. They need to be touched in a loving way. Babies who are not touched like this can die as we found in Romanian orphanages. Cold processing of babies to feed and change them is not enough. The other pathway for Humans – the human alternative to physical grooming – is conversation. In effect gossip. All that stuff at the office in all those endless meetings and by the water cooler – Grooming! Babies need to have lots of conversations with us – even when they cannot speak themselves.

This is the ideal primate group. A model for us all!

So here then is the bottom line. Our lives have trajectories that are very powerful and that are set when we are very young. These trajectories can be modified but only with massive interventions.  The best time to affect these trajectories is when the baby’s view of the world and her brain is still plastic. This is from the time of conception to age 4.

So if we are to have a chance of giving most of our few and precious children the best start to life possible, then we have to make a a major effort as a society to support parents when their children are very young. We have to make the same kind of collective effort as we have done in the past for when children are 6.

So is it possible to intervene and have a positive effect? For to do so means that we have to help parents be different and changing anyone is hard.

The answer is that we have found out how to do this and I will talk about this in my next post.

Why helping ALL kids BEFORE School is the right thing to do

March 26, 2008

If we really want to help ALL kids reach their potential in the next 15 years – where do we have to focus? I am going to show you now why it may not be school.

The battle for reading is all but lost the day a child enters school. Now that’s a statement! Let me explain by looking more deeply into this slide.

What you see are 2 lines – one red: the kids who were ready – one blue: the kids who were not ready. See how small the difference is when they arrive in school. But by 9 years old, grade 3, the gap is very wide.

By 13 the blue kids can never catch up!

Many in the school system know this. This is why calls for more TA’s are loud. This is why many want more resources put into the early grades at school.

Is this increased investment in school working?

No it is not! This slide shows the impact of all this increase in investment in school. The grey upright bars in this slide of the US public school system show  the expenditure in literacy – look at how the investment has poured in – it’s billions of dollars. The blue horizontal line are literacy rates. In spite of all this investment in the schools. In spite of its focus on literacy, it has had no real effect.

If we are on PEI to give all our kids a really great start in life – improving our schools will help – but the place where where we can make the difference and make it in time is before our children arrive in school.

Tomorrow I will show you the research that will support this claim.

What does “caring” about our kids mean for us?

March 25, 2008

Everyone involved in this debate cares about kids. But What does this “care” mean? I think that in many cases it means that of course we love our own kids and we extend that warmth of feeling to all other kids. But I wonder if we have thought much about what “Care” might imply about what we might all “Do”?

Many would say that Kids are our future. Of course if we lived in a village in the developing world that would be more true than we think. For without children in a society without a state, there is no one to look after the old. But of course this won’t apply to us will it? There will always be the state to look after us – surely?

Many of us of course assume that the State will be here when we are old. Our kids will grow up and have jobs, pay taxes, run government and deal with the problems that life throws our way. After all PEI has been doing this since its early settlement. The many kids of the next generation took up the mantle of running our society. That is how life works isn’t it?

Well neither of these assumptions are valid any more. For the first time in the history not only of PEI, but of our species, there will be dramatically fewer young to succeed us. 2008 will be the year when enrollment in high school will start to decline. If I live to be 80, God forbid, most Islanders will be over 50!

Are you hearing a lot about this? I am not. What can life on PEI be like with so few young to take over from us? Is anyone talking about this?

As you can see, this shift is not far into the future. It is happening now. With so few young, all our young become very precious. All our young have to have the best chance possible to reach their full potential as competent adults. But the picture for most of our young is gloomy. Most will not reach their potential. Most will not be able to make a contribution. You think I exaggerate?

These percentages are the numbers of families who are really struggling to raise their kids. As we all fuss about who owns, who runs and who staffs daycares and kindergartens. most of the children from these families are outside our conversation. They can’t attend. These kids gets the poorest start of all kids on PEI.

The impact of this loss is immense.

About 30% of children arrive in Grade 1 unable to cope, unable to learn and unable to behave. In Grade 1 we have already lost 30% of the few children that we have available for our future. In a society that has stronger family support as in South Korea, only 7% of kids entering school are in trouble.

Teachers and our schools are confronted with behavioural problems that are overwhelming. By Grade 8 the schools begin to lose the battle. Kids become progressively more and more disengaged. This is why PEI has amongst the poorest educational outcomes in Canada.

So then this is what we face. We will barely have enough young in the next generation to take over the role of keeping our society functioning. Most of this small group leaves school unprepared for life.

This is the crisis that we face as a society.

So is there anything that we can do? yes there is. Will we be able to act in time? Maybe. In my nest post we will look at what our choices are. For if we “care” about our children, we have to care about all of them and we have to care enough to act together.

Please follow this link to Chapter 2 that will make the case that simply focusing on making our schools better will not work in time

What’s it all about – A Mother Speaks

March 24, 2008

This week we are going to do our best to offer up a context so that we can ALL do our best to help ALL our children on PEI. But first before we dive into some facts and figures – let’s look at the reality as it is lived in every family – where every child is special.

Kindergarten in Schools – What is Going On

March 17, 2008

Did you know how many kindergartens were in School? I didn’t – Now you and I know:

Queens County
CHANCES Smart Start (Prince Street School)
CHANCES Smart Start (St. Jean Street School)

Gulf Shore Kindergarten (Gulf Shore Consolidated School)
Hunter River Kindergarten (Central Queens Elementary School)
Mount Stewart Kindergarten ( Mt. Stewart Consolidated School)
Les services de garde L’lle Enchantee (Carrefour de l’Isle Saint Jean)
Les Petits Rayons de Soleil (Ecole Saint-Augustin)
* Immanuel Christian Kindergarten (Immanuel Christian School ) Private School
*Grace Kindergarten (Grace Baptist Church) Private school.

Kings County

Belfast Kindergarten ( Belfast Consolidated School)
Georgetown Kindergarten (Georgetown School)
Kids Co-op Ltd. (Montague Consolidated School)
Kinder Kiddies Dundas Kindergarten (Dundas Consolidated School)
Sea Friends Kindergarten (Southern Kings Consolidated School)
Souris Kindergarten and Alternate Programs (Souris Consolidated School)
Vernon River Kindergarten (Vernon River Consolidated School)
? Name – (St. Peters Consolidated School)

Prince County
Alberton Kindergarten (Alberton Elementary School)
Bloomfield Kindergarten (Bloomfield Elementary School)
Centre Prescolaire Evangeline (french kindergarten?) (Ecole Evangeline)
First Step Kindergarten of Ellerslie (Ellerslie Elementary School)
Humpty Dumpty Kindergarten (Amherst Cove Consolidated School)
St.Louis French Immersion Kindergarten & English Kindergarten (St. Louis Elementary School)
O’leary Kindergarten (O’leary Elementary School)
Tignish English Kindergarten (Tignish Elementary School)
Tignish French Immersion Kindergarten (Tignish Elementary School)