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Neuroscience

Unlocking Every Child’s Potential and Fulfilling Society’s Promise

How parents can best support their child's development.

Key points

  • The first three years of life are critical to a child's brain development.
  • A lot of parents don't realize it, but they are setting the foundation for their child's future learning success.
  • Developing better listening and language skills and cultivating their social support systems can help parents better guide young children.
Paige Cody/Unsplash
Source: Paige Cody/Unsplash

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 turns out, isn’t enough to unlock our 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 and through my work 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 rich early-language environments 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 powerful brain architects, and their loving, serve-and-return interactions build a healthy foundation for a lifetime of learning. I was honored to help parents 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.

That frustration led me to write Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise, which is my love letter to parents and a clarion call to get them the supports they need and deserve. It’s deeply personal but also rooted in neuroscience.

Neuroscience, after all, can point us to 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 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 3. While our brains remain plastic throughout our lives, they will never be more so than in the magical and essential early years.

And neuroscience shows us that environments matter tremendously. Stable, calm environments foster socio-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.

But 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.

To accompany the 3Ts, I’d now like to add the 3Fs: Foster community, forge a collective identity, and fight for change.

Parents aren’t often reminded of this, but there is so much more that unites us than separates us.

Sleepless nights, overpowering love, the desire to be home with a newborn, the stress of finding a babysitter we trust, the worry over hitting milestones, the wonder at new accomplishments. There is real power in recognizing how much we share, regardless of—maybe even because of—our diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. But we have not yet forged a sense of collective identity.

I believe this has a lot to do with the mythic ideal of American individualism—the notion that going it alone is virtuous. The result has been to convince parents we should be able to shoulder the enormous responsibility of early childhood care, development, and education on our own without formal support. And that if we struggled to do so, the failure was ours alone.

But that’s beginning to change. Parents are looking around, realizing that the problem is not personal; it is systemic. And systemic problems require systemic solutions.

The first step to finding and fighting for those solutions is to raise our expectations of society. Parents can and should expect and demand that employers, policymakers, and other community leaders do more to support them in the critically important job of raising our next generation.

Together we can forge a better, more equal path forward. Being a parent has the power to bring us to our knees. But what brings us to our knees must also rouse us to our feet.

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