There are frequent conversations in Memphis about what our city brand should be. Some people suggest that it should be about transportation, other say logistics, and some say our river heritage.
Those are important assets of Memphis, but they are things. They don’t really speak directly to our community values and who we are as a people.
We have our own suggestion for a city brand: Memphis: A City That Cares For Its Children.
Like all good brands, it speaks to our aspirations for our city. It also sends the message that we are intentional in becoming a city that deserves such a brand and that we want to be known and judged by our success in giving every child a fair start in life and the optimal brain development that provides better options for a child’s life.
For decades, Memphians have said proudly that our city is a good place to raise families, and for the majority of Memphis families, it is. But it is a pride that rings hollow for the 70,000 children under the age of 18, who live in poverty. Nearly half of these children are less than 5 years old – living in poverty at a stage of development that makes them most susceptible to the ravages of not having enough food, safe housing, positive learning experiences, and access to quality child care. These children are the casualties produced by the disconnect between what we say about children and where we invest our resources, attention, and energy.
It is said that you can tell what people value by watching where they spend their money. The same is true for Memphis. We may say that every child should have an equal chance at success in his or her life, but where we spend our money often tells a different story.
For example, we know that healthy and full development of the brain before the age of three is crucial for a child to be ready for school and ready to learn and to possess the social, emotional, and cognitive skills that are needed for life’s success. And yet, despite the research and the data proving that children’s brains grow to 80 percent of the adult size by the time they are three years old, we spend about three percent of our public education funding in these years.
In a city that cares for its children, our public investments would precisely and effectively target early childhood interventions that have proven to make a difference. The research is unequivocal. It shows that high-quality early childhood programs produce a higher per dollar return than K-12 schooling and later-in-life job training.
For example, children who attended state-funded prekindergarten classes in Tennessee gained a remarkable average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not attend the classes. In 2010, 250 children under three years of age attended Early Head Start, and 24,000 others, who were income eligible, didn’t get to attend because of lack of funding for the program.
We know that there are other things equally effective that we need to be doing: getting more parents into parenting classes, funding more home visitation programs, healthier baby programs, nutrition programs, and specific interventions tailored for each family’s particular needs.
So what can we do to become a city that cares for its children? We begin by taking the child impact statement pioneered by Shelby County Government and applying it to everything we do in Memphis. Whether we are talking about economic development, neighborhood redevelopment, health care, public safety, arts and culture, or any other issue, we should ask ourselves and our elected officials: “How will that affect the lives and futures of our children?”
There are parents of 70,000 children in Memphis who must make heroic efforts to give their children better odds for the future. We too have our chance to be heroes by proving to them that their hometown places value on them, that their fellow citizens are fighting for them, and that we are indeed Memphis: a city that cares for its children.
Previously published as Perceptions by The Urban Child Institute.
Just wondering if anyone in Memphis has read this?
The Myth of The First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning
John T. Bruer
Most parents today have accepted the message that the first three years of a baby’s life determine whether or not the child will grow into a successful, thinking person. But is this powerful warning true? Do all the doors shut if baby’s brain doesn’t get just the right amount of stimulation during the first three years of life? Have discoveries from the new brain science really proved that parents are wholly responsible for their child’s intellectual successes and failures alike? Are parents losing the “brain wars”? No, argues national expert John Bruer. In The Myth of the First Three Years he offers parents new hope by debunking our most popular beliefs about the all-or-nothing effects of early experience on a child’s brain and development.
Challenging the prevailing myth-heralded by the national media, Head Start, and the White House-that the most crucial brain development occurs between birth and age three, Bruer explains why relying on the zero to three standard threatens a child’s mental and emotional well-being far more than missing a few sessions of toddler gymnastics. Too many parents, educators, and government funding agencies, he says, see these years as our main opportunity to shape a child’s future. Bruer agrees that valid scientific studies do support the existence of critical periods in brain development, but he painstakingly shows that these same brain studies prove that learning and cognitive development occur throughout childhood and, indeed, one’s entire life. Making hard science comprehensible for all readers, Bruer marshals the neurological and psychological evidence to show that children and adults have been hardwired for lifelong learning. Parents have been sold a bill of goods that is highly destructive because it overemphasizes infant and toddler nurturing to the detriment of long-term parental and educational responsibilities.
The Myth of the First Three Years is a bold and controversial book because it urges parents and decision-makers alike to consider and debate for themselves the evidence for lifelong learning opportunities. But more than anything, this book spreads a message of hope: while there are no quick fixes, conscientious parents and committed educators can make a difference in every child’s life, from infancy through childhood, and beyond.
In the 12 years since that book was written, the vast body of research does not support his broad, overgeneralized theories. But it makes for interesting reading.