Ages 1-3 are the Time of a Lifetime

It has been said that a parent is only as content as his or her least content child. In recent months, we've read several human-interest stories that prove the truth of this statement. Even a parent whose life has been filled with traumatic experiences will often rise above them if her children are healthy and thriving. By the same token, a parent who seemingly has everything will suffer deeply when his child is suffering.

Just as individual parents are distressed when one of their children is in need, so our larger community struggles when a majority of its children are struggling. The Urban Child Institute's "Data Book" -- a collection of research on young children in Memphis and Shelby County -- establishes that a large percentage of this community's children are indeed floundering on a variety of indicators of health, education and general well-being.

The good news is that scientific research shows how we can improve outcomes for children, and in doing so ensure a more secure and successful future for our community as a whole. The key, as neuroscience consistently shows, is timing.

Children's brains develop at an astounding rate in the first years of life. At age 3, for example, the brain has reached 80 percent of its adult size. But more important, the brain is more adaptable during these first three years than it ever will be again. Brain cells are making more connections, and making them faster, than in later childhood. This means a child's earliest experiences can have lifelong effects on his intellectual, emotional and social development. Positive early experiences promote positive outcomes.

There is tremendous opportunity in this window of time to make a lifetime of difference for a child. We want to communicate to parents and others who provide care for children that the simple acts of touching, talking, reading and playing with a child consistently from birth cause his brain to forge connections that are the foundation for a healthier and more successful life. We want to convince policymakers, philanthropists, health and social service providers and business professionals that public policy and community investment should include resources for parenting education, physical and mental health care and quality child care for our youngest citizens.

We are currently investing in our children, but not as wisely nor as generously as we need to. By and large, we are waiting until children are in kindergarten before we begin investing in their education. Research on brain development shows why we need to invest much earlier to ensure that children are ready for school at age 5.

As James Heckman at the University of Chicago has said, "Skill begets skill." Each year of success in school improves the chances of success the next year. But first, children need a strong, solid foundation of skills -- cognitive, emotional and social -- on which to build. As a community, we need to increase the odds of success for each child by improving school readiness rates. "Every Child Every Day School Ready" has a nice ring to it.

In 2012, we at The Urban Child Institute will continue to focus our efforts on the importance of investing in children early -- when their brains are bursting with potential. Our website,, has information for parents, health and social service providers, business professionals, philanthropists and policy makers.

Supporting our children is a cause we can all get behind, because the reasons for doing so are not only compelling, but also countless. Whether we do it out of moral duty, philanthropy or enlightened self-interest, each of us can play a role in making Memphis a city that cares for its children. Our community's future will only be as strong and productive as the collective strength and capability of our children. We need to make a greater investment in them -- the earlier the better.

Katy Spurlock is director of education and Marc Goodman-Bryan is a research associate at The Urban Child Institute.

This article was originally published by the Commericial Appeal at: