Family Income, Home Environment and the Affect on Young Children

The arrival of a newborn baby can lead to mixed emotions.

For example, excitement, anticipation and happiness are common when welcoming a new bundle of joy into the world.

But other feelings may be more prevalent for parents who find themselves unprepared due to unplanned pregnancy, relationship turmoil or economic hardship. Negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression can rise to the surface and detrimentally affect their parenting abilities.

Over time, these emotions can create toxic stress levels in infants and young children that will hinder their health, well-being, and developmental progress.

According to The Urban Child Institute, a positive home and family environment is essential to promote optimal brain development in young children, and is also paramount to their future success.

Language and thinking skills, self control, and self confidence are all aspects of school readiness that are largely determined by the level of support that exists in the home during the first three years of life.

During this time, the brain will reach 80 percent of its adult size. Even more importantly, it is forming connections that will be either strengthened or weakened by what he experiences.

From birth to age three, the quality of care that a child receives helps to determine how rapidly or slowly he acquires the mental, emotional and social skills that all children need to succeed in school and in life.

A nurturing, supportive family environment should be regarded as a universal, fundamental component of raising a well-rounded human being.

Although this notion may seem like a "no-brainer," the sad reality is that too many families are not in a position to offer their children a stable home or to provide the emotional support and solid family structure that will allow them to advance at an ideal rate.

According to The Urban Child Institute, 60 percent of Memphis children live in single-parent homes.

Additionally, an overwhelming number of parents in the Greater Memphis community lack the financial means to provide the bare essentials needed to adequately care for their babies.

A combined total of approximately 250,000 children reside in the city limits and in the outer county.

More than half of those children are poor or low-income, and three out of ten children in Shelby County live at or below the federal poverty level.

The Urban Child Institute recently released their 2012 Data Book, a comprehensive report designed to improve public awareness on the state of young children in Memphis and Shelby County. The Data Book also highlights research-based methods and strategies that can aid in protecting the health and well-being of children under three.

Much of the data comes from the Institute's Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) study, an ongoing study of about 1,500 Shelby County mothers (representative of expectant mothers throughout the entire community) that begins in the second trimester of pregnancy and continues until children reach their third birthday.

CANDLE collects information on numerous aspects of children's health and development. Through the study, The Urban Child Institute has identified low income, low maternal education, and maternal depression as the top three risk factors that can negatively affect a child's home environment.

Research shows that lower income mothers are, on average, less affectionate and less responsive to their children's needs. They are also more likely to experience high levels of stress and depression.

As a result, studies have found that children living in poverty often confront learning and developmental problems throughout childhood and continue to face setbacks in adulthood. These challenges can include behavioral problems, learning deficiencies, poor employment quality and low earnings.

Children born into middle-class or wealthy families are more likely to have parents that are more engaged and invested in the parenting process, and capable of offering more positive early experiences that help to shape the foundation for future learning.

Currently, over half of Shelby County children face economic hardship, and child poverty is steadily increasing within the city of Memphis. Despite differences in socioeconomic standing, all children deserve equal access to opportunities to thrive, and all adults in the Greater Memphis community have a vested interest in ensuring that every child succeeds.

The future of our community is directly linked to the effort we put forth today to ensure that young children in both the city and the county are adequately prepared and positioned for lifelong achievement.

To promote positive education and employment outcomes in Shelby County, we must support measures that will improve the home environments of needy children, who through no fault of their own are often born and raised in less-than-desirable circumstances.

The Urban Child Institute believes that new public policy efforts to reduce economic hardship and increase parental education in low income families, coupled with new investments in early childhood development will not only ensure that more students are positioned for success, but will also help to advance our entire community.

This article was originally published by The Tri-State Defender online: