The Value of a Parent's Attention

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said "study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road."

He's right. Children who are consistently intellectually stimulated in the first three years of their lives enjoy better outcomes later in life. Typically, they do better in school and enter higher paying careers. They are engaged in their world, connected to it and to the people with whom they work and live. They are better at adapting to the complexities of life as it is lived.

Later in the speech, the President said "every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on." He's right again. Today there are communities all over the globe benefitting from public spending on early childhood education.

Laws are already being passed, opening more slots to Mid-South children all the time. But while the slow process of legislation may one day bring early public education to every child in our region, parents can do our part to steer kids toward a better future by investing something other than money; our attention.

For many families, enrolling children in school before kindergarten isn't an option, but that doesn't mean getting a head start on education can't happen. The home is a child's first institute of learning, and parents and caregivers are the members of the faculty.

In their 2012 Data Book: the State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, The Urban Child Institute points to research that shows that by age three, a child's brain has already grown to 80% of the size it will be at adulthood, and the building blocks of its processing power are forming at a faster rate than they ever will again.

Your baby's brain is insatiable, absorbing every new experience, sensation, sound and sight and processing them into the mental tools that will carry her through school and beyond. Learning experiences present themselves every day, and chances are you and your family are already making the most of them in these early years of brain growth.

Getting ready for the day, you talk and laugh. Driving, you discuss what you see or the song that's playing. Your night routine includes a bath and a tooth-brushing after dinner, bed-time books and a kiss goodnight. On the weekends you visit the park and the grocery store, where you talk about what you see and the people you meet. You go on family road trips, you feed goats, you make art, you sing.

Throughout all of it, you've giggled and tickled, asked and answered questions. You've listened and talked. You've smiled together and watched each other. You've modeled behavior and used your vocabulary, and your child has benefitted from being with you.

It's this engagement, more than the experiences themselves, that is making the biggest and best impact. Your attention tells your children that what they say is interesting, what they think has value. When you answer their first question, it sparks a second. This is the investment we can make as parents.