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Editorial columns

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Community plays role in successful parenting

I would like to thank John Peirce for his April 13 letter (“Investment in children is returned many times”). He reported that a “mountain of scientific and economic evidence” shows a positive correlation between a child having “nurturing parents and high-quality early-learning experiences” and later success in all areas of life. He pointed out that we shouldn’t wait for the preschool years to facilitate these positive experiences because children’s brains are significantly “wired” by experiences in the womb and in the first three years of life (for better and for worse).

As a parenting consultant, I help parents understand and meet the emotional and relationship needs of their young children. Many other professionals and organizations also focus on the early years, including the national organization Zero to Three. The importance this organization gives to children’s emotional needs is apparent in the title of its document, “Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness.” Of special interest to me is its recommendation that we develop and expand family resource programs that provide “parent education, parent support groups (and) drop-in centers where parents can meet with program staff and other families on an informal basis. ...”

While Zero To Three sees benefits for “troubled” families, many professionals, myself included, believe that all parents need and deserve practical and emotional support, research-based parenting information and access to parenting resource centers. Parenting is the most important and challenging job any of us can ever have, yet many parents feel they should “just know” what to do. Nor does our society do anything to systematically prepare our citizens for parenting.

We can change this. If we want to produce curious, creative, caring, confident and competent lifelong learners who are also successful human beings, we must share with parents, family life professionals and future parents the converging evidence from fields such as neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and health sciences. This evidence shows that it is empathetic and responsive caregiving that facilitates the optimal physical, cognitive and psychosocial development of children.

Unfortunately, what many “experts” have been recommending for decades is infant “independence training” techniques such as leaving babies alone to “cry it out.” Neuro- scientific research has shown that repeated episodes of prolonged and uncomforted distress can cause lasting damage to babies’ brains and anti-anxiety systems. This kind of “wiring” of the brain and various systems increases the risk for depression, anxiety and other psychological and physical problems. One of the reasons for this is that having their cries and other communications ignored erodes babies’ sense of security, self-efficacy and trust in their parents.

I urge businesses, religious communities and civic-minded clubs and organizations to find ways to provide support and research-based information to parents. They could open their own small parenting resource centers, directed by someone knowledgeable about empathetic and responsive parenting. Classes in sign language for hearing babies, positive discipline and baby massage would also help parents provide their children with the nurturing and the learning experiences they need, as would parent-child play sessions with fun and educational toys, materials and equipment.

I hope the parents of Fort Wayne will see the value in establishing and maintaining parenting resource centers. Children whose emotional needs have been consistently met, who feel secure and who have close, trusting relationships with their parents are much more likely to avoid the serious problems of adolescence: addictions of all kinds, violent behavior, unwanted pregnancies, delinquency, etc. It is always more cost-effective, in terms of human suffering as well as in the spending of money, to invest in prevention rather than remediation or rehabilitation.

Years ago, I modified the old adage to say “Where children are concerned, an ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure. It’s worth a thousand pounds of cure.” I salute the many parents who fully invest themselves in the development and well-being of their children.

Maureen McCarthy, a Fort Wayne resident and founder of Parenting for a Caring World, is a parenting consultant and educator. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.