Commentary

Getting 'Crazy' About Children

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The Bush Administration indicates that we have a lot of work to do before we reach the first national education goal: "By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn." I hope the general public understands how far we really have to go. And words will not be enough.

Right now, there is general disinterest and apathy. On measures like poverty, access to health care, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and nutrition, the condition of America's children differs little from that of a third-world country. According to some authorities, babies born in cities like Boston have only a slightly better chance of enjoying their first birthday than those born in Bandung, Indonesia. On the evening news, these statistics are turned into personal stories depicting the plight of being a child in America. Sometimes the stories evoke concern, even sympathy. On occasion they may be a cause for tears.

But tears won't solve the problem. What will solve our problem is a national commitment, supported by dollars, and a national policy for the care and education of all children. Unless we develop this policy and a public will to implement it, we violate a public trust today for children whose future is tomorrow.

The noted child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner has proposed that adults need to get involved in the care of children on a scale that he describes as "irrational." Adults, he says, in effect must become "crazy" about kids--the quality of their lives and their education. I think a good way to motivate adults--particularly policymakers--to ensure that all children are ready to learn would be to incorporate within the national goals that "all Americans must become crazy about children."

People who think that government support for schools and social programs already is excessive will, indeed, find my position "irrational."To them I say that the status quo has not served us and will not serve us in the future. The time is now to be excessive in meeting children's needs and making progress toward the goal set by President Bush and the governors--that every child enter school ready to learn.

The goal speaks to readiness for school. Unfortunately, when they hear this, some people leap to the egregious conclusion that readiness for learning is synonymous with readiness for school. This is a myth that must be laid to rest. It is unfair to assume that teachers can undo what years of early-childhood neglect may have done. Too often, the sculptor of childhood is poverty, homelessness, inattention, malnutrition, or illness. While teachers work hard to reshape and remold children who need their care, too often the plaster of neglect and abuse has hardened. Despite educators' best efforts, the inner beauty, the great potential of the child, is lost forever. It is a gross disservice, therefore, for anyone to imply that elementary-school teachers alone can be accountable for our nation's success or failure in making sure that all children are ready to learn before they enter school.

A broad cross section of policymakers and opinion leaders must explicitly acknowledge that the readiness process begins well before kindergarten entry. Some experts in child development posit that it is "all over" by the age of 9 months. While this may represent an extreme position, it drives home the point that young children are most receptive to learning in their earliest years. This is a time when they most need caring and attention. However, when there are adults in the family who have been rendered inadequate as the child's first teacher by the ravages of poverty, abuse, and addiction, government must provide social services that fill the gap and provide each child with an equal opportunity for later learning.

While we do not make adequate provisions for the care of all children at present, we do know what to do for children. Feed and shelter them. Ensure health care and vaccinations. Provide prenatal care. Expand preschool programs. And do all of this with an emotional and financial commitment on a scale that will enable the nation to meet the President's goal.

This requires more than words. What about the cost? There is irony in the question and incongruity in the answer. We spend billions on defense, wars, prisons, drug clinics, and corporate bailouts. At the same time, our 1991-92 federal budget does not provide enough money to enable every eligible child in the nation to participate in Head Start, this country's most successful preschool program. It is obvious that the cries of young children are muted by the thunder of bombs and the raised voices from the corporate board rooms.

It is time to hear the voices of young children. Their needy whimpers. Their cries of despair. We have the opportunity as a nation to shape our future by ensuring that every time an umbilical cord is cut, there is an immediate reconnection to a new lifeline of social, human, health, and education services.

The time has come for all adults to get "crazy" about children.

Vol. 11, Issue 16, Page 41

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