Published Online: April 23, 1997

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Awareness Campaign Puts Spotlight on Importance of Ages 0-3

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A coalition of early-childhood experts, politicians, and entertainers launched a public-awareness campaign last week that focuses on the critical importance of the first three years in a child's life.

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The three-year effort is designed to draw national attention to the needs of young children and to place educational resources in the hands of parents. It was organized by the Families and Work Institute, a New York City-based research group that studies workplace family policies.

The centerpiece of the "I Am Your Child" campaign will be a one-hour television special of the same name scheduled to appear next week on ABC.

Produced by actor and director Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele Singer Reiner, the program will feature Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams. It will air April 28 at 8 p.m. EDT.

The campaign builds on "Starting Points," a 1994 report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York that points to a number of disappointing statistics on infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, such as a widespread lack of health insurance, climbing rates of child abuse, and low-quality child-care settings. ("Carnegie Corp. Presses Early-Years Policies," April 13, 1994.)

"Starting Points" concludes that a child's performance in school and even his success as an adult greatly depends on experiences before age 3. Developments in brain research have given scientists and the public more information about the capacity young children have for learning and the conditions needed for healthy social, emotional, physical, and intellectual growth.

"This information should be the source of great optimism because it offers solutions. In order for you to make a child who is bright, creative, and capable of learning, you have to provide these early life experiences," Dr. Bruce Perry of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said of the new research in February when he spoke before the National Education Goals Panel.

The first of the national goals--school readiness--is at the top of the panel's agenda this year. Members of the panel also asked Mr. Reiner, who attended the session and is the chairman of the campaign, for suggestions on ways to keep the public's interest focused long after the show airs.

Campaign Topics

The campaign is focused around four topics:

  • Promoting responsible, informed parenthood;
  • Creating comprehensive preventive health care for mothers, fathers, and young children;
  • Making available high-quality child care and early education; and
  • Expanding state and community-based approaches to reverse current patterns of child neglect.

The messages will also be featured throughout next week on "Good Morning America."

The campaign also includes public service announcements, a World Wide Web site (www.iamyourchild.org), a CD-ROM, and a free video for new parents that will be distributed by hospitals, child-care centers, schools, clinics, and other agencies that work with families. A toll-free phone number for parents to call if they want to receive more information has also been established: (888) 447-3400.

In addition, the RAND Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif., is conducting research on the economic benefits of certain early-childhood programs. The National Conference of State Legislatures is forming a group of legislators who will promote action on these issues in their own states. And last week, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton held a conference on early-childhood development. ("Clinton Announces 5 Child-Care, Early-Years Initiatives," in This Week's News.)

Fourteen foundations and corporations, including the AT&T Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and IBM are providing funds for the campaign.

Seeking Better Services

Parents and others who care for infants and toddlers are the campaign's primary targets. But its messages can also improve understanding among elementary educators about child development and help school districts enhance their efforts to reach out to families with young children, said Matthew E. Melmed, the executive director of Zero to Three, a Washington-based organization focusing on young children.

Timed with the campaign's kickoff, Zero to Three last week released the results of a survey that describes the day-to-day lives of young children and the pressures often felt by their parents.

Many parents don't understand the connection between their parenting practices and their children's development, the survey of 1,022 parents, conducted in March, concluded. Most say they they need to improve their parenting skills, and they worry that they don't spend enough time with their young children.

Ultimately, the goal of the campaign, Mr. Melmed said, is to attract attention from policymakers and create demand among parents and professionals for better services. Although there has been significant attention to the physical needs of young children through immunizations and nutrition, he added, states are just beginning to fund programs that focus on other aspects of development.

"It's been a long time coming for there to be such broad public-awareness initiatives under way, given the critical importance of the first three years of life," he said. "I think the public is probably ready to hear it."

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • "Starting Small, Thinking Big." This article from the September-October 1996 issue of The American Prospect, by Irving B. Harris claims that the most cost effective spending in education should focus on early childhood learning from conception to age five. This article is presented on the Electronic Policy Network Web site.
  • The KidsCampaign Web page, presented by the Benton Foundation, provides a resource area on the early years, that includes information on child care, health care, and development. The site also hosts information on 101 things you can do for our children's future.

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