Off To A Good Start

Science confirms what wise parents have long known: kids need lots of time and attention

IT IS A MOMENT YOU never forget--the first time you hold your baby in your arms. Who is this mysterious new person? Before long, you will know the difference between a cry of hunger and a cry for comfort, a genuine grin and the grimace produced by an upset stomach. But here's the amazing part: as much as you are learning (and at times it seems like more than any human could handle), your baby is learning a thousandfold more. Every lullaby, every giggle and peek-a-boo, triggers a crackling along his neural pathways, laying the groundwork for what could someday be a love of art or a talent for soccer or a gift for making and keeping friends.

Cutting-edge science is confirming what wise parents have always known instinctively: young children need lots of time and attention from the significant adults in their lives. This does not mean that parents have to go out and spend a small fortune on specially designed infant-stimulation toys or flashcards for babies or any of the other dubious developmental aids that prey on parental insecurities. What it does mean is that parents should take advantage of their child's natural curiosity. Babies are learning machines; everything is interesting to them. Shadows on the sidewalk, the distant barking of a dog, a voice on the telephone: these are miracles to an infant. If parents share a baby's wonder and laughter, children will grow up feeling that their observations and responses are valid and that people listen to them.

Researchers looking for new answers to old questions about the importance of heredity and environment have discovered that much of what makes a person unique is the result of experiences in the first three years of life. New technology, such as positron emission tomography (PET) imaging of the brain, has provided hard data on the importance of these years. Simple activities, like cuddling and rocking a baby, stimulate growth. The long-term effects of inadequate nurturing can be devastating. In profoundly deprived children--for example, orphans left to languish in an institutional nursery--critical areas of the brain remain undeveloped. Psychologists say that language development begins early, as well. The building blocks are games like peek-a-boo, which teach babies about face-to-face communication, and the seemingly incomprehensible babble known as parentese, the beginning of verbal interaction. The first years also shape a child's personality. Although some characteristics, such as a tendency toward shyness, may be genetically determined, studies have shown that babies who are hugged often and feel loved and cared for are much more likely to grow up confident and optimistic. In other words, genetics provides the raw material; life molds the spirit and the soul.

Studies have also shown that family connections are at the core of a child's social development. Despite widespread reports about the demise of the extended family, a new NEWSWEEK Poll of parents of children under 4 showed that grandparents and in-laws still play a huge role in child rearing. The vast majority of parents surveyed said they turned to their own parents or other family members when they needed advice rather than books, videos or classes. Fifty-nine percent said that grandparents were "very" involved in their child's life. Traditional values also seem to be alive and healthy. Nearly half (48 percent) of the parents said that making sure that their child grew up to be a moral person was their most important goal.

New attention to the early years presents a challenge for parents, educators and policymakers. According to the landmark 1994 Carnegie Corporation study "Starting Points," only half of infants and toddlers are routinely read to by their parents. The effects are serious: teachers report that more than a third of kindergartners are not ready to learn when they arrive at school. Day care is another pressing issue. Fifty-six percent of mothers of children under 4 are in the work force, yet there are no national child-care standards. As a result, too many children spend their days in unsafe facilities under the supervision of inadequately trained caregivers. Nearly a quarter of families with children under 3 live in poverty. Most of these are families headed by single parents (usually the mother) without access to regular health care or other social services.

According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, more than half of the parents surveyed said they did not believe that the policies of government and business were supportive of families with very young children. But can leaders and legislators break out of their old ways of thinking and be as innovative as the scientists? There are some hopeful signs. In the absence of a clear national mandate, states and municipalities have started their own initiatives. Generally, the goal is to help children by reaching out to the whole family, including parents and often grandparents. Some states target specific groups--at-risk children or teen parents, for example-and offer such services as home visits by nurses, or parenting classes. Schools can also take advantage of the research. In the last few years, many districts have cut art and music classes even though studying these subjects can help children learn in other areas. Art and music are not just luxuries, as financially strapped school administrators sometimes claim.

There are more than 15 million. American children under the age of 4. A child born this year will graduate from high school in 2015 and college in 2019. Think of these infants and toddlers as the architects of the 21st century. They are heading toward that future now, one baby step at a time.

In our poll on this and the following pages, we asked parents of kids under 4 about their goals and worries for the future, how they discipline their kids and how they view their own families.

Which of the following is your most important goal as a parent?

48% Making sure he/she grows up to be a moral person

38% Making sure he/she is happy

9% Making sure he/she does well in school

4% Making sure he/she makes friends and gets along well with others

1% Making sure he/she is good at sports

Do you worry about the following when you think about your child's future?

54% He/she will be kidnapped or the victim of a violent crime

52% You won't be able to afford his/her college costs

51% He/she will have a serious accident or illness

41% He/she will be a victim of sexual abuse

36% You won't have enough money to buy him/her the things he/she needs

35% You won't be able to find or afford good health care for him/her

29% He/she won't grow up to share your values

22% He/she will develop a learning disability

22% You won't be able to find or afford good day care

14% He/she will have trouble making friends at school

Where do you turn for advice and guidance about how to raise your child?

87% Your child's father/mother

69% Your mother or mother-in-law

66% Doctors, nurses and other health professionals

52% Other family members or relatives

47% Books about parenting

41% Magazines about parenting

36% Religious leaders like priests, ministers or rabbis

34% Friends or neighbors

23% Babysitters or other child-care workers

19% Television shows or videos

Asked of parents with children 1 to 3 years old: How often do you use the following disciplinary methods when your child misbehaves?

Explaining why behavior is not appropriate:

73% often

16% sometimes

4% hardly ever

7% never

Giving a timeout--that is, making child take a break from whatever activity he/she is involved in:

35% often

36% sometimes

12% hardly ever

17% never

Taking away a toy or treat:

27% often

42% sometimes

16% hardly ever

15% never

Yelling at child:

10% often

31% sometimes

38% hardly ever

21% never

Spanking child:

7% often

24% sometimes

36% hardly ever

32% never

Compared with your own father/mother, how do you think you rate as a parent?

46% the same

27% better

21% much better

4% worse

Are the policies of government and businesses generally supportive of families with very young children?

55% Not supportive

39% Supportive

For this Newsweek poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates interviewed 506 parents between the ages of 18 and 44 with children 0-3 years old (322 mothers and 184 fathers) by telephone, Feb. 25-March 2, 1997. The Newsweek poll (c)1997 by Newsweek, Inc.

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