There was an article in the Sunday New York Times a while back that was titled “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.” It was written by Paul Tough and was an excerpt from a book he had written called “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.” The article cited a long-term study that started in 1986 and has followed the subjects constantly to the present.
The study proved that children who lived in poverty did substantially better than their peers, into adulthood, if one simple thing was changed in their homes during their first three years of life. If their parents received coaching from trained researchers who encouraged them to play with and stimulate their infants, for example, by reading to them, singing to them and playing peekaboo, the kids did much better.
Parents were taught the importance of these face to face exchanges in creating attachment, warmth, and trust between parents and children. This, in turn, helped create a more stable, nurturing environment in the impoverished homes, which are usually plagued by stress, neglect, and instability.
It’s hard to believe that some people don’t know that they should talk to and play with their infants and young children. But if no one ever did that with you when you were a child and no one later taught you how important it is, how would you know?
The impact of this easy and low-cost intervention was off the charts. The study showed that the children who had the play counseling had higher IQ’s, less aggressive behavior and better self-control than the control groups. They also had better ability to focus, follow directions, interact calmly with others and cope with disappointment and frustration. In other words, they improved intellectually, socially and emotionally. All this just by receiving the kind of attention that most of us take for granted every child automatically gets.
It turns out that adults can be taught to create an environment that fosters success for their children. Why isn’t this being done in every poor neighborhood in the world? Or at least in this country?
This is particularly frustrating for me because my father proposed the same type of in-home interventions in the 1960’s and no one listened to him. My father was a well-known psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and sociologist who stressed the importance of the first 3 years of life. He also did a study that showed how little stimulation and affection a large number of black children living in poverty in Harlem, New York, in the 1950’s were receiving from their parents. He suggested doing exactly what the 1986 study did – send in trained professionals to teach the parents how to give their children the kind of nurturing they needed to thrive.
Guess who shot my father’s idea down? The “liberals” of the day and the radical Black Panther movement. They said it was racist to assume that black people didn’t know how to be good parents. It was also considered paternalistic and condescending to send (often white) people into black homes to “tell them” how to deal with their own children. My father backed away from the conflict that surrounded his proposal.
Now, 50 years later, the idea is being proposed again. Think of all the kids who could have benefited in all these years! With so much poverty, even just in this country, you’d think this article would have been front page news. You’d think that politicians, as well as educators and mental health professionals, would be jumping on the bandwagon and yelling from the rooftops. You’d hope that large numbers of “family counselors” would be amassing to go in and make a huge difference in the lives of millions of children.
I haven’t heard anything yet. But I’m still waiting and hoping.