It’s unfortunate that not all our elected officials were among the nearly 700 people attending the 8th annual State of the Children breakfast held last month at the Clovis Veterans Memorial. Had they all been there, they would have heard the former publisher of the Miami Herald and founder of The Children’s Movement-Florida, David Lawrence Jr., explain why conception to age 2 is the most critical and cost-effective time to secure a positive, constructive, and healthy future for a child. He noted that if we want to significantly reduce crime and other anti-social activity, educating future parents on the biology of early development would yield the highest returns on economic investment.
Facts and extensive research confirm his statements. We spend billions of tax dollars each year dealing with crime and various social issues, including law enforcement, the courts, prisons, drug addiction, mental health, special education and much more. Studies show that most of the people enmeshed in these issues did not have a positive conception to age 2.
Brain development begins in the womb and the pregnant mother’s emotional state, whether positive or negative, has a profound impact. After birth, parental interactions such as talking, reading, singing, and comforting the baby build the biological foundation for school and life success. The absence or scarcity of such experiences will echo throughout a child’s life.
A complex biological process is at play in early development. While our DNA provides the basic developmental blueprint, an exploding body of research called epigenetics is showing that our DNA is much more malleable than we have previously understood. Experiences, both positive and negative, along with prenatal and early exposure to toxic substances significantly determine how DNA is expressed over time. For example, fetal exposure to even small amounts of alcohol may create significant health and functioning problems leading to a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. This totally preventable outcome affects more children than autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, and sudden infant death syndrome combined.
Much of this exploding body of research is described in two books, “Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence” and “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease,” both co-authored by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley.
Prior to reading these books, I believed that expanding Head Start and Pre-K were important tools for a child’s future. However, I now know that while these are important programs, we need to begin earlier because the conception to age 2 time frame is where we can make the greatest impact and at a much lower cost. This new understanding led me to write a white paper summarizing the key studies described in the two books.
We need to educate our students early on the complexity of pregnancy and parenting of a child and the critical role early biology plays in fostering positive outcomes for a child. In 2016, California mandated the teaching of a sex education curriculum. However, it did not specifically require the teaching of the importance of the conception to age 2 developmental window and how critical this time frame is to the child’s future quality of life. While some school districts may touch on this topic, the time limitations to comply with the state requirements make it currently difficult to cover all the needed information.
One needs a license to legally drive, fish, or hunt, but no one gets tested or is licensed to become a parent. The least our state should do is provide to our young people the early development science information so that they can learn what is needed for responsible parenting if and when they become parents. Meanwhile, the paper I wrote includes links to more than 100 articles, websites, and videos related to the importance of conception to age 2. If you would like a free, digital copy of my White Paper, go to: www.watkinsphotoarchive.com/potpourri/ConceptiontoAgeTwo1.pdf.
Howard K. Watkins is a past president of the Fresno County Bar Association and for 18 years represented Child Protective Services in the Fresno County Juvenile Dependency Court.