A recent letter to the editor (“Some want government to do it all — no hoax,” Readers Write, April 8) expressing concern that state funding for the developmental needs of infants and toddlers — as advocated for in a letter by Richard Chase from Wilder Research (“Why wait until age 3 or 4 to help kids? Try starting before birth,” April 6) — would mean the state would interfere in parenting, reflects a misunderstanding of the issue.

Chase is not saying that the state should interfere in parenting. Rather, the state has an obligation to its youngest citizens to see that their needs are met. Chase is advocating for improving the lives of families and very young children so that by age 3, they will not already be behind in their development.

The infant and toddler years are a critical time for developing secure attachments to caring adults, and for social and emotional development. In the first two to three years, the brains of our youngest children are laying the foundations for their lives. It’s a time of amazing brain growth, but without positive relationships and appropriate care, brain growth can be less than it should be. By age 3, as Chase said, the government is already trying to close the achievement gap instead of preventing it.

For children at risk, the prevention needs to start at infancy.

In the January issue of National Geographic, an article discusses the critical first and second years, and the importance of a nurturing environment to early brain growth. I would recommend it to everyone who wants to understand why funding for our youngest at-risk citizens is needed.

People who work with children at risk and their parents see situations every day that make them want to weep. As a parent educator teaching a class for one hour a week in a homeless shelter a number of years ago, I saw numerous inexperienced teen moms who left babies in car seats, ignored their cries and then gave them propped bottles of soda instead of formula (I intervened).

I saw emotionally needy toddlers who begged for attention from their parents, but whose arms were yanked as they were yelled at to be quiet. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly don’t mean to imply that every homeless person lacks parenting skills, but it was obvious that parent education for parents who don’t have the knowledge and skills to nurture children needs to be much deeper than I had the time to provide.

These children deserve better, and their parents deserve help. The parents are victims, too, perhaps raised by parents whose nurturing skills were also wanting.

Without intense help for our most vulnerable children and their parents at these early stages, the vicious cycle will continue. And some of these children, who have so much potential, will be doomed to chaotic lives.

An adage about an ounce of prevention applies. Help in the early years is preventive; help later on is an attempt to fix what’s broken. Funds used for early intervention can enhance lives; funds used later tend to be for picking up the pieces.

These children and their families deserve healthier, happier lives. We need to lose the mentality that people should “pull themselves up by their boot straps.” Instead, we should understand that helping the vulnerable will, in the long run, benefit society.


Joann N. Parker, a past parent educator, lives in St. Paul.