This article appeared in the NY Times on April 6, 2014. CLICK HERE to read it at the Times website. If only there could be a local, no a national campaign, as this writer envisions, “prompting mothers and fathers to read to their babies, to use everyday experiences to teach children new words, new ideas, addition and subtraction, and so on.” A child’s education does not begin with pre-K. It begins at birth and it starts with talking to and reading to your child. That’s just the beginning, but it is an important start. If only all young mothers knew this.
Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.
The successful fight for universal prekindergarten in New York City, a feat the White House called remarkable last week, will allow the city to add 21,440 classroom seats for 4-year-olds this fall and 20,000 more in the fall of 2015, according to the Education Department. As ambitious and important as this initiative is, it cannot, by design, solve the problem of the high school student who thinks one book is enough, and does not yet understand the extent to which parents are obliged to serve as instructors and educators, expanding vocabularies through talking and reading — through exposition and illumination — long before the advent of formal schooling.
In February, Russ Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and former director of the Institute for Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education, testified before Congress on the subject of early education, making the point that universal preschool programs yield disproportionate benefit to middle-class families who may shift children from care they pay for themselves to care that is publicly funded. It is hard to imagine that money will be wasted here, largely because what it means to be middle-class in New York scarcely resembles what it means to be middle-class elsewhere, and because there is so much status attached to the experience of private education that the 92nd Street Y nursery school will surely never find itself short of demand.
And yet the attendant point is a crucial one: that we should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth. Programs for 4-year-olds and even 3-year-olds, as Mr. Whitehurst put it, “come too late.”
This is hardly a revelation, and yet there has been a squeamishness on the left to create sweeping policy out of the kind of intimate intervention implied, a fear of the judgment and condescension ferried in exporting the habits of West End Avenue to Central Brooklyn or the South Bronx. No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.
But at the same time, the notion that parenting is something that could be, and ought to be, taught is rooted in the history of progressivism. This idea serves as the centerpiece of “Fighting for Life, ” the memoir of S. Josephine Baker, first published in 1939 and recently reissued by the New York Review of Books. Dr. Baker was an early feminist, a graduate of Vassar and the Women’s Medical College in Manhattan who in 1908 began to run the city’s new Bureau of Child Hygiene.
In that role, Dr. Baker sent nurses into the slums and then across the city to visit mothers within days of their giving birth to teach them how to care for babies, to encourage breast-feeding and consistent bathing, and to dissuade unhealthy practices like allowing children to play in gutters and serving infants beer. During the first three years of Dr. Baker’s tenure, the infant death rate in the city declined by 40 percent.
As a medical intern and as a city health inspector, Dr. Baker had involved herself in the lives of the poor, witnessing horrific episodes of maternal misconduct but drawing from them compassion rather than contempt. In one instance, in Boston, Dr. Baker wrote, a woman arrived at the hospital about to give birth with her feet burned and blistered because, warming them in the oven, she had fallen asleep while drunk.
“Having borne children and lived and fought and made love regardless, they took that method of dodging consequences,” Dr. Baker wrote of the penchant for drink among the underclass, “but one could not honestly blame them for making use of alcohol as an anesthetic.”
The paternalism of our previous mayor stirred so much anger and resentment in large part because it was virtually impossible to imagine him saying anything like that. But it is easy to envision someone like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made compassion so thematic in his campaign, spearheading parenting initiatives that might find national resonance (as Dr. Baker’s did) — prompting mothers and fathers to read to their children as babies, to use everyday experiences to teach small children new words, new ideas, addition and subtraction and so on.
He could say that he understands how hard it is to make time for things that might not seem immediately necessary, but that in the end can make the difference, if not between literal life and death, then between the prospects of a good life and a flattened one.