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Wanting the Best: Parents’ Role in Early Childhood Development

“There isn’t a parent in the world who doesn’t want the best for their children,” says Mary Moran, ChildFund’s early childhood development specialist.

Then she provides a tough example. “A mother tried to give me a baby in Senegal,” she recalls. “The baby was severely malnourished, and the mother looked like she might not be there the next week. She asked me, ‘Will you take her? I want her to live.’”

Moran responded by telling her — and showing her — how important she was to her baby. “The cry of a malnourished child is hard to hear,” Moran explains. “You can help mothers recognize children’s behaviors for what they might mean rather than how noxious those behaviors are. You can help people understand what calms their kids. Most mothers are not conscious that their children recognize their voices. When you frame that for a parent — ‘Look at how she recognizes your voice. You’re so important to her!’ — it helps.”

Woman holding infant girl, who is being hugged by little boy, standing.
Just before his session with his guide mother, Milton comforts his baby sister.

Illumination of this sort — teaching a mother how to “read” her baby, even at such an early age — goes to the heart of how ChildFund helps parents take hold of their essential role in their children’s lives: helping those children achieve their full potential. A healthy, engaged parent-child relationship is essential to that process.

Moran wrote recently in ChildFund’s blog about a two-article series in the medical journal The Lancet that cited early childhood development as a global concern. According to the series, a child growing up in extreme poverty faces an array of risks to their development: malnutrition, stunted growth, poor brain development, inadequate developmental stimulation, maternal depression, exposure to violence and more. The articles also cite interventions that can protect children from these risks, including breastfeeding, maternal education, good interaction with caregivers and stimulating physical and social environments.

“The most powerful thing you can do is teach people child development,” says Moran. It makes an enormous difference when parents understand how their children acquire the skills they will need to become independent — how the skills build on one another, from the most basic (such as voice recognition), and what the goals are. And, Moran adds, it’s not necessary to teach the process in great depth; it’s more important that it happens than how it happens.

But, she says, “It matters that you act early.” She invokes neuroscience to explain why. “In those first six years, neural pathways are generated constantly — connections between cells in the brain. More experience equals more connections,” she says. “It’s a critical period. Children lose capacities because they’re not stimulated.”

So, in the countries where we work, in addition to supporting health care and nutrition for children, ChildFund trains not only parents but also community volunteers and teachers about the physical, social and cognitive development processes of the earliest years. Education focuses on how to provide a quality of experience that supports these processes, as well as how to identify delays and barriers to a child’s development.

But, Moran emphasizes, “Education is most effective when it’s paired with support.”

ChildFund builds this wisdom into its early childhood programs worldwide. Parenting support groups provide opportunities for caregivers to share successes as well as to ask each other, “Isn’t this hard?” Early Childhood Development centers, in addition to providing an environment specifically designed to stimulate children’s development, serve as a shared hub around which community members can network. Trained volunteers teach early childhood development to parents in home visits, helping families build strong relationships and practice new ways of enriching a child’s experience.

“The most successful home visitors are people who act like friends,” says Moran. “They accept who you are, care about what you say, listen reflectively.”

In Honduras, volunteers known as “guide mothers,” like Merlissa, conduct the home visits. One bright afternoon in the village of Lepaterique, Merlissa steps into the cool, dim interior of 3-year-old Milton’s small home. He’s eager for today’s session, but he waits patiently while she exchanges warm greetings with his mother. Finally, Merlissa opens her special bag and begins to pull out some toys and other odds and ends of her trade.

To start the session, she lays several feet of twine across the dirt floor of the living room. Well-acquainted with what’s expected, Milton walks the length of the line, down and back, head held high. He’s been practicing with his mother, who watches from a corner now, bouncing his baby sister and giving him an encouraging smile.

Next, Milton correctly identifies all the animals Merlissa points to in the big picture book she brought. Then he accurately follows some fairly complex instructions on moving a rubber ball and a squeaky toy between a tabletop and shelf underneath. After a few more activities, he shows how well he can feed himself.

After a glowing assessment of Milton’s performance, Merlissa begins working with the baby. Lying on her stomach on a blanket, the 4-month-old lifts her head and turns toward the shiny paper Merlissa crackles just out of her view, then follows the sound as Merlissa moves the noise to her other side.

Milton’s family may be poor, but the children’s experience is rich. His mother, with the learning and support she gets through ChildFund, will continue that enrichment.

She knows how important she is to her children — and why.

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