April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and for those of us working with children and families every day, this reminds us that the concept of child abuse is much broader than we may think. It encompasses a wide range of actions (or absence of actions) that may result in impairment of a child’s physical, mental or emotional health.
It’s not just abuse we should all be concerned about — it’s also learning the best actions to take in raising a child.
Research has demonstrated that by the age of 3, 80 percent of a child’s brain is developed. That increases to 90 percent by the age of 5. By age 6, we expect children to have the necessary cognitive, language, motor, social and emotional skills necessary to enter kindergarten ready to learn. It’s one of the most critical rites of passage anyone ever faces. A child’s prospects for a successful educational experience and ultimately reaching adulthood self-sufficient depend on this one moment in time. Poverty will magnify the challenges parents face in raising their children, but young children’s developmental opportunities and concerns confront families regardless of family income and education.
A critical part of development for infants and toddlers depends on the caring interaction with their primary caregivers. Working parents know this. What’s important is that they find the right caregiver — someone who will spend time interacting with their children each day, rather than settling for what is, in essence, custodial care. After the age of 3, children’s needs expand beyond one-on-one interaction to include learning to play and interact with others — a need that’s particularly important up to the age of 5. Once we understand the importance of supporting a child’s early development, several things become clear:
♦ It’s a process that begins with prenatal care.
♦ It includes having a positive birth experience with adequate family support.
♦ During the child’s first years, accessing child health and family resources can launch the family toward the goal of school readiness.
There are many ways for families of all income levels to find socialization and peer-learning opportunities with other parents, and there are many information sources online as well. The key is to understand children’s tasks at each developmental phase, and then offer them the opportunities to master those tasks.
I want to emphasize that factors like neglect, inattention, family conflict, poor nutrition and lack of proper developmental activities can create a pattern of lost opportunities that will have a marked and lasting influence on a child’s future.
When it comes to child development, children won’t wait. They can’t. There are no “do-overs” for these early years. The child is learning either way — either in a happy, interactive manner, or in an anxious, fearful or detached one. Their alternatives are utilized opportunities, missed opportunities or bad opportunities. Let’s make sure every child gets the best opportunities. In the long run, it not only creates a happier, healthier child, but also a stronger and more productive community. We all have a stake in this.
Brian McEwen, Ph.D., is executive director of Champions for Children, a not-for-profit organization that builds stronger families in the Tampa Bay region through its child abuse prevention and family education programs.