"Parents Don’t Just Contribute To Society. They Create It."
Physician Dana Suskind's new book makes the scientific and economic case for paid parental leave and other family-focused policies.
Hi everyone! Today’s newsletter is a bit of a departure from the norm. Usually, as you know, I share evidence-based parenting advice here — the latest science on what you can do as an individual parent to manage challenging kid situations or help your children thrive. But there are so many cultural and social factors that make it easier or harder to be a “good” parent. And the United States does a shockingly bad job of ensuring that parents have the tools and support they need to build supportive and nurturing homes. Today’s newsletter is all about why good parenting has to start with good policies, and why and how we all need to fight for these foundations. For everyone.
I’m not an expert on these issues, so what follows is a Q&A with someone who is — Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon and social scientist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Suskind’s wonderful new book Parent Nation, written with science writer Lydia Denworth, comes out today, and I highly recommend that you read it to understand what we need to do to ensure that children everywhere have the opportunities they deserve.
What inspired you to write Parent Nation?
I’ve been wrestling with the unequal distribution of support and resources for parents — and the tangible, tragic effects of those inequities — for more than a decade. Early in my surgical practice, I started noticing profound differences in my cochlear implant patients’ progress after surgery. Some children excelled developmentally, others not at all. Some learned to talk, others did not. The ability to hear, it turned out, did not always unlock their full capacity to learn and thrive intellectually. I couldn’t accept or ignore the disturbing disparities I saw among my patients, but I didn’t understand them. So I began a journey outside the operating room and into the world of social science.
I founded the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago and wrote a book called Thirty Million Words, to spread far and wide what I learned: Namely, that early language exposure is crucial to the development of children’s brains, especially in the first five years of life, and parents and caregivers are children’s first and most important brain architects. I had hoped that the powerful brain science discussed in the book would propel societal investment in parents and caregivers. But those societal shifts didn’t happen. Instead, parents enthusiastically consumed the research and then added it to their already too-long list of responsibilities, while society sat idly by.
My team and I develop and study evidence-based strategies to help parents learn and apply the science of early brain development. But evidence-based strategies aren’t enough if you lack the time, resources and bandwidth to apply them. Our programs can share with parents the knowledge and powerful skills that build their children’s brains, but our programs do not substantially change the day-to-day lives of the parents who participate. The larger realities of a family’s circumstances — work constraints, economic stresses, bad luck or injustices they are subject to — all matter as much as any strategy for healthy brain development. They either allow for the brain-building power of talk to occur, or, if they limit parents’ opportunities for engaging, they stifle it like weeds choking the growth of a garden.
We have the scientific evidence, the economic case, and the general consensus that parents in America need more societal support — in the form of fair wages, paid time off and a social safety net that allows them to provide secure environments for their young children. What we lack is the political will. My hope is that Parent Nation will help galvanize parents and their allies to speak with a collective voice and push our policymakers, our workplaces, our communities to find that will.
You talk in your book about the value we place in the U.S. on individualism — the idea that we should be able to achieve anything on our own, and that asking for or needing societal help is considered a form of weakness. I imagine the existence of this ideal is one reason why we have so little political interest in family-focused policies. Why is this “individualistic” perspective so dangerous, especially for parents? How do we overcome it?
Studies consistently reveal that parents are less happy than non-parents, and American parents are the least happy. When researchers looked at the parental happiness gap in close to two dozen countries, the United States has the biggest happiness differential. The reasons are staring us in the face. University of Texas sociologist Jennifer Glass, who led the research, found the gap was caused by America’s lack of family-friendly social policies. I’ll just list a few: Seventy-seven percent of Americans working in the private sector lack paid parental leave. One in 4 mothers return to work 10-14 days after giving birth. The United States remains the only country among 41 nations that doesn’t mandate paid leave for new parents. The average cost of childcare in the U.S. is around $10,000 a year per child — close to two times what the government considers affordable. In some parts of the country, childcare costs double or triple that.
Sociologist Caitlyn Collins, who researches families, found that not only do American moms feel more guilt about not living up to cultural ideals of the “good mother” than their counterparts in other nations, but that public policy has a role to play in reducing that guilt: By giving mothers more time outside of work, encouraging fathers to take on more of the unpaid labor, and — I think this one is especially important — distributing the responsibility and costs of childrearing more broadly.
But it’s not just a matter of increasing happiness levels or reducing guilt and shame. We know that when moms reach a breaking point, they feel forced to leave the workplace. When COVID-19 closed schools and childcare centers, it was women who left the labor force in droves. That can lead to all sorts of detrimental outcomes for both women and their families — reduced earning power, reduced savings, food insecurity, housing insecurity.
I think we may actually be starting to overcome it. Parents are looking around and noticing they are not alone. They are realizing that when parents repeat the same stories of struggle across the country, the problem is not personal, it is systemic. And systemic problems require systemic solutions. We have an activity on the Parent Nation website called The Big Shift Tool, where parents are invited to state their needs — affordable childcare, time off for pediatrician visits, that sort of thing — and then measure how many of those needs fall to the individual, in comparison to how many are supported by society and our institutions. It’s a really poignant way to reflect on how parents’ needs are (or aren’t) met and imagine what a society would look like where parents are truly supported.
No one should have to parent alone. Parents don’t just contribute to society, they create it. They’re raising the next wave of teachers, students, employees, employers, voters, parents. They are the guardians of our future.
As you’ve just said, parents everywhere are struggling — of course, some far more than others — in so many ways and for so many reasons. I love the point you make that these struggles are not our fault; they are not our failings, but rather society's failings. Can you talk a bit more about this idea? Why shouldn't we feel guilty about how little time we have to spend with our kids, about how little patience we may have with our kids, about the fact that we can't provide them with everything we think they deserve?
Parents shouldn’t feel guilty for how little time, patience, resources they have. They should feel righteous indignation. I think often about Talia, one of the parents I interviewed for the book, who had two babies while earning a PhD in psychology but gave up a promising post-doctoral position because her monthly salary, combined with her husband’s, wouldn’t be enough to cover childcare, rent and food. Juxtapose that with Jade, another parent I interviewed for the book, who always dreamed of staying home while her kids were young but instead spent 12 years working as a barista at Starbucks because her husband’s job didn’t offer benefits. Over and over, I met parents whose values and dreams didn’t line up with the parenting choices they could afford to make. But again, they blamed themselves for that mismatch.
I interviewed Jennifer Glass for the book, and she told me, “We’ve created a context in which parenting is virtually impossible.” And it’s especially so in those first five years of children’s lives, when parents are left on their own to cobble together time off and patch together childcare that doesn’t break the bank and continue to excel in their careers. The frustrating irony being, of course, that those first five years are when the vast majority of children’s brain development occurs. But instead of orienting society around making sure parents have the time and resources to maximize that critical, magical window, we hang parents out to dry.
Let's talk about paid parental leave. You explain in your book that it can actually have lasting positive effects on children's brains. Can you explain the mechanism here? What does the science show about the benefits of paid parental leave and other family-focused work policies on children's development?
Research on paid leave has traditionally focused on the economics — assessing the impact on employers or on household incomes. More recently, studies have looked at its impact on the health of mothers and children, and they’ve found paid leave is associated with lower levels of postpartum depression, improved infant attachment, decreases in infant mortality and re-hospitalizations, and increases in pediatric visits, timely immunizations and in the initiation and duration of breastfeeding. When fathers take paid leave at the birth of a child it benefits both parents’ mental health. Plus, married parents who both take leave are less likely to divorce. Now, in addition to all of that tremendously persuasive evidence, we have studies that show the positive impacts of paid leave on infants’ cognitive development.
Psychologist Natalie Brito of New York University and her colleagues published a 2021 study of 328 mothers and babies from across the socioeconomic spectrum, some of whom had paid leave, and some of whom had unpaid leave at the birth of their child. When the children were two years old, the researchers asked the mothers to report on their children’s language and socioemotional skills. Paid leave was associated with higher language skills for the toddlers at all socioeconomic levels, and with higher socioemotional skills among children living in families with lower incomes.
Why? Because a child’s brain will never be more receptive to experience, more plastic, than it is during the first three years. Nearly 85 percent of brain growth occurs between birth and age 3, when 1 million neural connections per second are forming. And the two things children need to optimize that growth? Nurturing interaction with caregivers and protection from toxic stress. Frequent, rich, serve-and-return interactions — singing, narrating your day, responding to babies’ babbling, eye contact — are all critical for brain development and social development. We have a huge body of research proving as much. We just need the political will to take what we know and align it with our policies and norms.
What are some key ways parents can fight for better policies and care? What can we do, individually, to help build a better collective social safety net for all of our children?
Part of the reason we’re stuck with policies and norms that work against families, I believe, is that elected officials don’t feel accountable to parents. As sociologist Jess Calarco brilliantly stated, “other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women." This is has to change. We don’t speak with a collective voice, and, again, we’ve been sold that American myth of rugged individualism for so long that we rarely even think to ask for more, let alone demand it. I would love to see parents galvanize — across income brackets, across political lines, across demographics, in spite of all the usual labels that are used to pit us against one another — and form a parents lobby. Just as the AARP dramatically improved the quality of life for elderly Americans, we can do something similar for our youngest citizens, by first helping their parents. Like the elderly once were, parents of the young are today in many ways invisible, isolated, marginalized and struggling. In fact, the poorest segment of the population today is no longer the elderly, but children under 5. A parents’ lobby has the potential to dramatically improve life for millions of families with young children, to demand the support that is needed to finally allow parents to meet the developmental needs of their children, to safeguard their own well-being and to build a system of support that doesn’t rely on serendipity and good fortune.
Such a group would do well to focus on paid family leave, which is supported by 84% of all voters, and an expanded child tax credit. Even though it has a lower level of overall support, the expanded child tax credit reached more than 36 million families and more than 61 million children, including 3.7 million children who were lifted out of poverty. And it’s a policy that enjoys almost the same level of support as Medicare immediately before its adoption.
On a smaller, more immediate scale? I’d love to see parents vote with an eye toward candidates and policies that provide more robust supports for all parents and children. I’d love to see parents weigh in on policy debates — in letters to the editor, on podcasts, anywhere they can make their voices heard and remind the public about the important labor they’re doing. I’d love to see parents band together in their workplaces and communities and talk to each other about their needs and hopes and fears. We’ve actually created an entire curriculum that’s free and downloadable on ParentNation.org for people to start Parent Villages — small groups who come together to create community and push for change. That change could be working to get a lactation room at work, or a childcare center built near public transportation, or any number of things. As with everything we’re hoping to do with Parent Nation, it’s not prescriptive. It’s parent-led.
There’s also a huge economic case to be made for better supporting parents. As I write in Parent Nation, economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago has calculated that investments in programs supporting children from birth to age five (even programs that are very expensive in the short term) deliver a 13 percent annual return to society through better education, health, social, and economic outcomes well into the adulthood of the children served. A failure to invest, on the other hand, means society ends up losing money because, without the preemptive protection of strong early childhood development, it must ultimately spend more on such things as health care, remedial education, and the criminal justice system.
In short: If we don’t invest in children from the earliest days of their lives, we — and they — do not just lose out on reaping the rewards of that investment, we pay a severe penalty for our failure. A much-cited report by ReadyNation found that the overall cost to society of childcare issues is $57 billion a year and that the direct cost to employers is $12.7 billion. It has also been estimated that if American women stayed in the workforce at a rate similar to Norway’s, which has government-subsidized childcare, the United States could add $1.6 trillion to the GDP.
Parents cannot work if there is no one to care for their children. COVID taught us this with painful clarity, and now we sit at a crossroads. My fondest hope is that we take the research, the lived experiences, the pain and loss — and also the resourcefulness and ingenuity — of the last two years and use it all to create a society that truly places parents and families at its center.
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