Early Childhood Development: The Most Important Issue of Our Time and Why
An excerpt from the book, Machete Moments, by Doug Otto
You may think it presumptuous of me that, of all the work we have to do and problems we have to solve, I would anoint any one item as “the most important.” Yet after seventy-plus years of observing the world we live in, including the last seventeen dealing with social issues, I am so certain that I am willing to put myself out there. What do you think? Is it the national defense? No—we spend way too much on that already. Is it education? No—that is step two of my issue. Is it climate change? No—although that is high on my list, and if it as serious as some believe, it will trump everything else. Is it homelessness? Hunger? The environment? Unemployment? Equal treatment and acceptance of all people? Terrorism? The growing gap between the haves and have-nots? The growing prison population? Oil? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no, although every one of those problems requires a huge amount of our attention as soon as possible.
I contend that the number one issue that we need to address with all the vigor and all the resources at our disposal is early child development. On the surface, this seems minor compared to the other possibilities listed. Here is my reasoning. There is indisputable evidence that human brains are 80-90% developed by age three. The necessary wiring is connected in those first three years, and if it doesn’t happen by then, the child’s potential is greatly reduced. The opportunity is lost; those connections will not happen later in life. By age five, values are formed. Those will be the basis for the child’s entire life. It will be determined if he will be honest or devious, industrious or lazy, ethical or deceitful, trusting or defensive, generous or selfish, and all the other characteristics that are relevant to one’s makeup. Once the values are ingrained in an individual, it is highly unlikely that she will ever change to any great degree.
To make the case, let me proffer an analogy that goes to back to the beginning of my manufacturing career. At Reliance Electric, our primary raw materials were large iron castings, which we machined to specifications. They were used as housings for our products. The quality control procedure in 1980 was to machine, let’s say, 300 of castings in a run. When the run was completed, an inspector, was called in to measure them against specified tolerances and pass judgment as to whether they were acceptable for use. There were three possible results of that inspection. (1) They met specifications and could go to the assembly line. (2) They varied hopelessly from specifications, and they went to the scrap heap. (3) They were close but not quite to specifications. In this instance, they were sentenced to a purgatory we called rework, from which some more machining and labor might save them for use. However, the additional labor cost us any profit that might have been attainable if those castings had been machined correctly in the first place.
In the late seventies and early eighties, American manufacturing began to embrace a quality control called statistical process control. This procedure called for the machine operator to measure every tenth casting to ensure that it met prescribed tolerances. If the measurement was drifting toward the edge of a given tolerance, he adjusted the machine to bring it back to the middle of the tolerance range. In effect, he measured to predict if he would later produce an unacceptable product. If so, he prevented the making of a reject by adjusting the setup. A little later, we learned that if we went into the foundry of our supplier and imposed some production standards on it, we would prevent the receipt of out-of-tolerance raw castings.
Statistical process control is still used today. It has been enhanced by some other more sophisticated procedures to ensure quality. Together they lead to earning an ISO certification, which is almost universally demanded of suppliers in the twenty-first century.
So what’s the point? In life, our raw materials are infants. The processes to make them a useful product are pre-natal care, parenting, child care, a wholesome and healthy environment, diet, exercise, and various programs that are a positive influence on their development.
Yet, we continue to produce scrap and rework. Children who are raised from birth within the prescribed tolerances usually turn out to be pretty good citizens. They get an education, hold a job, become good parents, and are assets to their community. Those who are raised carelessly are often not ready for kindergarten when the time comes. From there, it’s a downward spiral. They aren’t equal to the other kids intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Being behind, they become disenchanted with school and often rebel in various ways. This frequently leads to dropping out, unemployment, welfare, trouble with the law, poverty, and on and on. Then they continue the cycle with children of their own.
Are you not yet in agreement with me that this is the single most urgent issue of the day? Those children comprise the generation that might solve some of the other problems I listed. We need to equip today’s two-year-olds to be ready to do a better job than we have done. In my opinion, that doesn’t set a very high bar. We’ve worked on these problems for decades with no solutions. We manage the problems as best we can, but we don’t solve them. Until we cut off the pipeline of people becoming scrap and rework, we will perpetuate the cycle. That is not debatable. The big barrier is that the solution will be horribly expensive. We have to run parallel programs for twenty years while we clear the pipeline of those children we have already mishandled.
We have become a society of short-term thinkers. We are not willing to invest in a product or process that won’t pay off for several years. Instead, we put Band-Aids on our existing products, or we make cheap, inferior new products that will break as soon as the warranty expires. That is a practice that leads to mediocrity, which is where we are today.
It is essential that we build a child care system for working parents that is high quality and taught by professionals educated in child care. We also have to make it affordable to all parents. Child care is a common ground where values can be taught.
There are two other traits that are not exactly values. Yet, they are as important as any values we can imagine. Those are intellectual curiosity and hope. We want our children to be insatiable in their thirst for knowledge. And a child without hope is a child lost.
All of these characteristics need to be modeled rather than preached. Many parents don’t model any of these traits, because they neither possess nor value them themselves. When that is the case, it has to be done outside the home. Child care is the most likely influence to make a difference. Kindergarten and first grade are too late.
We also have to build an enormous parent education network for those parents who are willing to admit that they shouldn’t necessarily raise their children as they were raised and are open to learning better methods. By the way, bad parenting crosses all socio-economic lines.
These are not the only actions necessary to turn the ship around, but they will do for a start. I only know that we need to address early child development in a big way, or the results of our education system will continue to decline at an accelerated rate, and proliferation of drop-outs, poverty, crime, and our prison population will continue.
The cost will be in the billions every year. Where would the money come from? The only possible answer is tax dollars. You can’t pass the hat among individual and corporations and expect to reap an amount necessary to make a difference. The financing of the solutions has to be mandated. Money could be made available from a major tax increase or from a redeployment of existing dollars. I suggest reducing the bloated defense budget and reallocating the money gleaned from that.
Doug Otto spent a 34-year career as a turnaround and crisis manager in both manufacturing and nonprofit organizations. Before his retirement in 2012, he spent the last 17 years as president of United Way of Bartholomew County IN.
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