By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. What are your thoughts on preschool? Are very young children better off constantly interacting with a dedicated adult parent to stimulate their brain growth, or is there a benefit to socializing them with their peers at an early age? What’s the optimum balance of this for raising an intelligent yet independent and socially adept child?

A. How fortunate you are if you have a choice! And yet what a sense of responsibility!
Most parents in the United States today have no choice, and must work in order to be able to provide for their families. Because of the decline in real wages over the past decade, most single and two-parent families need all adults to bring in paychecks. While quality child care is hard to find and harder to pay for, it may be harder still to do without a parent’s salary. Some families find, though, that with two or more children under age 4, there’s no choice but for a parent to stay home. For others, friends and relatives are the only solution.

Early Head Start (for infants and children to age 3) and Head Start have been the salvation of many families, although for decades there have been no openings for the vast majority of eligible families. Finally new funding is on its way to make room for more children in these high-quality and proven programs.

To our knowledge, there are no actual studies that compare the brain development of children in preschool to children who spend their days at home with a dedicated adult parent. Such a study would be difficult to conduct both because the specific experiences in individual homes and preschools can vary so much and because there are so many other variables that influence brain development, including pregnancy, health, nutrition, air and water quality, and genetics.

What we do know is that high-quality early childhood education has been proven to save up to $17 for every dollar it costs because it leads to better academic success, fewer special education expenditures, greater chances for employment and productivity, and less risk of ending up in jail.

Quality criteria include a low child-teacher ratio, a high level of formal training in child development and education for teachers, positive relationships between teachers and parents, and meaningful parent involvement.

There is no evidence that such high-quality experiences can’t also be provided by dedicated and caring parents for children at home. Positive learning and growing may occur in either setting.

Since most parents don’t have a choice, and are either at home or at work because they must be, we’d hate to make them feel guilty about either option. What matters most is the quality of the child’s experience. Whether the child is at home or at preschool, parents and children need enough time together to continue to grow closer and to deepen their understanding and appreciation of one another. And children at home will still need abundant opportunities to be with peers to learn from them, with them and through their interactions.

Parents may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility that the “new brain science” may seem to impose on them to stimulate their children’s brain development – quick, in a hurry – before it is too late. The reality is that while the human brain never grows and develops more rapidly and dramatically than in the first three years of life, children’s most important learning experience will not come from videos or computer programs but from interactions with those who care about them most – parents, teachers, siblings and peers.

Parents are children’s first and most important teachers not because they teach the alphabet, shapes and colors but because they encourage and motivate children’s curiosity and enthusiasm to learn. Parents help children to take in as much as they can learn from their environment by gently buffering them from more stimulation than they can handle. Early on, children teach their parents how to read their cues so that together they can work toward this balance.

The foundations for learning are laid down before kindergarten in the context of children’s interactions with adults and with each other. We have known for decades that the key to school readiness and becoming a lifelong learner lies in the early experiences that help develop important qualities such as persistence, perseverance, curiosity, the capacity to tolerate frustration and the self-esteem to keep on trying even after making a mistake.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.