Dr. Neal Halfon

Child Rearing in America

VTR Date: May 22, 2003

Pediatrics professor Neal Halfon examines America's developing patterns of child raising.


GUEST: Dr. Neal Halfon
VTR: 5/22/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it isn’t only because I’ve just become a grandfather again, this time of tiny, delicate Sophia, rather than all those boy bruisers … it is not for this reason alone that our topic today is child rearing in America, the title of an important new Cambridge University Press volume edited, among others, by my guest today, Professor of Pediatrics, Dr. Neal Halfon, Director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.

Now the reason for us to examine American’s developing patterns of child raising is, to be sure, much more cosmic. As to do, as Dr. Halfon and his colleagues point out with our transforming view of childhood from something we merely grow out of, into something we carry with us for the rest of our lives. Something more difficult to transcend than we once thought. More fundamental to whom each person becomes than has previously been appreciated.

Indeed, they best sum up the public policy reasons this nation must come to appreciate, the challenges facing parents with young children, by pointing out that “the experience of parenting young children offers a common ground on which to re-found a new kind of civic society. Predicated on a recognition that disparities are fewer at the beginning of life and only multiple with time and neglect. Early childhood is a time of relative equality, the greatest equality our society knows. In the most basic sense put forth in the Bill of Rights, all men are created equal. No where is the equality of persons more true than in the hospital nursery despite the subtle influences of the prenatal environment. Realizing the political and ethical imperative of creating a more equal society should, by rights, begin at the time when equality is closest to being literally true and build forward from that foundation. Concluding,” they write, “addressing the needs of families with young children is the lever to make sure that the relative equality with which life begins is not squandered through neglect and inadequate knowledge and support.”

And Dr. Halfon and his colleagues also note that this ethical and moral imperative has a practical side as well, and I want to begin today by asking my guest to explain that point. What is this “practical” side?

HALFON: Well, the practical side has to do with the fact that we have many parents in the United States that are rearing children under conditions that are less than optimum. Many of them don’t have the resources that they need actually to do right by their children. These include even basic resources. In the study that we did we asked parents whether or not they had funds to supply their children with diapers, food, basic necessities. And there are a significant proportion of families with young children that don’t have those kinds of even basic resources.

Further, what the, what the study found was that the demands on parents really cut across all social strata. There are time demands, resource demands and with more parents … two parent families …both parents working … the kind of time constraints the parents are feeling, especially during those early years of life, are rather significant and lead to, you know, frustration and feelings that they’re not doing all that they could be doing for their children.

HEFFNER: So you’re not talking only about those in poverty.

HALFON: Oh, no. And I think that that’s one of the important, you know, lessons of both the study and what we’re finding about young children … that all parents are … have significant demands on them. And that, and that cuts across all social economic classes. Now, clearly parents with greater means have the ability to buy resources, buy child care, buy various kinds of supports. And clearly there’s been a cottage industry that’s grown up, as you could walk into any, sort of, shopping mall in the United States at present. The First Start, Best Start, various kinds of baby store that have sprouted up with all kinds of gadgets and books and everything else, you know, is one way that we’re responding to the need of some parents to buy various things to support the development of children.

But clearly across all social groups, the, the kinds of demands are the same, just some have more funds and more resources in order to, you know, supply that.

HEFFNER: Do I understand correctly …there was a very interesting … in the book … it seemed to me, and that was that parents with greater resources sometimes also … and greater education … higher educational level, sometimes are at the peculiar disadvantage of expecting more, thinking that they can handle …

HALFON: Right.

HEFFNER: … the situation better.

HALFON: Well, and also they tend … seem to have a little bit more anxiety also.


HALFON: Well, I think that they have certain kinds of expectations about what, what they should be doing and the kind of trajectory that their children should be achieving. And whether that has to do with more of them taking the Psych 101 classes or, or the like … they have certain kinds of expectations and they realizing that it’s, you know, difficult often times to meet those expectations. And, and again, those kinds of expectations are, are permeating throughout our society now and I, I believe, you know, the kind of demands that are placed on parents, again cross all social classes. Probably, you know, you’re starting to see that … the same kind of feelings I think, sort of permeating through, you know, even those who were previously less educated and less sophisticated maybe about the sort of early childhood development, psychological development as well.

HEFFNER: Different than when “Hector was a pup?” or I was first a father?

HALFON: Ahhh … yeah. I think that our perceptions about childhood and what we understand about childhood has changed. I think over the last ten or 15 years, the brain science revolution that’s taken place has really focused attention on what the role of early experience is in, in childhood. You know, front page articles in Time and Newsweek and a number of television show series that have really pointed out not only what’s going on in the first years of life, not the first three years of life, but the, you know, the first five, eight years of life of brain development. Really sort of points out how important early experiences are and, in a sense, raises the bar, I think, I think the parents are understanding that there’s more at stake during that time period than what was thought before.

And, and, you know, unfortunately our society isn’t responding yet to what we’ve learned about brain development.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

HALFON: Well, if one was to sort of look at, you know, a curve that showed our … the plasticity of the brain decreasing over time, and unfortunately the plasticity of your or my brain is a lot less than the plasticity of a, of a two year old or a three year old. But if we were to plot that against out societal investment in human capital, what we see is that, you know, the least amount of social investment into human beings happens in the first five years of life, where the maximum amount of brain development is taking place. In fact, on average about … for every child under age five it’s about $1,500 of public spending goes into those individuals before age five. At five on, because of public education it goes up to about $6,000 or $7,000 per, per individual. But there’s a little bit of a mismatch between sort of where the maximum plasticity is and where we’re putting money in.

And if we follow that on up, actually as people get older they’re getting relatively more investment in their lives. You cost of life course. So that it’s actually the elderly that are getting much more public investment than, you know, children at the beginning of the life course.

HEFFNER: When you talk about maximum plasticity, you’re talking about greatest opportunity.

HALFON: Right. It translates into greatest opportunity … in terms of being able to have some impact. It’s not that things are set and pre-determined in some way, but it’s a whole lot easier to get it right the first time and, and to raise children in environments that actually support and nurture optimum development than to have to have second chance programs and catch ups and interventions that are, you know, basically meant to correct things that didn’t get right the first time.

HEFFNER: Than that which makes things more difficult for parents with young children, and that is the anticipation of what they have in their hands … they know that they have a huge responsibility …

HALFON: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: … is in a sense, fostered, increased by the very things that you’re saying.

HALFON: Right. And I, and I think that, you know, that they understand increasingly that they have a huge responsibility, that creates a certain amount of anxiety about, you know, am I going to get it right? And, fortunately, within our society we don’t necessarily have the kinds of social organizations that bring young parents together in mutually supportive environments. Many people are raising their children quite isolated. Isolated from family, isolated from other, other parents.

Now, again, I know … one of the interesting things in our book was that when one looks at parents taking child rearing classes or, you know, it’s common for mothers in pregnancy to take a, a baby class. It turns out that most upper … middle income and upper income women take those classes, and in fact, many of them, during those time periods make friends with other mothers that are having babies at the same time and often times those relationships continue.

So that the nature of child-bearing, while individual and family focused becomes a little bit more a group phenomena, so that women having babies at the same time can provide sort of mutual support for each other. Well, it was very interesting that even though middle class and upper class women are all taking these baby classes or child rearing classes, often times with their, with their husbands … you know, those kinds of classes aren’t universally available to individuals with lower … from lower socio-economic groups.

And, you know, so it raises one issue … if in fact that kind of class or that kind educational opportunity is available to the middle and upper class, should it be more available to others? Not only because of the knowledge it imparts, but also because of the kinds of relationships that it develops between, you know, mothers of a, you know, similar age cohort so that they can provide the kind of mutual support.

HEFFNER: Now at the very beginning of this program I asked you about the practical aspect of this and I thought that you would emphasis what society itself loses in dollars …

HALFON: Okay, well I can …

HEFFNER: … and cents …

HALFON: I didn’t quite understand what you meant by that. And I think that, you know, what we emphasized in there were not only the, the ethical imperatives that, you know, I think as a society understanding what’s at stake and what we do when we don’t care of our children in a way that optimizes their development.

HEFFNER: The right thing.

HALFON: Right. The right thing. But there are also economic and social imperatives that come from them. And I think the, if the practical is the economic … I mean there’s several ways to think about this. If I was sitting across from someone who is an investment banker or someone in the finance world I think one of the things that people who deal with long-term finance issues and thinking about the economic vitality of our country understand that for our country to continue to prosper it has to maintain some level of growth in its income and economy.

Right now our population is not even at a replacement level. So the population is not going to grow. We also know that as opposed to in 1935 when Social Security was passed, when there were some 16 or so workers for every retiree, we now have two or three workers for every retiree. If, in fact, some portion of our children aren’t reaching the level that they could, if in fact we have ten, 15, 20 percent of children that basically fail throughout their lives for one reason or another, we end up having a huge economic impact in terms of lost productivity and also greater dependency so that we have more drag on the economy and more drag on our social services, and we don’t have the, the kind of productivity that we can have.

That’s not to place all this about, you know, that the only reason we should be focusing on young children and paying attention to, you know, both our investments early in life and the kind of child rearing practices that are taking place solely because of the productivity they’re going to engender, but it is an important practical consideration.

It’s also a practical consideration when we start to think about issues of educational attainment and achievement. Our major pressing domestic policy issue in the, in the United States, in the last election was over issues of education. What we understand at present, when one looks at educational achievement … graduation rates, test score differences at 11th and 12th grade, longitudinal studies are now showing that educational achievement is determined to some extent on, not only what happens during the school years but also what happens prior to school. In fact about 50% of the variance in test score differences at 11th grade are attributable to what happens prior to children getting to school.

HEFFNER: Do we know that?

HALFON: Oh, yes, absolutely, this comes from longitudinal studies that have been done … my colleague at UCLA Meredith Phillips and Christopher Jenks (CHECK SPELLING ON BOTH) at Harvard have done the, have done these studies. Moreover … and I think one really interesting study to me about issues of education … not only do we know that a certain amount of that educational potential is actually formed prior to school, prior to age 5, but a really interesting study was done by Deborah Styptic(CHECK SPELLING) who is the Dean of the Stanford Education School. What she did was, she looked at children coming into a university lab school and in that university lab school they took children from all over the city and it was a random sample so that it represented the entire population … rich and poor … across all ethnic and racial groups. What she showed was that children starting school in kindergarten, the kids that came from the low SES groups versus those from the high SES groups started school a year behind …


HALFON: …low social economic groups … sorry about that … started school about one year behind so that they were, they had a 20% deficit when they started school. Six years later when they were graduating from sixth grade, they were still one year behind. And that was in a school in which they were provided everything that possibly could be provided with … with all the extra curricular activities.

And so what that also shows is that children bring deficits to school and in the best educational situation, those deficits can’t necessarily be overcome on a population basis. On individual children you’re going to see differences, but the population base of that group of kids.

And to me what that says is that … and what we would realize is that those children would go to inner city schools with really poor, you know, environments. They would have continued to, you know, sort of fall off the curve. And we would have much greater deficits. But even in the best educational environments.

So it raises real issues about what’s happening, you know, prior to kids getting to school. There’s also research that shows when one looks at the language environments of young children and one looks at children in a very rich language environment where there’s lots of reading and talking and singling and such, versus those in a poor language environment. By age 26 months, the child in the poor language environment might have a 160 words, whereas a child in a rich language environment at 26 months might have 800 words. Three to four fold more vocabulary. We know that that translates also. And so, you know, the trajectory is where the, you know, the pathways from early childhood into, you know, school and education and then throughout life, are starting to become … the research is starting to connect the dots so that we short of see this connection between all of this.

HEFFNER: Okay, the good thing … the moral thing, and the practical thing. They come together here.

HALFON: Right.

HEFFNER: How successful are you and your colleagues these days in convincing those who do have control over public policy?

HALFON: Well it’s interesting that there are a number of very important early childhood initiatives that are going on throughout the United States. And, so that you see in North Carolina, Kentucky, California, major state-wide early childhood initiatives. In California, which I’m most familiar with there is a initiative called “California First Five”, it was something that was actually championed by the movie producer and director Rob Reiner. He put on to the California ballot a state initiative that now uses a 50% sales tax on cigarettes and raises about $700 million dollars a year in new dollars for children in California.

It’s focused … the lion’s share of those funds, those $700 million dollars are focused on children zero to five and creating the kinds of education, health, parenting, family support infrastructure that is necessary, in a sense, to build a bridge from birth to school. And in California now there’s 58 counties in 58 new public/private commissions “First Five” commissions in which these Commissions are, in a sense, formed and forming a public outcomes trust for young children. And they’re helping to fund childcare and health care and early childhood services.

And we’re starting to see similar kinds of programs in other states. What’s interesting is …what we found almost by happenstance last year or two years ago, that the country of England, the country of Canada and the country of Australia have all launched almost identical programs to “First Five” California. In England it’s called “Sure Start”, it’s part of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s major initiative on advancing the early childhood development in terms of a social policy of ending childhood poverty over 20 years.

HEFFNER: All English speaking countries. How do you explain that?

HALFON: Well, part of it … it’s interesting, the English speaking countries … all have similar social welfare traditions. They all had adopted the …come from the Elizabethan poor laws that treated children in an … in a sense social welfare in a particular way. And …

HEFFNER: What was that way? It wasn’t very positive.

HALFON: No, no it wasn’t. And part of it was the kind of poor relief that was provided in almshouses and other kinds of …

HEFFNER: These were small adults …

HALFON: Right.

HEFFNER: … and didn’t have to be treated differently.

HALFON: That’s right. That’s right. And with the recognizing there’s a major transformation going on. Rather one of sort of an exclusion in giving of welfare. Many of the countries now are understanding that, you know, in order to promotion social inclusion we need to create the kinds of infrastructure that allows for, for all to succeed. And it’s not just the economic infrastructure, it’s the social infrastructure … social capital that needs to be there.

In England what’s interesting is that the Sure Start program in England which will be in 400 communities throughout England this year, is really a community based neighborhood building, community based program. And they’re using this almost identical amount of money per year that California is using.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, over all the years that this program has been on the air I’ve had the occasion to, to say a number of times …but we consider ourselves a child-oriented nation. That’s not so true, is it?

HALFON: Ah, I think … I don’t think that, you know, if you went around the United States today and asked people, you know, “are children getting a good deal here?”, I think that it would be somewhat equivocal. I don’t think children get the kind of deal that they could have and should have at present. And compared to many other countries we’re not doing all that we can and should be doing.

I think that there’s a movement afoot in the United States to move this process forward. And what’s interesting is, often times in our history, what we’ve seen is for children’s policy to be created nationally it often times has to start at the state level. We saw that with child abuse laws, they were all state laws and then we had national child abuse laws.

We saw that with the forerunner of the AFDC program, they actually started as state programs in 1913, 1914 and 1935 it was made into AFDC …


HALFON: Right. Aid for Dependent Children … families and dependent children. It was the Widow’s Pension program basically that was created. So that we have a historical tradition as starting at the states, as the, sort of engines of innovation and then bringing it to the national level.

I would only hope that over the next several years that, you know, the notion of “leave no child behind”, that the President has put forward in terms of his educational agenda, actually extends more broadly throughout the child span starting at birth and on. And also is more deeper in terms of understanding what it really takes to achieve educational success. Really, you have to have the health and family support and other kinds of things that you need.

What our book clearly shows and what, you know, is that what we know from the brain research is that children that are borne into families in an adverse situation and children that are raised in situations where moms are depressed, that they have certain kinds of emotional and learning problems.

HEFFNER: Dr. Halfon it’s that point at which our time is up. And it becomes clearer and clearer that we are leaving lots of children behind.


HEFFNER: And I want to thank you for making the points you do today.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.