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The Link between Child and Parent Development

One reason many infants lack quality care is because their parents do not realize that development at this stage can have a great influence on future growth. Follow-up studies of early childhood intervention programs confirm that education focusing on both parent and child, rather than on one person offers the greatest long-term gains. Consider some examples.

In New Haven, Connecticut, low-income single parents were involved in an experiment from the time of their child's birth until 30 months of age. Besides access to pediatric assistance and daycare, mothers were visited at home regularly by a social worker who kept them aware of behaviors to expect of babies, demonstrated ways to teach through play, observed the mothers interact with their infant, and provided encouragement. Ten years later it was found that these mothers were more sensitive to their elementary age children's needs and more interactive than mothers who did not participate. At school the children's teachers rated them as better adjusted, less likely to need remedial help and missing fewer days of class than peers with similar backgrounds. (Seltz, Rosenbaum & Apfel, 1985; Grant, 1998).

Low income Mexican-American parents in Houston, Texas, participated in an enrichment program with their 1 to 3 year old children. A home educator visited the family twice a week. The emphasis was on recognizing abilities and needs of the youngsters, demonstrating satisfying ways to teach them, and encouraging parents to perceive themselves as the most important educators. Weekend sessions focused on communication, decisionmaking, and shared responsibility for child development.

For the second year of the program children attended day-care while their mothers met to discuss topics on parenting.

When this project ended the mothers were observed as providing a more affectionate, interactive, and stimulating environment for their children than mothers in a control group who did not receive training. These differences were confirmed by higher IQ scores for participating children at age 3. Factors of personality were implicated too. By age 7 the participating children were more constructive, optimistic, and sensitive to the needs of others than were their non-participating peers. Ratings by teachers in grades 2-4 indicated that the results were lasting (Johnson & Walker 1987).

There are also large scale initiatives underway throughout the country. For example, The Minnesota Early Childhood Family Education program recognizes the value of talking with other parents who have experienced the same anxieties, fears, and concerns in raising children through 5 years of age. In this support group people with newborns meet with parents whose children are a few months older. The more experienced mothers and fathers easily recall the problems they faced at the same stage of their child's development. Sharing among the parents is reassuring and augmented by instruction about what behaviors to expect at different ages as well as ways to meet children's needs. Graduates agree to serve as mentors for others who follow after them. This program is offered by 400 school districts throughout the state and annually reaches over 95 percent of families with young children. Parents, teachers, and community leaders credit the curriculum with enabling families to prepare children to do well in school (Engstrom, 1995).

Missouri became the first state (1984) to mandate access to parent education in every school district for families with children under the age of 3. The 'Parents as Teachers' program intends to provide parents with information and guidance to assist their child's physical, social, and intellectual development, reduce stresses, enhance the pleasures of parenting, and minimize long range needs for expensive remediation and special education services. This program involving over 100,000 families a year has been adopted by 35 other states to help parents prepare their children for success in school and the community (Winter, 1999).

Some programs focus on families of 3 to 5 year olds. One of the most popular is the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, referred to as HIPPY. This approach originated in Israel (1969) and has been operating in the United States since 1984. The target population is parents who have little formal education. What they may not know about child learning is compensated for by reliance on a highly structured and practical curriculum of activities which help children learn basic concepts of language and mathematics. Visiting paraprofessionals, who are themselves parents and natives of the same community, visit every two weeks to demonstrate teaching methods, observe instruction, and provide feedback to the parents. This program is available in 17 states serving more than 10,000 families. Those who advocate this approach point to a greater than average child success record at school (Lombard, 1999).

Healthy Start, a program funded by the state of Hawaii since 1985, begins when a case worker interviews parents of newborns in the hospital shortly after their child is born. The first goal is to identify parents at risk of abusing their children: drug takers, alcoholics, teen mothers, welfare recipients, or people who have been abused themselves as children or by their spouses. Parents detected as in the high risk category are offered, at no cost, the services of a home visitor. These home visitors are usually high school graduates who grew up in stable environments. They may serve as a family advisor for up to five years. No parent is obligated to enroll in the program but very few refuse the resource. The role of the home visitor is to be an all purpose advocate for the family. They show parents how to feed and nurture their infant, ensure that children receive regular medical checkups and shots. In some cases they assist parents in finding employment or housing. Results have been remarkable. Studies in other states have shown that, without intervention, 20 percent of high risk parents can be expected to mistreat their children. Healthy Start has reduced this proportion to less than 1% in Hawaii. It is estimated that the amount spent per year on Healthy Start is a third of what the state would otherwise spend on post abuse protective custody and foster care. This strategy could also have a salutary effect on crime. A study of first time juvenile offenders in Colorado concluded that 84 % had been abused before the age of 6. It seems that child abuse is the root of many problems in society. The Healthy Start approach to infant development has been adopted by 20 states (Bond, 1998).

Head Start is the oldest (1965) and largest federal program for families of young children. The curriculum for 4 year olds from low-income homes aims to provide them with a comparable level of knowledge and skills as students from more affluent households. Recently a much needed component was added to help parents improve their influence as teachers. (Health and Human Services, 1998). Linked with Head Start is a less well known service called Even Start. The goal of this federal project is to increase the literacy rate among immigrant parents so they can be a better resource for their children. Many of the Even Start programs administer the Parent as a Teacher Inventory in Spanish. This instrument, developed by the author, identifies the learning needs of parents with 3 to 5 year old children and measures the outcomes of instruction provided for the adults (Strom, 1995).

An important change is gradually taking place in our thinking about young children. Throughout the compensatory education era, from 1965-1995, there was a tendency to characterize families as either deprived or advantaged. When these terms first became popular they were used to distinguish between low and middle income homes. Today we take a more balanced view of what is required to be a successful parent. It now seems that teaching parenting skills, which people of every income group need to learn, is the best way to eliminate deprivation in the lives of all children. Further, behavior of parents matters more than their income.


Bond, L. (1998) Healthy Start America. Chicago, IL: National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
Engstrom, L. (1998) Guide for parent development. St. Paul, MN: Early Childhood Family Education Program.
Grant, J. (1998). Raising baby by the book: The education of American mothers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Johnson, D. & Walker, T. (1987). Primary prevention of behavior problems in Mexican-American children. Journal of Community Psychology, 15, 375-385.
Lombard, A. (1999). Home instruction for preschool youngsters. Jerusalem, Israel Research Institute for Innovation in Education. The Hebrew University.
Seltz, V., Rosenbaum, L. & Apfel, N. (1985). Effects of family support intervention. Child Development, 56, 376-391.
Strom, R.(1995). Parent As A Teacher Inventory. Chicago, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.
Strom, R. & Strom, S. (1998). Parent Success Indicator. Chicago, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.
Winter, M. (1999). Education and school readiness: Home based education. St. Louis, MO: Parents as Teachers State Program.

* This brief report was prepared for California Senator John Vasconcellos in support of Senate Bill 305, Parenting Education.

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