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Our View: Positive moments with kids beats politics of childrearing

Just before the school year begins, we notice how our students have changed over the summer. Whether they are 4 inches taller or moodier or chattier or hanging with a new crowd, open to other interests. We see their growth into who they are becoming.

Also this time of year, we get caught up in more sweeping conversations about upcoming school board elections and districts’ directions and measurable scores of achievement.

Politics of education.

These larger seeming concerns often eclipse where the better part of our influence can and should be – right on our schoolchildren and how they’re feeling about their lives. It’s basic but common to get pulled away and distracted.

This came up after a recent guest column in The Washington Post by Perri Klass, a medical doctor, and professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University. Klass pointed to data from the relatively new science of positive childhood experiences, which have reframed how researchers see the development of kiddos, and the real power and impact parents and caregivers have, even if circumstances aren’t the best. A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in 2019 examined the encouraging effects of PCEs.

Small moments – reading, being silly, playing games, the “windshield time” of listening to kids while driving – hugely affect nervous systems in the developing child by reinforcing their sense of worth and identity. All easy and doable, these moments are invaluable. In the scheme of what’s best for our schoolchildren, this is much more compelling – and enjoyable – than who lands seats on school boards. Sure, we want solid candidates to run, but lately the politics of childrearing have too often dominated conversations. The science of what’s proven to work is what really matters.

In 2019, this news of PCEs was groundbreaking. The risk of depression or mental health struggles fell by 72% among adults who reported positive experiences from six or seven PCE categories, and by 50% for three to five.

Previously, the pediatric world had been focused on adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, which disrupt emotional development and the forming of relationships. Social factors and neurobiology drew causal connections, and how young bodies and minds were affected. ACEs measured well-being into adulthood.

Eating meals together, singing, telling stories and going on family outings can mitigate and overcome ACEs, according to separate results from a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2019. Evidence since supports these results and gives context, showing that struggling families nurture their children, too. It wasn’t the bad in children’s lives that was the problem, as much as the absence of the good.

In practice, a little joy with kids goes a long way. We don’t have to be perfect parents – instructions didn’t come with our children either. Despite obstacles out of our control, they can still grow and shine. They can calm themselves, become resilient and ask for help.

That’s nice to remember as we drop off kids at school or wave goodbye as they head to the bus stop. In making moments lighthearted, we invest in their future good health. More sunshine, fewer shadows.

Looking ahead to higher education and post affirmative action, we hope more doors will be thrown open to students of diverse backgrounds, to include those from rough upbringings. Science proves with PCEs, success is on their side.

Here’s to the start of a fantastic school year. Don’t forget to have fun.