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Volume 15, Issue 19 ~ May 10 - May 16, 2007

When Mothering Matters Most

One mother’s crusade to help Anne Arundel’s youngest citizens

by Carrie Madren

If there’s a child in your life — in your present or future — Jane Andrew is talking to you.

Tonight, over crabcakes at Edgewater Restaurant, she’s hoping to persuade me — a 27-year-old reporter with a year-old niece and motherhood in my future — to bring you her message. The stakes are so high that she’s buying me dinner. The stakes are humanity’s future.

Forget fancy black-and-white-patterned crib toys, Baby Einstein CDs, padded mirrors and cuddly plush animals, she tells me. The best toy for a new baby is a napkin, preferably cloth.

The one early-childhood advocate Jane Andrew uses to demonstrate is paper, but she proves her point. A napkin is good for peekaboo, for teaching a baby to anticipate that a face comes back into sight once hidden and how to make positive engagement with another person. A napkin becomes a simple learning tool that gives a developing brain the interaction and personal attention it needs to grow.

“My soapbox has been the same thing since 1985: If it matters before kids are three, someone needs to tell the parents” — that reading early boosts children’s ability to learn for the rest of their lives, Andrew says. All those years ago, as a member of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, the light bulb snapped on. She saw missed opportunity slipping away, never to be recaptured. When parents don’t read to young children, then the child is less likely to do well in kindergarten — on through high school.

“One day it just hit me,” says Andrew, who made it her mission to get her urgent Mother’s Day message in print. If parents knew to read to and to nurture their children before age three, students would have better success in school. They’d be less likely to fall behind or to drop out at 14 or 15.

It’s a message, she says, that can better children’s — and future adults’ — lives. The solution is simple. The problem is that parents don’t understand how early reading and play feed babies’ minds.

“What makes the difference for ultimate school success is what the parents do with the kids before they’re three years old,” the missionary preaches. “Why aren’t we telling people that?”

She’d tell these families herself, if only she could get to them.

“We don’t have access to parents,” she says. “We don’t even know who they are.”

Andrew and her granddaughter.

Like Parent, Like Child

“The most valuable thing parents can give a child is their own time — plus a sense of what their values are,” says Andrew, who is the parent of six children, three from a first marriage, two stepchildren and another child born to her second marriage.

Before she understood how critical the first three years were, Andrew was already putting the nurturing into practice in her own motherhood.

“I was a working mother, but I always made time to read to them because my mother always made time to sing and read to me,” she says.

By modeling reading as a pleasurable activity and having books at home, parents teach their young a lifelong good habit.

“When a parent reads a book, their child’s biology tells them that reading’s important,” says Andrew, who says she feels blessed that both her parents loved to read. Parents can choose to imprint positive, healthy habits on their kids — like reading and eating healthy foods. Or they model unhealthy behavior like smoking, a habit smokers’ kids tend to pick up later in life. Andrew’s father smoked; so did she.

A baby may not yet be able to conceive thought, she says, but a parent’s behavior nonetheless makes an impression on the child.

“It’s not teaching your baby to read that’s so important at this stage; it’s teaching and modeling a love of books,” she says.

Even a parent not confident with reading can use a wordless book filled with illustrations that tell a story.

Andrews’ favorite children’s book is Read to Your Bunny by Rosemary Wetts, an oversized, cardboard-page, illustrated book, which she reads to me in Edgewater Restaurant. She holds the book up, reading to me with head craned around the cover like a librarian reading to a flock of children. In it, rabbit parents read to their baby bunny; in the end, the bunny reads to the rabbits. I smile and wonder what the diners next to us think she’s teaching me. But she gets her point across, and I think about buying a copy for my niece.

“If you knew that reading to your baby for 15 minutes would make the difference between success and failure,” she asks, “would you read?”

High Stakes

“When you come home with your precious bundle and your diapers, if someone says to you, now’s the countdown to kindergarten, you’d think, what does kindergarten have to do with this baby?” says Andrew, a petite 66-year-old in a crisp blue suit-dress and flowered scarf. “But that’s when it’s most critical.”

The urgency comes from our biology.

A newborn’s brain is half of its future adult size. But by three years, a toddler’s brain — with all the connections and synapses that go along with growing — has developed to 80 percent of adult size. Another 10 percent develops before age five.

What makes the most important cerebral connections during these dynamic 36 months isn’t teaching babies their alphabet before they get to school.

“It’s vital for a baby to have a role model, to establish a bond of trust with the caring adult,” Andrew says.

Even sing-song games like — I’m gonna bore a hole, and I don’t know where, but I think I’m gonna bore it right in there, sung as you circle your finger in front of baby while reciting, then tickle baby’s belly — teach a young child motor skills and to anticipate a tickle with the song — while parent and child share smiles and laughter. “Those are skills that babies will carry and make good students,” Andrew says.

Andrew learned much of her advanced baby smarts at a neuroscience-based program at Washington University in St. Louis called Born to Learn. She joined the program as an ambassador for Anne Arundel County’s Local Management Board, charged to bring back neuroscience and behavior science to explain why we should make baby teachers out of parents. What she learned confirmed what she felt.

It’s those early connections within a child’s brain that make the way for learning and developing later in life.

“These things that society considers games and idle pastimes are actually learning experiences,” she says. “It’s true that play is the work of children.”

The value of playing with a child through infancy isn’t a new idea. Generations of mothers have been teaching babies through play — and in turn these babies grow up to teach the next generation.

“Our grandmothers were doing the right things, even though no one had given the stamp of approval from a developmental viewpoint,” she says.

Nurturing Beyond Reading

“It’s the interaction, the nurturing and loving, the rich, positive atmosphere,” says Andrew, whose mission is her avocation. She works as a legal secretary.

She points to a study by two researchers at the University of Kansas in 1995 that compared families of professionals and families on welfare. By age three, the children of professionals had heard a vocabulary of 1,100 words and 500,000 positive encouragements from their parents. By contrast, the children of families on welfare heard 525 words and only 75,000 positive encouragements.

The children that tend to do better in school get a head start from parents who are readers and who take time to read and teach their babies early. Students from poorer backgrounds — the ones who tend to do less well in school — hear fewer words and get less positive encouragement during their formative first three years.

Teaching Parents New Tricks

Kindergarteners who come unprepared for school lag behind their nurtured peers.

“For example, a first grader, even a kindergartener, is expected to understand that letters make up words, words make up sentences and sentences make up a story. When children have experiences rich in reading, they already intuitively know that [learning words and sentences] is going to lead to something interesting,” she says. “But the children that didn’t have the reading background don’t want to do it.” They become bored with early reading lessons.

For real change, she says, parents must learn before children. Thus she advocates a family-management course to teach all middle schoolers child development, financial management and other life skills.

In school or out, parents must learn. “You can be the smartest person in the world, but there are college graduates that haven’t the least clue what to do with the baby when they get home from the hospital,” she says.

Andrew sees no other way to reach parents, she says, “unless it becomes a community value.”

Reaching the Lost Third

“How do you let people know what they don’t know that they need to know?” Andrew asks. The second problem blocking Andrew and families advocacy groups is finding the families that need help.

The answer isn’t simple, Andrew says. There’s no way to know who’s missing the message — until they come to register their five-year-old for school. But by the time children come in for their first day of kindergarten, it’s too late to easily rewire connections developed within the brain.

“Last November, 69 percent of students were judged ready when they entered kindergarten. It’s that other 31 percent that we want to reach,” she says. That third, lagging behind their peers, could have benefited from more nurturing.

Many children also need disabilities diagnosed and proper nourishment. Parents need facts about keeping babies safe in their cribs.

A slew of family-related agencies and groups are ready to help. Also trying to reach out to families are Anne Arundel County’s Department of Social Services, Children’s Services, Core Service Agency, the Department of Health and dozens of other help groups.

Andrew is a citizen volunteer in the Anne Arundel County Leadership Action Program, which seeks to get the word out about preparing young children — from birth to five — for school.

The Leadership Action Program, formed by a the Local Management Board and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is coming up with a broader plan on how to reach families with support from literacy readiness to health insurance for needy young children.

Mothering Matters

Your little child wants to be exactly like you, says Andrew, who’d been crafting her message for nearly a quarter of a century before she proselytized me over crabcakes.

She’s convinced me.

So I’m telling you: parents must invest early in their children, not letting their absorbent little brains languish until school starts. For this Mother’s Day, enjoy your child’s accomplishments — or if you’ve got a child under three, celebrate by reading together. You’ll earn back your investment 20-fold — by raising a child who grows up to learn, love and contribute to the community, perhaps the world.

Me? I bought my niece Helena a copy of Mirror Me! It’s a Baby Einstein book, but we’re reading it together.

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