The early years consensus
The first three years are critical for a child’s development and long-term success in life, but policy has unfortunately been playing catch-up with the evidence for some time now. With National’s announcement of a new First 1000 days policy, it is extremely encouraging to see solid, bi-partisan support on providing support for families with young children to give them the best chance to thrive.
The capacity for children’s brains to develop diminishes as they get older.
Alongside enhanced screening, National’s policy promises up to $3000 to new parents to spend on approved programmes and services like sleep specialists, lactation consultants and additional parental leave/ECE hours for older children. For families identified as “high risk” an additional $3000 is available, alongside the provision of navigators to guide them through the process. This policy is on the heels of Labour’s Best Start Payment as part of its Family Package in the 2017 Budget: a universal $60 a week for the first year for all children, and means-tested for the next two years if the household earns less than $79,000 (now $93,858). National proposes to keep this but means-test the first year of Best Start too.
Leaps in evidence from neuroscience and developmental psychology over the past few decades have shown how critical the first three years are for children’s development, and therefore, how important these policies are. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard points how the “the basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood.” The capacity for children’s brains to develop diminishes as they get older.
Given stable, warm, and responsive relationships, children have the confidence and security they need to thrive in life. Conversely, volatile, cold, and absent relationships mean children are overloaded by developmental-hampering “toxic stress” leading to “lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.” In the end, healthy relationships in the early years will likely lead children to healthy lives later on, so a policy focus on supporting the development of these relationships makes sense.
The early years consensus is one that will pay off for future generations.
But while it might seem like common sense to invest early, the actual policy spend hasn’t matched this intuition. Back in 2015, then-Finance Minister Bill English noted that, “serious money doesn’t get spent until children turn three…it’s been a revelation…we’re all a bit surprised the way we spend the money doesn’t match the rhetoric that policy-makers have.” This came to light having with new insights mined from the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) data. Policies are finally catching up to the evidence.
Of course, there remains debate on the precise nature of the payments and programmes. Should they be universal or targeted? Cash payments or in-kind products and services? To a large extent this comes down to ideological differences, and this is the natural domain of politics. The most important thing here, though, is that the political disagreement is not around the importance of the early years. The early years consensus is one that will pay off for future generations.