A year ago, I stepped into the Pantages Theater for the annual symposium on “Our Youngest Citizens” sponsored by the Tacoma Children’s Museum. Along with all who attended, I was, and still am, passionate about how we change Tacoma’s culture and values to place children and families at the forefront of policy decisions and city planning.
The difference between me and everyone else at the event: I was the only person with an infant in a baby carrier attached to my body. At seven months old, my daughter was the youngest citizen in attendance.
Having a daughter completely amplified my sensitivity to the needs of young people.
While I have created youth programs, been a volunteer tutor and am passionate about education, it was only after holding a tiny person in my arms that I wondered about other families’ access to quality prenatal care and their understanding of infant development.
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That symposium made me think about other parents who, in some cases, work more than one job and barely make a living wage. Some, sadly, must hand off their child within weeks of birth to the lowest-cost care provider they can find.
These families may never experience many of the exciting parent-child engagement programs sponsored by organizations like the YMCA, local library branches or the Tacoma Children’s Museum.
Tacoma draws a flock of professionals who want a great place to live and raise a family. And Tacoma has done much in the past few years for families with young children, such as expanding the number of free preschool programs for 3 and 4-year olds.
At last year’s symposium, a representative from Leeds, United Kingdom, explained how a city and its citizens can be entirely different when we place children and early childhood development at the forefront of our considerations. Leeds created a child-friendly city with 12 wishes (principles) to make it a better place to live for all children.
While living in Tacoma, I spent ten months (three to five days a week) either at infant or child story times, libraries, Play to Learn outreach, or a structured developmental activity toddler gym. I saw the same involved caregivers at many events.
By going out into different communities and speaking to other parents and early childhood educators to discover the gaps in child development opportunities, I noticed the real barriers to access. I visited affordable housing areas like the Salishan neighborhood to talk to parents who had parenting challenges.
Brain formation begins in prenatal life with critical development occurring before age 5. Unfortunately, working-poor families face scarcity of time, information and resources; many are unable to provide development-enhancing environments for their children. Some homes are filled with toxic stress that negatively affect kids.
We must seek parity for these families in the type of early nurturing and school readiness that will ultimately allow their kids to thrive in school and escape a cycle of poverty. We have to do a better job helping all families in Tacoma develop their youngest citizens.
The Tacoma Children’s Museum sponsored another symposium last week. The theme was “The Power of Thinking Small.” While I couldn’t attend this year, I hope that as we move forward, we remember the big challenges facing our families.
If we want to improve Tacoma, we have to double down to invest in the youngest citizens who are most vulnerable. The most positive earliest childhood experiences must be within every family’s grasp regardless of socioeconomic status.
Alex Glade of North Tacoma is a parent, U.S. Army veteran and military spouse. She’s spending a year as a master of public administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Reach her by email at Alex.firstname.lastname@example.org