Current Issue #487

Modern Times: Early Childhood should be a national priority 

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The importance of the first three years of childhood development is often under-appreciated in the national conversation.

The indescribable joy I feel each time I see my two-year-old son smile and laugh is balanced by a feeling of relief that I survived the experience. On the cusp of parenthood, Sally and I understood the first years of a child’s life were key. We perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the impact of sleep deprivation, nor the relentlessness of the task. From a parent’s perspective, the first years of a child’s life are as important as they are hard. 

Parenthood is like a marathon that begins with an immediate uphill climb for runners already in a state of exhaustion, before the path gradually flattens and energy slowly returns. As the race matures, parents gain confidence, are better rested, and can occasionally appreciate the landscape as they pass. The race, however, is largely won or lost on the first climb. 

The first three years are critical to a child’s brain development. Deprived of sleep, coming to terms with new realities, parents are responsible for a period that does much to determine the child’s subsequent life trajectory. It is the period in which parents require the greatest support. I suspect Sally and I were more fortunate than many, but nonetheless often felt overwhelmed. 

The importance of the first three years of childhood development has yet to be absorbed into our national consciousness. Politicians respond to the demands of voters. Although many Australian children experience delayed development, there is little popular demand to make this area of public policy a national priority. 

Australians are, however, increasingly aware of the cloud that hovers over our social and economic landscape. Without a concerted national effort to maximise the developmental opportunities for all Australian children, we will fail to reach our national potential. Australia’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) standing will stagnate or fall. Our productivity will be limited by middling levels of national creativity. There will be adverse and long-term social and health consequences. 

In the future, Australia will face a confluence of critical challenges: economic, social, ecological. Our democracy will be questioned and our social harmony further threatened. Are we well placed to cope with these challenges? Abraham Lincoln once remarked that the best way to predict the future was to create it. The best way to create a remarkable future for Australia is to create an ideal context in which children experience their first years. 

If early childhood development became a public policy priority, more could be done to help. We should be seeking to exceed current best practice. Practical measures to enhance brain development should be accessible to parents. Government funded centres should be made available to all Australian children and their families requiring help. Early learning services should be high quality, provided by qualified people who are appropriately remunerated. 

There are reasons to believe early childhood development would achieve bipartisan support. For those who believe in social democracy, universally accessible support for early childhood development would complete the social contract between the collective and the individual. Every Australian, no matter how vulnerable, would have access to universal early childhood development, universal education, universal health, and the pension. 

There are also compelling reasons for liberals to support investment in early childhood development. Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith’s belief that markets would lead to perfect equality was predicated on said markets existing in conditions of perfect liberty. Equality of condition is crucial to this construct, and is not possible without a concerted and effective approach to the development of every Australian child. 

Excellence in early childhood development is critical to our future national productivity. It will reduce the long-term burden on our health and justice systems, as the trajectory to poor health, mental illness, and criminality is often traced back to the circumstances in which children enter the world. It has been empirically proven that the first three years of a child’s life have a strong correlation to subsequent conditions, good or bad. 

Early childhood is the area of public policy that begs our attention, with the promise of placing Australia on a trajectory with long-term, paradigm- changing positive consequences. It is critical we make it central to the national conversation. 

Editor’s note: Andrew Hunter is leaving Port Adelaide Football Club to take up a role as strategic advisor at the Minderoo Foundation, working closely with the Thrive By Five Initiative

Andrew Hunter

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