Research carried out in Chile and in Brazil shows that, regardless of socioeconomic status, parents tend to think that babies do not understand when they are talked to and that learning begins later on in life (in some cases as late as in the preschool years!). There is also little awareness of how important is the exposure to learning experiences early on for the development of the brain and of an individual’s intelligence.

Economists have tried to understand how knowledge about child development affects parents’ behaviors and the types of interactions they have with their children. They do argue, however, that it is not only knowledge that matters. The experts have identified that subjective expectations can also play a role; by subjective expectations they mean individual beliefs about when a child will or should achieve a given developmental milestone like saying her first word or making a tower of blocks.

One could imagine that the more knowledge about child development we have, the more accurate are our expectations on what children should be learning and when. If parents knew that spending time with their babies and toddlers and providing them with high quality interactions –rich in language, supportive and responsive– is actually crucial for their brain development, then parental choices and behaviors might be different than they are right now.

In a very interesting research, Flavio Cunha and coauthors surveyed a sample of first-time pregnant women about their expectations on child development. Using the same types of items that are usually assessed in child development screenings, they asked them questions such as “What do you think is the youngest age (and the oldest age) at which a child learns to speak a sentence of three words or more?” Mothers answered these questions with respect to different hypothetical scenarios: babies of good and poor health at birth, and environments in which parents spend high or low amounts of time doing activities such as singing, playing, talking, or going on walks with their children.

The authors found that disadvantaged mothers’ expectations on how much parental investment can affect child development are significantly lower than those of wealthier ones. They carry out some simulation exercises and estimate that an intervention aimed at improving moms’ knowledge on child development that could shift their expectations to the average level, could increase investments in young children in an order of magnitude of 4 to 24% resulting in an improvement of 1-5% on cognitive skills of these children by the age of 2.

In our region, parenting programs are the main policy intervention aimed at changing parental knowledge on early childhood and at empowering parents to incorporate activities that promote learning in their daily routines. The challenge with parenting programs is bringing them to scale in cost-effective ways but at the same time maintaining the fidelity of the program’s contents and being effective enough to produce sustained changes in parental behaviors and in parent-child interactions. In countries such as Chile, Argentina, or Colombia, there have also been efforts to reach larger audiences through media campaigns that promote key messages, such as the importance of play, talk, or reading to young children.

In an effort to carry out a large scale initiative to educate parents as well as service providers in charge of young children, the filmmaker Maria Farinha Filmes, with the support of Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation, the ALANA Foundation and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, are working on “1000 days”, a documentary about the first thousand days of life. This documentary is part of an effort to disseminate knowledge to a larger audience on the importance of early childhood development and the long lasting impacts of experiences early on in life. It is expected to be out by September 2015. We are looking forward to learning how this documentary is received in our region.

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