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The brain science behind Britain’s new parenting classes

How we raise our young can shape their brains. (Photo by Flickr user Nathan Rupert)

British Prime Minister David Cameron thinks parents need government-approved advice on raising kids. British parents aren't exactly thrilled with this recent proclamation.

One of Cameron's new policy prescriptions, unveiled Monday with an announcement that England will pour £70 million over the next five years into “relationship support,” was state-backed parenting classes. Vouchers, he said, would help cover the enrollment of low-income families.

Behind the controversial new family agenda was a deceptively simple lesson from neuroscience.

“The vast majority of the synapses, the billions of connections that carry information through our brains, develop in the first two years,” he said in a Monday speech. “Mums and dads literally build babies' brains.”

Scientists say our IQ, attention span, memory and impulse control, among a raft of other mental traits, are largely determined before age 3. So, Cameron said, new parents could use extra guidance on how to prime kids for success in the classroom and beyond.

“We now need to think about how to make it normal, even aspirational, to attend parenting classes,” Cameron said. “We should encourage the growth of high-quality courses that help with all aspects of becoming a great mum or a great dad.”

The idea insulted some of his countrymen.

“The notion that a particular style of parenting should be endorsed by the state, with anyone departing from this orthodoxy branded ‘irresponsible,’ should be anathema to anyone who values the privacy of their own home,” wrote Daily Mail columnist Toby Young. “Do we really also need the nanny state to tell us when our children should go to bed and how much pocket money they should get?”

England already offers 39 weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave. Childcare in the country is also heavily subsidized. (The United States, by comparison, offers no paid family leave and provides child-care subsidies only to poor parents.)

Cameron said he wanted to expand the country's family assistance to help prevent the next generation from tumbling into crime or poverty. An intervention in the early years, he bets, could prevent a host of problems later.

This isn’t the first time the British leader urged parents to enroll in subsidized parenting classes. The £5m CanParent pilot, launched in three low-income areas neighborhoods in 2011, drew just 2,956 parents a sliver of the expected 20,000, according to The Guardian

A follow-up survey after the program, however, found high satisfaction among those who participated. Cameron seeks to broaden the appeal now by framing the classes as something all parents should consider, regardless of income.

A central message of the classes, offered by both public and private providers, is the importance of speaking to children long before they can hold a conversation.

In his Monday speech, Cameron cited the work of Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

Shonkoff, now a grandfather, oversaw the National Academy of Science's landmark report "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Child Development," which found nurture to be as influential as nature in brain formation. (He was also unaware that, earlier this week, a world leader dropped his name in a national address.)

The message of his work, massively simplified, is that every interaction with a baby helps sculpt her brain. Words and nuzzles strengthen her budding circuits.

But if her environment is hostile or "unresponsive" — if no one talks to the baby — her body's stress response kicks in, and those hormones disrupt the growth process.

Shonkoff said this damages the baby's ability to pay attention, learn, remember and assess risk. A child may grow up more willing to ditch school and commit crimes — which is why, he argues, early childhood policy is actually anti-poverty policy.

"The increased risk for problems is all totally preventable,” he said. “Kids aren’t born inevitably to have these problems. It’s within our power to dramatically reduce them early on.”

Poor children, he said, are far more likely than kids in well-off households to suffer from this kind of "toxic stress." According to one estimate, they hear 30 million fewer cumulative words by age three.

The term, which first appeared in a 2009 study, means more than exposure to, say, prolonged hunger or loud arguments. Toxic stress can emerge when a baby is left alone in a crib for hours while a guardian works or sits ignored for long stretches in a corner at daycare.

Still, investing in parenting classes, while a noble idea, probably isn't the best use of public money, Shonkoff said. Poor parents may not have the time between jobs or transportation to attend an elective course. They may also battle depression or addiction — conditions a basic class won't properly address.

The advice to talk and read to your baby at every opportunity would better come from a doctor, he said. Meanwhile, family policies should focus on adults: Do they have access to paid sick days? Family leave? Health care? Child care?

"We meet the needs of children by meeting the needs of parents," Shonkoff said. "The earlier you provide that help, the sooner you protect the brain from toxic stress."