The Supreme Court upheld the majority of Obama’s Affordable Care Act last week, which means all Americans will be required to carry health insurance by 2014. The ACA also includes a $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund which “invests in proven prevention and public health programs that can help keep Americans healthy – from smoking cessation to combating obesity.” Public Health Fund programs where I live in New York State include HIV/AIDS prevention, detecting and responding to disease outbreaks and expanding suicide prevention activities and screenings for substance use disorders. But none of the preventative measures involve promoting pre-natal or infant care, childhood well-being or good parenting initiatives. Why not?
In my recent post about marriage readiness, I wrote, “There’s something wise about trying to prepare people for marriage, in the same way that most of us try to prepare for childbirth. Though I think what we could all use is more training for parenthood.” Most people who receive pre-natal care take some kind of childbirthing class before they deliver their first baby, but how many of us received any parenting training before our children came into the world? Oh sure, I’d babysat kids before, babies even, and I knew how to change a diaper and give a baby cereal, but was I prepared for the incessant crying, the sleep deprivation, the things that make even reasonable adults want to shake a baby? Nope. Very few people are, I think.
Experts suggest that basic parenting classes would go a long way to preventing child abuse, but as Dr. Robert Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told TIME in April, “we seem to be not very interested as a country in teaching parenting skills.” That’s unfortunate, because child abuse is still very much a problem in this country, and the results of physical abuse can be “depression, mood disorders, phobias, drug problems or major disorders,” as Meredith Carroll noted earlier this week. 7 percent of mental illnesses can be attributed to spanking alone, according to the medical journal Pediatrics. So why not take the passage and upholding of the ACA as an opportunity to introduce mandatory parenting classes for everyone receiving pre-natal care? Classes that focus on child-abuse prevention and address post-partum depression should be offered for free. We need to remove the stigma from having difficulty with parenting and stop making new parents feel like they should automatically know what to do with a baby or a child of any age, really.
There are programs already in existence meant to “assist new mothers with the adjustment to parenthood, to assure that the infant is living in a safe environment, to provide topic-specific education, and to identify health and/or social issues that require referral with community-based services,” such as the Newborn Home Visit Program in New York City. The problem is, the program as it exists now targets only ”first-time parents living in neighborhoods with the highest social, health and environmental needs.” In other words, the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The uneducated. The poor. That kind of targeted outreach is working on two false premises: that only poor, uneducated and incapable people live in said neighborhoods, and that only poor and uneducated people need help learning parenting skills. People of all socioeconomic strata living in all areas of the country should be given the opportunity to prepare for parenthood, and the presumption should be that all people are capable of parenting well, not that being low-class leaves you at risk. Child abuse occurs in all types of families, and new parenthood is scary no matter how much money or education you have.
I was contacted by the Newborn Home Visit Program when I was living in East Harlem and pregnant with my daughter, who is now 6. A friend of mine who lived nearby and who has a daughter the same age was contacted as well. Because the visits are optional, we both declined when called. But that’s not the only reason we declined; the program only exists in the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods of East/Central Harlem in Manhattan and Bushwick/Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and that’s just racist, classist bunk. My friend responded by saying, among other things, “Hey lady, when you start going into homes in Tribeca or handing out condoms, give me a call back.”
When it comes to parenting, most of us only know what we gleaned from the way we were parented. And for those who’d like to make some changes in their own parenting methods based on their childhood experiences, the support of a parenting class would be extremely helpful. Pre-natal (and maybe even post-natal) parenting classes would also help create a sense of community for new parents who can otherwise feel totally isolated and unsure of who to reach out to for help. I would love to see the sweeping changes that will be ushered in with the ACA include more support for all parents, regardless of economic status or race. What do you think?
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