A father sits with his son on the carpet and looks at him lovingly while the child stares at a snack.
Tara Garcia Mathewson

Seat-belt use in the United States rose from 14 percent in 1985 to 84 percent in 2011 thanks, in large part, to a massive ad campaign promoting the practice. Even now, with “buckle up” warnings far less prominent, seat-belt use continues to rise.

Ronald Ferguson wants to see a similar trend with the use of five evidence-based parenting principles dubbed the Boston Basics: maximize love, manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories. Ferguson is the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and the lead creator of the Basics, which experts agree are most important for children from the time they are born to when they turn 3. For much of his career, Ferguson studied educational achievement starting in kindergarten, but when he learned that gaps based on socioeconomic status and race were already stark by the time children turn 2 years old, he decided to broaden his focus.

Generating support in Boston for the Basics has not been difficult: Scores of nonprofits, government agencies, and other community-based organizations have agreed that there is value in teaching the principles. What remains unclear, however, is whether the Basics will help close achievement gaps in practice. Broad support for the concept, in theory, may not yield a meaningful, educational result.

But Ferguson and other participating leaders are hopeful.

A two-day conference back in 2011 with parenting and child-development experts from all over the country helped define the five Basics, which were later refined based on the work of a national advisory committee and feedback from parents. The effort’s scope is citywide rather than limited to a single neighborhood and has focused on leveraging existing relationships with hospitals, community organizations, and social-service nonprofits to reach new or expecting parents. Ferguson hopes the effort will lead to a cultural shift, much like the seat-belt campaigns did in the 1980s and 1990s.

The advice to “maximize love, manage stress” tends to be one that strikes a chord with parents, many of whom are advised not to hold their babies too much or coddle them as they become toddlers. “This concern about spoiling babies is pervasive,” Ferguson said, “whereas the sense of safety and being loved is foundational for later development.”

Some parents are afraid, especially with toddler boys, that if they give their children too much affection when they are young, they will be weak. The Boston Basics tells parents that is simply untrue. Ferguson said this can be especially important when it comes to developing executive-function skills in children. Those who get a strong sense of safety and love from their parents are better equipped to control their own behavior later on and develop intentions they then follow through…

Mayra Rodriguez

Mayra Rodriguez

Content Editor at oneQube
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Mayra Rodriguez