by Winthrop Quigley, Albuquerque Journal

A few broad themes emerged from suggestions made by readers who responded to last Thursday’s UpFront that asked how we can improve the lives of New Mexico’s children.

First, there are cultural forces our state must overcome. Second, parents need help learning how to be parents. Third, children need adults they can admire in their lives.

The earlier in life that a child is helped the better, our readers said. Kids need to develop healthy and constructive habits, and the sooner such habits are acquired the more likely they are to serve children well as they grow into adulthood.

New Mexico has to work against its own history, said Ken Kaiser. Behaviors that enabled our agrarian society to thrive “are still practiced by many New Mexicans today even though they may be counterproductive in our mostly urban environment,” Kaiser said. “A formal education for men and particularly women was largely unnecessary back then, and its benefits seem to be often ignored today.”

Family values can also stand in the way, said Diane Berger, a certified parent coach and an associate producer of a recent documentary about child abuse in New Mexico. Families at risk of failing their children (that’s my characterization, not Berger’s) value material possessions, have misguided loyalties to gangs or family, and seek instant gratification, entertainment and social status. Successful families value education, work, compassion, empathy, patience, spirituality and health, Berger said.

Several readers say young parents need help. Many are “depressed, stressed, otherwise distracted, and they take out their frustration on their children,” said Olivia Padilla-Jackson.

“Social support for families with very young children needs to foster parents’ self-respect and confidence,” said Mary Dudley, director emerita of the University of New Mexico’s Family Development Program. “Helping them obtain good housing, good food, and – maybe most of all – the skills to get good jobs is critical to their children’s well-being. And when basic needs are met, parents can listen to us talk about how to take better care of their youngest children.”

No matter what kids say, they need adult guidance. That can come from anywhere.

David Foster, a National Dance Institute board member, says NDI “puts professional teachers dedicated to excellence who model habits that are the foundations of success: do your best, work hard, never give up, keep fit. The results speak for themselves. Participating students measure an average of 17 percent higher on reading, math and science standardized tests, and their grade averages are a full unit higher than comparative groups of nonparticipants.”

Great teachers, great coaches, internship programs, extracurricular activities all provide children a chance to get adult guidance.

“We know what works,” Foster said. “We can all help by contributing to social-profit organizations so that they can expand their footprints and their impacts.”

Adult guidance helps children build healthy habits for a lifetime, said Carol Pierce, manager of UNM’s School-Based Health Center Program. “Adolescence is the perfect time to create lifelong health habits, and (school-based health centers) help make this happen,” she said. “The long-term goal is to have students graduate from high school and continue to make healthy choices throughout their lifetime.”

Pat Dee, a banker and a longtime tutor with the Albuquerque Reads program, spoke for several readers when he said both kids and parents need better education. “The more I learn about some of this stuff, the more important it seems to be to devote resources to the very early childhood phase, starting with pre-natal.”

It is fundamentally important to extend “care and support to new parents in ways we hope will in turn nurture their infants and young children,” Mary Dudley said. “Programs that try to patch up kids when they come to pre-K or kindergarten with deficits are more expensive and not as productive as giving children the best start from the beginning.”

Early childhood education and care move children out of poverty “as they transition into adulthood because children in these programs have better educational, intellectual and social outcomes,” said New Mexico Voices for Children Executive Director Veronica C. Garcia. The problem is that anti-poverty programs “fail to look at the family as a whole unit and at poverty as a multi-faceted problem.” The multitude of programs designed to help are hard to find, hard to obtain and frustrating to use.

“More programs should use the home visiting model,” where nurses educate parents about child development, teach coping strategies, model good parenting behavior, look out for problems in the home like domestic violence, and help new parents navigate the programs designed to help their families, Garcia said.

Since 55 percent of pregnancies in New Mexico are unintended, family-planning education is essential, Berger said. Public service messages need to be developed “to counteract the unhealthy messages pummeling our children” through positive messages about healthy values.

Copyright 2015, Albuquerque Journal