How We Talk About Children’s Issues Shapes Public Opinion and Policy

What if the way we talk about children and their lives is unintentionally turning away from receiving the public’s support as priorities have not shifted? We still invest very little public money into child development and education. Although we have created programs that aim to or focus on the health, safety and education of children, it seems to not be enough to make a significant difference in the money we invest in those areas.

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With so much scientific data backed by evidence that points to much-needed change, and deserves significant governmental supports, there remains push-back. We prioritize military spending over the wellness of our children and their families’ well-being. Education, though widely agreed upon of its importance to the present and futures of youngsters’ college and career readiness, there continues to be inequities in spending. At the national level, our prioritized support of equity and social justices of all kinds, should logically result in increased allocation of government funding in areas that eliminate the gaps in resources dedicated to ‘leave no child behind’ in our schools alone. Yet, we still leave too many children behind, while doing likewise for their families.
How are we framing children’s issues in the media, a major source of information for many of us? We should be examining the existing cultural mindsets, the public’s deep assumptions, immaculate perceptions and implicit understandings, which prevent people from prioritizing children’s wellness when we think about policies. Maybe we must shift our practices, including close examination of our communication to begin moving public thinking. The ways we strategize telling stories and frame them don’t seem to be received by the public in ways that result in progressive thinking. On the contrary, our strategies seem to reinforce unproductive patterns of public thinking .

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Child development needs to be highlighted when we provide information about programs and services offered by agencies to the public. In field communications, the concept of child development has not been prominent as a central concept. In cases where development was mentioned, there is little discussion of how development works or of specific developmental impacts. For example, the following quote is the opening paragraph to an article about youth in juvenile detention. Throughout the rest of the article, there is no explanation of why detention is especially harmful for adolescents.

“While admissions to youth detention continued to fall dramatically since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, a new survey of juvenile justice agencies in 33 states shows that systems slowed the pace of releasing young people from detention, leaving many young people – disproportionately Black – still living in confinement without access to connections or opportunities, and potentially vulnerable to the virus.”

This article discusses a critical period of development—adolescence—yet doesn’t highlight the particular developmental needs of adolescents or discuss how lack of “access to connections or opportunities” impacts adolescents’ development. This is representative of other articles that discuss conditions that have major developmental implications without highlighting developmental needs or touching on these impacts.

In addition, organizations rarely draw attention to different developmental periods and children’s specific needs during these times. With the exception of Zero to Three, which explicitly focuses on the early years, materials rarely distinguished between different age groups or talked about the specific developmental needs of young children, elementary-aged children, or adolescents.

How does this affect public thinking?

Research on public thinking about children’s issues found that while understandings of child development have improved over the past twenty years, there are still unproductive models that get in the way of people recognizing how development works and what it says about what children and adolescents need to thrive.
Unless the field continues to explain development, there is a danger that these gains in public understanding could fade.

In addition, gains in understanding have largely centered on early childhood development—members of the public are still missing clear ways of thinking about development at other stages, including adolescence. If the field doesn’t promote a developmental perspective and explain developmental needs at different ages, the public will continue to lack understanding in these areas.

It is critical that the field explicitly talk about different periods of development. As cultural mindset research found, when people think of “children,” they tend to focus on the 3–12 age band. If communicators don’t specify age group and make sure to discuss different developmental stages, early childhood and adolescence will remain out of mind for members of the public. This prevents people from thinking about children’s needs during these critical developmental periods.

Building a deeper understanding of the specific developmental needs of children and adolescents at different ages is vital for building support for policies that address those needs. If people don’t recognize the ways in which current policies harm development and how new policies would help, they are less likely to see the need for changing those policies.

What can help

— Consistently include development as part of the story. While thinking about child development isn’t the main obstacle to collective action on children’s issues, it’s important to continue talking about development and reinforcing the productive mindsets about development that have spread over the past two decades. If the field doesn’t talk about development, there is a danger that gains in understanding of development may fade.
— Be specific about age and stage when discussing child development. This will ensure that children of all ages are in view.
— Be explicit about developmental needs and how policies impact development. Communicators must highlight the developmental needs of children at different ages and explain how policies impact development in order to build understanding of and support for policies that most effectively and appropriately support those needs.
— Highlight periods other than early childhood. The public understands early childhood development better than other periods of development. Talking about other periods is critical to expanding public understanding of the specific developmental needs of children at these ages.

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What we are doing in the field is preventing the public at large, potential voters and decision-makers, from understanding the central messages we send. Therefore, by jargon-dropping without being explicit in the ways we design and deliver public informational materials, they miss the urgency of their support and advocacy efforts. Practitioners are cautioned to avoid using unexplained jargon when interacting with laypersons, including the public.

We, as advocates, must ensure that the messages in our materials and in-person communication outline the meanings of terminology and frame it in the context of specific stages of childhood development. Outlining developmental needs as impacted by outside forces and current policy is critical to cultivating supportive advocacy and eventual policy and practice reforms.

If we wish to positively impact lives of children and their families, when informing the public, there is power in numbers. The better we explain our issues, the more support we may get from the public. The more likely they are to influence decisions made at the ballot box and the more that families and even other agencies will access our programs and services. How we talk about children’s issues shapes public thinking, public support and as a result, public policy.

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