The Child Development Argument for a U.S. Paid Parental Leave Policy

pg-toddler-bedtime-routines-toddler-reading-fullIn April, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to provide six weeks fully-paid leave for new parents. While this is ground-breaking for an American city, it doesn’t rate well against international norms. In Japan, new mothers receive 58 weeks parental leave, and new fathers receive 52 weeks parental leave. In Korea, new parents of either gender receive 52 weeks parental leave.

Japan and Korea’s parental leave policies signal that both countries understand the critical importance of parent-child interaction and their role in cognitive development. Our country’s lack of a national parental leave policy illustrates that we have not internalized this lesson. The U.S. should embrace parental leave policies as a mechanism for improving cognitive development and academic achievement.

In the United States, we take a fairly narrow approach to improving our education system. We view education as the formal progression from kindergarten to twelfth grade — and ideally beyond to higher education. But brain development begins long before a child sits down on a reading rug and learns to grasp a pencil. While the U.S. has begun to embrace the importance of early childhood education in the form of public pre-k, our lack of uniform parental leave policy impedes early cognitive development for many children and increases the likelihood they will struggle during K-12 education.

Years of neuroscience research provide many clues on how to improve early childhood development, which in turn will influence a child’s academic trajectory. Child development specialists have proven that the environment of a child’s earliest years can have effects that last a lifetime. By the time a child turns two, the structures of his brain that will influence long-term learning are mostly formed. In the first months and years of life, babies learn the contours of the world through their experiences with the adults surrounding them. A baby’s early relationships, especially with his parents, shape the architecture of his developing brain and his cognitive development. As a result, parenting explains 40 percent of the income-related cognitive differences between children at age four.

Emerging research reveals that stronger parental leave policies have positive, long-term effects on a child’s success in school. In fact, an American student’s academic success is deeply tied to his socioeconomic status, far more than a student in Australia, Britain and Canada — all of which offer up to a year parental leave. A uniform U.S. approach to parental leave could help narrow the achievement gap in the US.

While major U.S. corporations have begun to offer more generous leave programs, and cities and states have begun to consider parental leave policies, too few new parents in the U.S. have access to paid leave. In fact, only 13% of new mothers have access.

The U.S. should be embarrassed by our global rankings. Our country is the only advanced economy that doesn’t mandate maternity leave for its workers, and one of nine OECD countries that have no leave policies in place for fathers. Additionally, the U.S. is one of two counties out of 185 listed by the International Labor Organization that do not have a national law providing paid parental leave (the other is Papua New Guinea). 

It’s time for the U.S. to rethink the way we approach parental leave and develop a uniform policy, instead of depending on businesses and individual cities to make small changes in the right direction.