A Mule Named Sal: American Folk Music for Toddlers

Pete Seeger, American folk singer

Pete Seeger, American folk singer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday may have seemed like a normal day to you, but that’s because you were likely unaware that it was, in fact, my stage debut. After rehearsing together quietly for the past few months, I was invited to embarrass myself publicly on-stage by the ever-generous local children’s musician, Mr. Gabe.

We sang six or so songs, including some of his originals from his awesome CD and other classics like Erie Canal and Froggie Went a’ Courtin. I love to sing simple, good music, and it was a wonderful feeling to think that those of us with passable — rather than great — voices still have something to give.

So I thought that in honor of my new adventures in harmony, I would write about some of my favorite children’s music, as well as my favorite music for children. There are many musical options now for young children, and I often check out the CDs for sale at yard sales and the thrift store. Of course, engaging the natural interests of children in rhythm and dance, and in music, is a wonderful way to enhance and round out their development and to relax.

We listen to music whenever we can: at home, in the car, and before bed. In the children’s music category, we like Marvelous Day, by Steve Roslonek, some of Laurie Berkner (but, sadly, some songs are irritating) and Frances England, and a few of the totally nutty songs by John Lithgow from his children’s album (like “You Gotta Have Skin,” or “At the Codfish Ball”– but beware grating ones like “Singing in the Bathtub,” which is, oddly, the title tune). Although fun, the older-kid pop stuff by groups like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies still mostly goes right over Maya’s head, and will have to wait.

The truth is, it’s hard to write music for kids that is age-appropriate, musically interesting, and strikes an emotional chord. And — most importantly for the adult listeners — is not annoying. Just as in the world of children’s “literature,” there’s a lot of dreck that poses as enrichment.

Which is why it’s often easier, instead, to think about the music that is part of the American tradition and that forms a child-friendly core of songs from the larger culture. These are famous for a reason — they combine music, story-telling and emotional truth. Some children’s music actually comes from this place — like Pete Seeger’s or Leadbelly’s — and is a joy to behold. Newer entertainers also have takes on the classics, like Elizabeth Mitchell (who’s channeling Seeger much of the time, and also has a tribute album to Woody Guthrie), Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb.

While I was pregnant with Maya, I undertook to compile my own personal list of songs that would both appeal to young children and are part of this American folk musical tradition. This is music I grew up with, and are the songs Maya now knows and sings with me. I wanted to go beyond the obvious — “Itsy Bitsy” and “Twinkle Twinkle,” though those have their place — and find the wonderful, revealing and gritty music that is in the air, that all of us know and love.

The playlist we use is below, with suggestions on artists, and in no particular order.

American Folk Music for Toddlers: A Few Ideas       

  • This Little Light of Mine                  Sam Cooke                 
  • Red River Valley                  Moe Bandy                 
  • You Are My Sunshine                   Kevin Devine                 
  • Sixteen Tons                                    Tennessee Ernie Ford                 
  • Molly Malone                                The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem   
  • This Old Man                                         Bob Dylan
  • Michael Row the Boat Ashore                  The Brothers Four                 
  • Sloop John B                                    The Beach Boys                            
  • Circle Game                                    Joni Mitchell                 
  • Waltzing Matilda                               Burl Ives                 
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot             Mavis Staples & Lucky Peterson                 
  • Shoo Fly – Don’t Bother Me                 Sweet Honey In the Rock                 
  • Zip-a-dee-doo-dah                                    Anthony the Banjo Man                  
  • Streets of Laredo                  Moe Bandy                 
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River                 
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken                   Mavis Staples                 
  • Scarborough Fair / Canticle                Simon & Garfunkel                 
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain                  Blind Boys of Alabama                        
  • Morning Has Broken                         Cat Stevens                 
  • Ol’ Man River                                    Jeff Beck
  • The Rainbow Connection               Willie Nelson
  • Sea of Love                                  The Honeydrippers
  • The Water Is Wide                             Eva Cassidy
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water                  Simon & Garfunkel
  • Motherless Chil’                                    Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Amazing Grace                  Spivey Hall Children’s Choir
  • Kumbaya                  Peter, Paul and Mary
  • Peacetrain                   Cat Stevens
  • Father and Son                                Cat Stevens
  • Jumbalaya (on the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Sunshine On My Shoulders                  John Denver
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River
  • Forever Young                                    Bob Dylan
  • Sweet Baby James                  James Taylor
  • One Little Light                                    Gary Jules
  • Cotton Eyed Joe                                    Nina Simone
  • You’ve Got A Friend                  Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
  • A Change Is Gonna Come                  Sam Cooke
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I See            The Dixie Hummingbirds
  • Hey, Good Lookin’                                     Hank Williams  
  • When the Saints Go Marching In             The Hit Crew
  • What a Wonderful World                        Louis Armstrong
  • We Are The Ones                          Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane                           John Denver
  • Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes            Paul Simon
  • The House That Jack Built                        Aretha Franklin
  • A Tisket a Tasket                                       Ella Fitzgerald
  • You Make Me Feel So Young                    Frank Sinatra
  • Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)            B.B. King
  • Swinging on a Star (Single)                        Bing Crosby
  • My Way                                                Frank Sinatra  
  • Shoo Li Loo                                       Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Shoo Fly                                    Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Rockin’ Robin                                         Sha Na Na                 
  • Erie Canal                               Dan Zanes & Suzanne Vega
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter                      Loretta Lynn
  • City of New Orleans                       Steve Goodman                 
  • I’ll Fly Away                             Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch                 
  • My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains      The Lost & Found                 
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy                  The Andrews Sisters
  • Midnight Train to Georgia            Gladys Knight & The Pips                                   
  • Coconut                                        Harry Nilsson                                   
  • Lean On Me                                    Bill Withers                                   
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • Cat’s In the Cradle                         Harry Chapin                                   
  • Summertime                                    Sam Cooke
  • Children Go Where I Send You             Nina Simone
  • Tea for Two                               Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie
  • At the Zoo                                      Simon & Garufunkel  
  • The Battle of New Orleans                     Johnny Horton
  • You Are My Sunshine                               Norman Blake
  • The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)                  Harry Belafonte
  • King Of The Road                                  Roger Miller
  • Moon River                                         Jerry Butler
  • Mr. Bojangles                                       Jerry Jeff Walker
  • You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile        Dan Zanes
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry                    Hank Williams
  • St. James Infirmary                  Chris Thomas King
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • We Shall Overcome                  Mahalia Jackson
  • The Streets of Laredo                  Johnny Cash
  • Octopus’s Garden                  The Beatles
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain                  Harry McClintock
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat                  Schoolchildren Of Wanseko, Uganda
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain                  Pete Seeger
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay                  Glen Campbell
  • This Land Is Your Land                  Woody Guthrie
  • Dinah                                         Bing Crosby And The Mills Bros.
  • Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)          Michelle Shocked
  • Wabash Cannonball                  Boxcar Willie
  • Jump In the Line                                    Harry Belafonte
  • Cotton Fields                                       Odetta
  • Talkin’ Bout a Revolution                      Tracy Chapman
  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Home On the Range                               Moe Bandy                 
  • Down in the Valley                                David Grisman & Jerry Garcia                 
  • Oh Susanna                                           Lisa Loeb                 
  • Fever                                                   Peggy Lee                 
  • Yellow Submarine                                    The Beatles                 
  • Sippin Cider Through a Straw                  Susie Tallman                 
  • Little Red Caboose                                    Lisa Loeb                 
  • When I’m Sixty-Four                             The Beatles              
  • Yankee Doodle                                    Boxcar Willie                 
  • Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree          Lazy Harry                 
  • Little Boxes                                          Malvina Reynolds                 
  • Keep On The Sunny Side                       The Whites                 
  • It’s Not Easy Being Green                   Kermit the Frog
  • Down to the River to Pray                    Allison Krause
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic                  Boxcar Willie 
  • Our House                                        Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Into the Mystic                                     Van Morrison
  • Canned Goods                                    Greg Brown
  • Keep Me in Your Heart                        Warren Zevon
  • Circle ‘Round the Sun                         Woody Guthrie
  • This Land Is Your Land                        Bob Dylan
  • Redemption Song                               Bob Marley
  • Wild World                                          Cat Stevens
  • Corinna, Corinna                                 Bob Dylan
  • He Gives Us All His Love                    Randy Newman
  • Across the Great Divide                      Nanci Griffith
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads         John Denver
  • 500 Miles                                          Roseanne Cash
  • Blackbird                                          The Beatles
  • Summertime                 Sam Cooke (more cheerful than Billie Holiday’s version)

While these are the “core,” I also trolled through my music generally and created a large playlist of Maya-friendly songs outside the folk tradition, including world music, Motown, jazz, and other genres. When we tire of these, that larger list is the go-to. If you’ve already gone digital, this takes an evening and solves the endless question of what to put on the player…

Please do tell:  What’s on your list? What gems and touchstones am I missing?

At Long Last: My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide

Many of my friends have asked for the “list” of baby items that we bought based on my research. I’ve finally scraped it together, as a reward for their kindness in pretending to pay any attention at all to my enviro-babble.

There are some healthier baby things now being sold – and there are gazillions of on-line retailers happy to bring these items to you. Below is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is the things I liked among what we personally have used.

In buying things for our family, I managed to tease out, mostly through trial and error, some overall principles for environmental health in children’s stuff. Some thoughts on what to look for, and what to avoid, are also below.

Before I get to the good stuff, as nerdy as I am, I feel compelled to put some caveats before you:

  1. There are a ton of Web sites for product reviews, including “green” products, with widely varying levels of green-washing and blogger integrity. In contrast, the product list below is stuff I bought and used when Maya was a baby or use now. The links here don’t trigger any commissions or the like – I’m just not that organized. If that ever changes, I will note it here. In the meantime, click away, knowing that I am only rewarded by the pleasure of knowing what I pulled together was of use to you.
  2. Products can change over time – particularly things with ingredients, like wipes and lotions. What I bought and liked may not be what’s being sold today. So for those kinds of things, I would encourage you to double-check for any negative product reviews on the Web sites selling the stuff, as well as with the consumer guides linked to below. (If you see something alarming about any of the items below, please do comment and let me know!)
  3. Generally speaking, I’m not making an environmental sustainability claim for these items, though, as noted, some of them are made by companies with a greener outlook, and ones I’m happier to support. (And I do think it’s important to specify whether we are talking about environmental health or sustainability.) I haven’t investigated what went into their manufacture, or the sources for wood, for example. I’ll also note that being this picky about the stuff we use often means a lot of packaging and shipping, which is not really that great for the planet.
  4. I tend to order stuff from Amazon, due to the free shipping: I’m cheap like that. But I don’t feel good about it, especially given how terrible it is a place to work (I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that this recent Mother Jones article describing a hellish nether-region of robotic inhumanity is about one of their warehouses, though the article doesn’t clearly say so). If you want to be better than me, and it’s not that hard to do, order directly from the companies that make this stuff where you can, or from a “greenie” retailer that doesn’t treat its workers like bots.
  5. Normal concerns about product safety – stuff like choking hazard levels and recalls – are also an ongoing issue. Obviously, if I hear of problems with something, I’ll change the post. But the idea of “endorsing” something still makes me nervous. So of course apply your own judgment and monitor your child’s use of whatever it is carefully.

Lastly, some explanation is needed regarding the consumer guides. There are others out there, but I use three:

  1. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: They closely examine the safety and health impacts of ingredients in personal care products, including subscreen, lotions, etc. Their scores run 0-10, with higher being worse for you. I try to ensure that everything in our home is a 0 or 1, but this is not easy. The scores are very cautious – for example, even essential oils like lavender are given scores. If allergens are not a concern, you may want to check to see the basis for the score, as some things are upgraded for merely being irritants. If you have chemical sensitivities, obviously, this information is a goldmine.
  2. Good Guide provides an overall score and several detailed subscores for a much more comprehensive set of data points on a wide range of consumer products. Their scoring system includes scores for environmental health, but also corporate sustainability practices and labor conditions. Confusingly, their scores run the opposite way as EWG’s, with 10 as the best score, and 1 the worst. As I care most about environmental health, I tend to look at that particular score first, and then be pleased, as a bonus, if the company overall is doing well. Their overall score may be quite different from the environmental health indicator in many cases. Unfortunately, Good Guide used to, but no longer, rates toys. (We owned several of these very popular toys they found to be toxic, including the Rainforest Jumperoo, which was upsetting. I’ve used the Wayback machine at times to dredge up their old ratings.)
  3. HealthyStuff.org tests toys, clothing and other items for environmental health concerns using an XRF gun (like the one used in your home for lead, if you had it tested, which shows what is in a product several layers down). They test mainly for four dangerous substances, including lead and chlorine, and assign a high, medium or low rating. They maintain a searchable database which may or may not have the toys in your home in it, but even flipping through the listings shows how many times these substances are found in highly common toys.

Now that my throat-clearing is over, here’s some of the fun stuff.

The Quick Version: General Things to Look For

These are good:

  1. Simple, wooden toys (made from solid wood, and not particleboard, plywood, fiberboard or other pressed “wood” products);
  2. Organic textiles (particularly ones that go in the mouth, like loveys, and for bedding and clothing for brand-new babies, whose skin is very thin);
  3. Products that qualify for Oeko-Tex, a fairly protective European textile standard;
  4. Books and musical instruments, including photo albums of family and baby pictures that tell your child’s life story — identity development is a major issue for babies and toddlers. Our “Life with Maya” board book is a huge hit (for a clumsy but functional place to order a board book version of a photo album, see here);
  5. Stuffed animals and dolls that can be thrown in the wash (“surface clean only” usually means plastic pellets inside);
  6. Stainless steel dishes and containers, and glass bottles and containers, for food storage and serving;
  7. Fragrance-free (many fragrances contain untested substances, and include harmful pthalates);
  8. Ingredient lists for products like toiletries that are written in comprehensible English with terms all explained on the packaging;
  9. Buying less stuff, and nicer toys, for the reasons I suggest here — after all, you have to look at them and pick them up a million times a day;
  10. Finding used stuff that fits the above guidelines from yard sales, book sales and thrift stores (a few tips for greener thrift store shopping are here).

These are good to avoid:

  1. Polyurethane foam (to minimize flame retardants);
  2. Electronic gizmos, because they often contain heavy metals (though we have some, certainly, and just try to keep them to a minimum);
  3. Soft, molded plastics (as in bath toys, bibs, teethers and teethable items on toys), because they are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and older ones likely contain pthalates (see more on why to avoid PVC in toys here);
  4. Plastic plates, utensils and cups (including those cute melamine designs), as they go in the dishwasher, and heat makes plastic degrade and get into the food;
  5. In toiletries like lotions and such: parabens (like methylparaben or butylparaben), sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate), PEG (which is usually followed by a number), and either a) long, incomprehensible lists of gunk in products; or b) products that fail to list all of the ingredients on the bottle and refer you to some stupid Web site you’ll never get around to checking (like Method does). Talcum powder is also out, because natural talc can contain asbestos, and is an inhalation risk;
  6. Unneeded big hunks of plastic indoors (we do have some of those enormous, ugly plastic vehicles out in the back yard, purchased well used);
  7. Traditional pack-and-plays are a bundle o’ suspect plastics and foams and a pain to pack up; we used a Baby Bjorn travel crib, which is certified compliant with Oeko Tex. It was expensive, but it still works well for traveling;
  8. Stroller covers – they are awful. Most are made of PVC. Babies and children would be far better getting a little wet and breathing outdoor air. Also made of PVC are those cool decorative wall stickers for nurseries, which likely off-gas above the baby for quite some time;
  9. Foam play mats, which, by one manufacturer’s (SkipHop) own admission to me, all contain formamide, a carcinogen created in the foam-making process that was the basis for a ban of the mats in France and Belgium last year. For Maya’s rough-and-tumble period, I used a couple of jute yoga mats (there is a plastic backing on these, but regular yoga mats are all PVC, which is awful when you think about it. Hot yoga, anyone?);
  10. Crocs are made of the same material as foam play mats (called EVA), and the company will not say whether formamide is in them, so I wouldn’t put them on children, certainly;
  11. Art supplies, which can be problematic, particularly paints, markers and white-board pens, and face paint at fairs and used at Halloween is typically loaded with lead and other harmful heavy metals (if you really need some for a costume, try these instead);
  12. I do not use infant or children’s Tylenol. It’s subject to all-too frequent recalls due to manufacturing problems, and the children’s form contains butylparaben. In addition, a meta-review of 20 studies on the issue strongly links aceteminophan to asthma in children. (Yet my own pediatrician still passes out dosage information!)
  13. Heating food in plastic (and I would include the steamer-blender type baby food machines, as being labeled BPA-free doesn’t mean an item is free of plastics or other chemicals that act like hormones). On baby food, actually, you can’t win: some commercial baby food in jars has BPA under the lid, yet most mini-choppers and food processor bowls are polycarbonate, and can contain BPA or similar chemicals. We use either a glass blender or a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything (works like a VitaMix, but for less than half the price);
  14. Cheap children’s furniture, including play kitchens, bookshelves, tables, etc., is often made of pressed wood products that contain formaldehyde, which is linked to leukemia. Solid wood, when you can find and afford it, is far better as it won’t off-gas (ask for a natural oils or beeswax finish in lieu of varnish);
  15. Noxious odors: keep in mind that your sense of smell is a decent indicator of when there are solvents and other harmful chemicals around. If it stinks or is making you woozy, get rid of it.

I’ll also just note that I’m (perhaps unjustifiedly) suspicious of silicone teethers, dishes, food storage, baking items, etc. While the silicone may be inert, I’m not convinced that anyone’s looked closely enough at the plastic additives that give the silicone its color and shape. (If you know more about this, please let me know.)

One overall tip is to look for “Waldorf” items. Whether or not you’re on board with the educational approach, these items are all natural and are often handcrafted and beautiful.

It’s no accident that many of the companies I prefer are European. Under both an agreement on chemicals called the REACH treaty and various country-level rules, they impose more protective environmental standards on textiles and chemicals, among other things.

If you have too much stuff, as we do, you can create novelty (which is a trigger for the brain) by cycling toys. I use cute animal fabric bins (though these are not organic) to take things in and out of circulation, which helps to declutter, keep the sets together, and to maintain Maya’s interest in what we have.

Below, I emphasize the stuff that you can buy for a baby, but that also works for a younger toddler or beyond, so that it’s a better investment.

Companies I like for toys, gear, toiletries and stuffed animals:

Toys and stuffed animals, etc.

Gear

  • iPlay (raincoats that are PVC-free, for example; they still are fairly plastic-y, so there may be better ones)
  • Baby Bjorn (items are Oeko Tex certified)
  • Naturepedic (crib mattress and changing pad)
  • Lunchbots (stainless steel snack containers; plain is best as some complain of chipped enamel on the colored ones)
  • 3 Sprouts Organic (storage bins and hooded towels are organic; other storage may not be)

Toiletries and Cleaners

Favorite Retailers

Here’s the Exact Stuff I Used and Liked:

Nursery

Decorating

  • Mythic Paint (Zero VOC-emissions paint) (goes on smoothly; we painted right before a vacation and still let it air out for more than a week; I still wouldn’t get near it if I was preggo)

 

Infant Toys Only

Infant to Toddler Toys and Stuffed Animals

Toddler Toys Only

Big items

Gear

Newborn Baby Clothes, Swaddlers and Wipes

Toddler Clothing Items

Food-related or Kitchen Gear

Toiletries

Greenish Stuff I Didn’t Love

Pending Attractions

  • I’ll do a future post on formula and its various issues, including the packaging and presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the use of a toxin, hexane, to get DHA/AHA out of seaweed to add it to formula and enhanced milk, a basically unregulated process.
  • I’ll also do a post as well on child safety in cars, including some thoughts on car seats. We use a Britax Advocate 70 CS Convertible Car Seat for its long rear-facing ability and side-impact protection, but it’s not perfect by any means, as I explain in this post. If you want a car seat without any flame retardants in it, Orbit’s is the only one currently on the market, though Britax has committed to a phase-out this year. [Update: see comments on this other post.] To minimize exposures, I used baby slings for shopping, etc., when Maya was little, rather than a removable car seat-type stroller. It did mean I had to wake her up sometimes, which was a drag.

Do you have green products you use and like? Please do tell in the comments, so that everyone can benefit from your experience.

And if you’re looking for something, please let me know, as this is not an exhaustive list…

Sources for more Information on products’ environmental health and safety:

Other sources may be found in the blog links to Eco-Stores Online, in the side-bar. Hope this is useful to you!

My Daughter Will Be Fine. How’s Yours?

Preschool

Preschool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an inversion of Project Runway, we were “out,” but now we’re “in.” This week, we learned that Maya could move off the wait list into a spot for the neighborhood’s co-op preschool, which only takes 12 children in her age group.

We were thrilled by this, obviously. The Co-op is close to our house and follows a Reggio-inspired curriculum, with a ton of fantastic literature, music and art.

Of course, getting in, as random as it was (a family is moving), also made us officially feel like Good Parents. We had checked the boxes, found the right school, gotten a babysitter, attended the two information sessions, submitted the application and the check. And, with perseverance and luck, we did it! At 20 months, our daughter is now on the Road to Success. (And we will have ample chance to prove our dedication to the model, as the co-op’s parental contributions are no joke.)

As ridiculous as this seems, for achievement-oriented parents, such ability to deliver the goods does feel, truthfully, like at least one important measure of how well we are doing.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on parents when really terrific resources are scarce, and makes parenting into a far more competitive sport than it should be.

When we were on the “outs,” I’ll admit to feeling a mild despair, along with the exhaustion of having to look around for a suitable alternative. We’d visited several other preschools over the past year, none to our liking. I had also been compiling a mental list of back-ups, including the local Waldorf school, and the Audubon Society’s preschool that I blogged about last week (which is lovely, but not that close to us).

The lack of really strong preschool options stunned me, actually, as we began this search. And it’s a sad statement, really, of how we have not updated our educational systems to take full account of the research, which, for more than 20 years, has pointed unequivocally to preschool (and pre-preschool) learning and environment as the foundation for educational attainment for kids.

For just a few examples, we now know that:

Contrast that with the bad news on this front that I heard on the radio in just the past few days: DC high schools fail to graduate (on-time) 60 percent (!!) of students. And Marketplace, a show I normally loathe for its pro-market bias and triviality, ran a decent series this week on projects happening around the country, some financially doomed, to engage low-income children in learning earlier in order to close educational gaps.

Along with everyone else, I’ve also followed the work in Harlem of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone. (I recommend the book by Paul Tough describing his efforts, “Whatever It Takes” which is a fascinating read.) Canada set up a system for students that was intended to provide the safety. security and growth of a suburban upbringing. As Tough writes, his supports are “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods.”

One of Canada’s many key innovations was his recognition that parenting classes – for parents of newborns – and access to high-quality preschool programming, would make kids far more ready to attend school, and would create the building blocks for success even among very low-income families with lower educational levels among the parents.

Canada’s pioneering work has been successful in moving children to become academic successes. And he’s been at it for almost a decade. What’s really amazing is that his set of comprehensive tools, commonsense as it is, and his focus on the critical period of infancy and early childhood, remain largely disregarded in practice elsewhere in the country.

There isn’t the money, nor is there the political commitment, to ensure that every child in America gets a learning-friendly environment at home, and that every child attends a quality preschool. In fact, the new budget fight being waged this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) would slash and burn supports for low-income families in order to pay for military spending, which is just sickening, really. According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md), a report by the Congressional Budget Office “found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.” To pay for bombers, literally. It’s like a bad joke on a bumper sticker.

In short, we have a long fight ahead of us. But the costs of not doing this are astronomical, both as measured in the quality of children’s lives and in the social and economic price.

Of course, if Maya had not gotten into our preferred school, there would have been another preschool, perhaps less convenient or ideal, but still high quality. And her home environment is nurturing in every way I know to make it, based on both my reading and on how my parents raised me.  Put that with the quality of the food she eats and my persistent (albeit quirky) efforts to provide a healthy environment for her, and the advantages compound quickly.

But even as I do what it takes to ensure her health and growth, I also recognize that for every child like Maya, many more children lack basic things, like enough food to eat, or a caring and attentive adult in their lives. (Case in point: I once spent several days sweeping broken glass and wires out of a DC elementary school classroom, helping to get it ready for a teacher friend. The computers given to the school by some foundation were being used as doorstops, because there was no one that could be spared to maintain a network and lab.)

When you have a child, and must engage in the current, demanding contest for resources directly on their behalf, these sharp distinctions become far more real. And it’s far too easy to “get yours” and move on, being happy because this time, you happen to be on the list instead of off.

But if all the more resource-rich parents merely wangle a way for their family, it will never create the urgency we need for change on a much more fundamental level. Simply put, it’s clear that we will never address the underlying causes of poverty unless we take far more seriously what we must do to provide a strong foundation for very young children, from infancy through kindergarten.

We’re falling far short now, both on addressing poverty and on challenging families to do what they can to develop strong foundations in early childhood. Almost one-third of children 2 and under have television sets in their bedrooms. In their rooms! Which makes them more sedentary and emotionally stunted, studies show. And a shocking one-half of preschool-age children do not get a chance to be outside and play daily, meaning that some of that mental mapping is just … missing. Combine that with the chemicals and sugar in children’s foods and it’s easy to see where the obesity epidemic is coming from.

(And I think the official explanations on this point are facile: chemicals likely play a much larger role than anyone is admitting. The Institute of Medicine’s report this week on childhood obesity focuses on diet and exercise, but fails to explain why those factors alone could possibly be enough to cause Type 2 diabetes in children to go from ZERO in the 1970s to far too common today. Having grown up in the 70s, I remember kids eating a lot of Little Debbie snackcakes while watching Three’s Company all afternoon. If those kids didn’t have diabetes, I’ll submit that there must be something more to it.)

To my larger point on early childhood: perhaps it’s hubris, but I can tell you right now, sitting here today, I firmly believe that Maya will be fine. (Or at least as “fine” as someone can be with nutjobs like us for parents.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ok letting all the other two-year-olds who didn’t make the list, or, more likely, weren’t on any list, just watch TV, inside, eating crap, instead of playing outside and attending a really good preschool that will make them into the kind of kids who will be good pals to Maya and help me cross the street in my old age.

It’s as though the project we all started more than a hundred years ago – this task of publicly educating children – remains half-done. What we now know is that the period before kindergarten is just as critical, and may be even more critical, to a child’s success in life than the time after.

So why isn’t there more urgency on this question? There should be a school like our Co-op on every other corner – so many that there aren’t any lists to get in. And if government funds are needed to make it happen, this modest investment would likely pay for itself many times over, in more productive and valuable workers, artists, and innovators (and fewer prison cells).

Sure, most parents want the best for their children. But there’s a lot stacked against their ability to deliver nurturing and challenging opportunities. What I take away from our own relief at now, as of this week only, being on the “inside” of a good preschool for our daughter, is that what we really need is for parents – and the politicians they vote for – to want the best for every child.

How do we get there? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas…