No Small Matter


Pomp and circumstance.

(2020) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfre Woodard (narrator), Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Alison Gopnik, Rhiann Alvig, Patricia Kuhl, Nadia Burke Harris, Jack Shonkoff, Donnie Poff, Mathew Melman, Deborah Phillips, Myra Jones-Tyler, Shea Gattis, Wahnike Johnson, Shannon Poff, Geoffrey Canada, John Wetzel, Dipesh Navsana, Robert Dugger, Seth Pollak, Rosemarie Truglio. Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

 

America, according to all the test scores, is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in education. There are many reasons for that; some are systemic, others are lifestyle-related and still others have to do with how privileged some of our children have become and how unwilling they are to work. To be blunt, we are reaching a crisis point where jobs are requiring more executive function – the ability to make good decisions, to remain calm under pressure and the ability to solve complex problems. It might interest you to know that all those functions are formed in a child’s brain before they reach the age of five.

And yet we devote only 3% of our education budget to early childhood education. Pre-school teachers are thought to be glorified babysitters and the vast majority of our children don’t get nearly enough stimulation by loving adults as infants, mainly because the economic reality of the modern world requires both parents to work, often multiple jobs, just to tread water. Add a child into the mix with all the expense of child bearing and child rearing and it’s a wonder that any babies are born in the U.S. at all.

This documentary examines the importance of early childhood education and does so with clever animation, colorful graphics and the warm dulcet tones of executive producer Alfre Woodward informing us how neuron pathways are formed in the brain – and how they are shut down. We are shown recent studies mapping the brains of infants and are startled to discover that children literally come out of the womb learning; one doctor recalls sticking his tongue out at a 42-minutes old baby who then imitates him by sticking his/her tongue out back at him. Every experience at that age helps shape our brains.

Economics play a major factor in child development; wealthier parents can afford to spend time with their children more than those who have to work two and three jobs; also wealthier parents can afford top of the line childcare – nannies and tutors. By the time they reach kindergarten, the five-year-old child of a wealthy family can be developmentally two years ahead from less affluent families, and that’s a gap that’s nearly impossible to make up.

We are introduced to Deborah Giannini, a pre-school teacher who is energetic, loving and capable. She helps children develop problem-solving techniques, takes them out of the classroom to help stimulate their minds and imaginations, and is a tireless bundle of energy. We also see her dissolve into tears as she recounts that she can’t afford to live on the salary she makes as a pre-school teacher and has to work a second job to follow her passion. Children who fall behind in early development have a much greater chance of not finishing high school; consequently, they are at greater risk for being locked into a cycle of poverty and developing criminal behavior. Law enforcement and military advocates both agree that money spent on early childhood development would save money on law enforcement and incarceration later on. Although not said overtly, the filmmakers make it clear that rather than spending millions on tanks, grenade launchers and billion-dollar state-of-the-art incarceration facilities, our money would be better spent helping young lives get a head start so that they don’t turn to crime in the first place. Of course, that would take money away from the industrial-military complex as well as for-profit prisons.

The film even admits that improving early childhood development isn’t a panacea that would end crime and make the world a utopia but it would give millions of children whose parents are middle or poverty class an opportunity to better themselves and be productive. New parents should really see this film (hey, the Cookie Monster makes a guest appearance, so there’s that) to help understand their own role in early development and what they can do to improve it at home, as well as alert them to programs that can help them out. Investing in our children, as a wise person once said, is investing in our future. Never has that been more true than now.

REASONS TO SEE: Clever animation (particularly during the opening credits) and enthusiastic testimonies drive the film. Addresses a little-understood need.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes feels a bit too much like every other PBS documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing; requisite viewing for new parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cost of childcare is higher than the cost of attending public college in 28 states.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wired for Life: Early Childhood Education
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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Lords of Chaos