THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
Thursday, April 17, 1997
The East Room
MRS. CLINTON: Please be seated. Welcome to the White
House and to this very special White House Conference on Early
Childhood Development and Learning. We are delighted that you can
join us today not only here in the East Room, but I want to give a
special welcome to the thousands of people who are joining this
conference via satellite from universities, hospitals and schools
around the country. There are nearly 100 sites in 37 states.
Now, at first glance, it may seem odd to hold a
conference here at the White House devoted to talking about baby
talk. But that discussion has never been more important, because
science, as we will hear from the experts who are with us today, has
now confirmed what many parents have instinctively known all along,
that the song a father sings to his child in the morning, or a story
that a mother reads to her child before bed help lay the foundation
for a child's life, and in turn, for our nation's future.
So the President has convened this conference with a
clear mission: to give the leading experts in the field of early
childhood development, the scientists and pediatricians, the
researchers and all of the others, the opportunity to explain their
discoveries and to put this invaluable body of knowledge at the
service of America's families.
But this is not just for America's families. This
information is crucial for anyone in the position of leaving an
impression on a young child's growing mind -- day-care workers,
teachers, doctors and nurses, television writers and producers,
business leaders, government policy-makers, all of us.
It is astonishing what we now know about the young brain
and about how children develop. Just how far we have come is
chronicled in a report being issued today by the Families and Work
Institute, entitled, "Rethinking the Brain." Fifteen years ago, we
thought that a baby's brain structure was virtually complete at
birth. Now, we understand that it is a work in progress, and that
everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical
influence on that rapidly-forming brain.
A child's earliest experiences, their relationships with
parents and care-givers, the sights and sounds and smells and
feelings they encounter, the challenges they meet determine how their
brains are wired. And that brain shapes itself through repeated
experiences. The more something is repeated, the stronger the
neuro-circuitry becomes, and those connections, in turn, can be
permanent. In this way, the seemingly trivial events of our earliest
months that we cannot even later recall -- hearing a song, getting a
hug after falling down, knowing when to expect a smile -- those are
anything but trivial.
And as we now know, for the first three years of their
life, so much is happening in the baby's brain. They will learn to
soothe themselves when they're upset, to empathize to get along.
These experiences can determine whether children will grow up to be
peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers,
attentive or detached parents themselves.
We now have reached the point of understanding that a
child's mind and a child's body must be nourished. During the first
part of the 20th century, science built a strong foundation for the
physical health of our children -- clean water and safe food,
vaccines for preventable diseases, a knowledge of nutrition, a score
of other remarkable other lifesaving achievements. The last years of
this century are yielding similar breakthroughs for the brain. We
are completing the job of primary prevention, and coming closer to
the day when we should be able to ensure the well-being of children
in every domain -- physical, social, intellectual, and emotional.
I have very high hopes not only for this conference, but
for what I hope will come from it. But there are, however, two
things I hope this conference will not do. The first is I hope this
information will not burden or overwhelm parents. Parenting is the
hardest job in the world, and the information we offer today is meant
to help parents, not to make them anxious or imprison them in a set
or rules. If you forget to read to your child one night, please,
that's okay. (Laughter.)
Think of this conference as a map. And like any good
map, it shows you a lot of different ways to get where you need to
go. Many American parents have been asking for just such a map. A
new survey, "From Zero to Three," the National Center for Infants,
Toddlers and Families shows a real hunger on the part of parents for
knowledge on how they can play a positive role in their child's early
development. And I hope this conference in one of the ways we answer
The second thing I hope does not happen is to create the
impression that once a child's third birthday rolls around, the
important work is over. The early years are not the only years. The
brain is the last organ to become fully mature anatomically.
Neurological circuitry for many emotions isn't completed until a
child reaches 15. So there is always room for appropriate
stimulation, loving and nurturing care by adults who are invested in
a child. There's always something that concerned adults can do.
And that has special relevance for adoption. Adoptive
parents can make an enormous difference for a child at any time, and
especially for older children.
That said, here is what I hope the conference will
accomplish. I hope it will get across the revolutionary idea that
the activities that are the easiest, cheapest and most fun to do with
your child are also the best for his or her development -- singing,
playing games, reading, story-telling, just talking and listening.
Some of my best memories are reading to our daughter, even if I fell
asleep in the nine hundredth reading of "Goodnight, Moon." But
reading to her when she was young was a joy for Bill and me, and we
think also a joy for her. But we had no idea 15, 16, 17 years ago
that what we were doing was literally turning on the power in her
brain, firing up the connections that would enable her to speak and
read at as high a level as she possibly could reach.
I hope that the science presented in this conference
will drive home a simple message, one supported in great detail by a
report being issued today by the President's Council of Economic
Advisors. If we, as a nation, commit ourselves now to modest
investments in the sound development of our children, including
especially our very youngest children, we will lay the groundwork for
an American future with increased prosperity, better health, fewer
social ills and ever greater opportunities for our citizens to lead
fulfilling lives in a strong country in the next century.
There's a quote I particularly like from the Chilean
poet, Gabriella Mistral, that reminds us, "Many things we need can
wait; the child cannot. Now is the time his bones are being formed,
his blood being made, his mind being developed. To him, we cannot
say, tomorrow. His name is today." We have known this
instinctively, even poetically; now we know it scientifically.
And I'm pleased to introduce someone who has been saying
this and practicing it for a long time -- maybe not in poetry, but
certainly in the countless stories and books and songs that he has
shared not only with our daughter, but with our nephews and, really,
any small child who ever crosses his path. As the President of the
United States and as a father, he has acted on these beliefs, putting
the well-being of children at the very center of national policy. So
it pleases me greatly to introduce my fellow reader of "Good Night,
Moon," the President, Bill Clinton. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank
you very much, and welcome to the White House. I was relieved to
hear Hillary say that the brain is the last organ to fully develop.
It may yet not be too late for me to learn how to walk down steps.
(Laughter.) Or maybe I was thinking it was because I was always
hugged when I fell down as a child, I did this subconsciously on
Let me begin by thanking the members of the Cabinet who
are here. I see Secretary Riley and Secretary Glickman. I thank
Governor Romer and Governor Chiles for being here. I think Governor
Miller is coming. There are many others who are here. Congresswoman
De Lauro is either here or coming. Thank you, Governor Miller. I
see I was looking to the left there. (Laughter.) He's from Nevada
-- he just went up five points in the polls when I said that.
Let me say, first of all, the first time I met Hillary,
she was not only a law student, she was working with the Yale Child
Study Center, and she began my education in these issues. And for
that, I am profoundly grateful. And I thank her for bringing the
scientists, the doctors, the sociologists, the others whose work is
the basis for our discussion today here. And I, too, want to thank
the thousands of others who are joining us by satellite.
This unique conference is a part of our constant effort
to give our children the opportunity to make the most of their
God-given potential and to help their parents lead the way, and to
remind everyone in America that this must always be part of the
public's business because we all have a common interest in our
We have begun the job here over the last four years by
making education our top domestic priority, by passing the Family
Leave act and now trying to expand it and enact a form of flex time
which will give parents more options in how they take their overtime
in pay or in time with their children, by the work we have done to
expand the Family and Medical Leave Act and by the work we've tried
to do to give parents more tools with the v-chip and the television
rating system, and the work we are still carrying on to try to stop
the advertising and marketing and distribution of tobacco to our
children, and other work we've done in juvenile justice and trying to
keep our kids away from the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
All these are designed to help our parents succeed in
doing their most important job. Now it seems to me maybe the most
important thing we can actually do is to share with every parent in
America the absolutely stunning things we are learning from new
scientific research about how very young children learn and develop.
In that regard, I'd like to thank Rob Reiner and others who are
committed to distributing this information, and I'd like to thank the
media here in our Nation's Capital and throughout the country for the
genuine interest that they have shown in this conference.
I think there is an instinctive understanding here that
this is a very, very big issue that embraces all of us as Americans,
and that if we learn our lessons well and if we're patient in
carrying them out, as Hillary said, knowing that there is no perfect
way to raise a child, we are likely to have a very positive and
profound impact on future generations in this country. So I want to
thank, again, all of you for that.
Let me say there are some public programs that bear
directly on early childhood development -- the Head Start program,
which we've expanded by 43 percent over the last four years; the WIC
program, which we've expanded by nearly 2 million participants. I
have to say that I was a little disappointed -- or a lot disappointed
to see a congressional committee yesterday vote to underfund the WIC
program. I hope that if nothing else happens out of this conference,
the results of the conference will reach the members of that
congressional committee and we can reverse that before the budget
finally comes to my desk.
I would also like to remind all of you that this
conference is literally just a start. We have to look at the
practical implications of this research for parents, for care-givers,
for policy-makers, but we also know that we're looking at years and
years of work in order to make the findings of this conference real
and positive in the lives of all of our children. But this is a very
exciting and enormous undertaking.
This research has opened a new frontier. Great
exploration is, of course, not new to this country. We have gone
across the land, we have gone across the globe, we have gone into the
skies, and now we are going deep into ourselves and into our
children. In some ways, this may be the most exiting and important
exploration of all.
I'm proud of the role that federally-funded research has
played in these findings in discovering that the earliest years of
life are critical for developing intellectual, emotional and social
potential. We all know that every child needs proper nutrition and
access to health care, a safe home and an environment; and we know
every child needs teaching and touching, reading and playing, singing
It is true that Chelsea is about to go off to college,
but Hillary and I have been blessed by having two young nephews now
-- one is about two and one is about three -- and we're learning
things all over again that, I must say, corroborate what the
scientists are telling us.
We are going to continue to work on this, and I know
that you will help us, too. Let me just mention two or three things
that we want to work on that we think are important. We've got to do
a lot more to improve the quality, the availability and the
affordability of child care. Many experts consider our military's
child care system to be the best in our country. I'm very proud of
that, and not surprised.
The man responsible for administering the Navy's child
care system, Rear Admiral Larry Marsh, is here with us today. He
leads a system that has high standards, including a high percentage
of accredited centers, a strong enforcement system with unannounced
inspections, parents have a toll-free number to call and report
whatever concerns they may have, training is mandatory and wages and
benefits are good, so, staff tends to stay on.
I am proud that the military places such importance on
helping the families of the men and women who serve our country in
uniform. But it's really rather elementary to know that they're
going to do a lot better on the ships, in the skies, in faraway lands
if they're not worried about how their children are faring while
they're at work serving America.
To extend that kind of quality beyond the military, I am
issuing today an executive memorandum asking the Department of
Defense to share its success. I want the military to partner with
civilian child care centers to help them improve quality, to help
them become accredited, to provide training to civilian child care
providers, to share information on how to operate successfully, and
to work with state and local governments to give on-the-job training
and child care to people moving from welfare to work.
I think this is especially important. Let me say in the
welfare reform bill, we put another $4 billion in for child care. In
addition to that, because the states are getting money for welfare
reform based on the peak case load in welfare in 1994, and we've
reduced the welfare rolls by 2.8 million since then, most states, for
a period of time until an extra session comes along, will have some
extra funds that the can put into more child care. This gives states
the opportunity they have never had before to train more child care
workers, to use funds to help even more people move from welfare to
work and perhaps even to provide more discounts to low-income workers
to make child care affordable for them.
This welfare reform effort, if focused on child care,
can train lots of people on welfare to be accredited child care
workers and expand the availability of welfare in most of the states
of the country. It's not true for every state, because some of them
have had smaller drops in the case load and three have had no drops.
But, by and large, the welfare reform bill, because of the way it's
structured, gives all of you who care about child care about a year
or two to make strenuous efforts, state by state, to create a more
comprehensive quality system of child care than we have ever had
before. And I certainly hope that what we can do here, plus the
support of the military, we'll see dramatic advances in that regard.
I'd like to thank the people here who have done that
work. And I'd like to say that we are going to hold a second
conference, this one devoted exclusively to the child care issue here
at the White House in Washington this fall. And I hope all of you
who care about that will come back.
The second thing we want to do is to extend health care
coverage to uncovered children. The budget I have submitted will
extend coverage to as many as 5 million children by the year 2000
with the children's health initiative in the budget proposal -- to
strengthen Medicaid for poor children and children with disabilities,
to provide coverage for working families through innovative state
programs, to continue health care coverage for children of workers
who are between jobs. There is an enormous amount of interest in
this issue in both parties, I'm happy to say, in the Congress in this
session. And I quite confident that if we'll all work together, we
can get an impressive expansion in health care coverage for children
in this congressional session.
I'm pleased that Dr. Jordan Cohen, the President and CEO
of the Association of American Medical Colleges is with us today to
lend his association's strong support to these efforts. With the
support of leaders in medicine, again I say, I am convinced we'll
have a bipartisan consensus that will extend coverage to millions
more uninsured children.
The third thing we want to do is this: Because we know
the great importance of early education, we're going to expand Early
Head Start enrollment by at least one-third next year. Early Head
Start was created in 1994. It's been a great success in bringing the
nutritional, educational and other services of Head Start to children
aged three and younger and to pregnant women. It has been a real
success and we need to expand it.
Today we are requesting new applications for early Head
Start programs to accomplish the expansion. And to help parents to
teach the very young, we developed a tool kit called, "Ready, Set,
Read," part of our America Reads challenge, designed to make sure
that every child can read independently by the 3rd grade. This kit
gives tips on activities for young children. It's going out to early
childhood programs all across the country along with a hotline number
for anyone else who wants the kit.
The fourth thing we're going to do is to protect the
safety of our children more. In particular, we have to help young
children more who are exposed to abuse and violence. Let me tell
you, as you might imagine, I get letters all the time from very young
children. And my staff provides a significant number of them for me
to read. The Secretary of Education not very long ago gave me a set
of letters from children who were quite young, a couple of years ago
gave me a set of letters from children who were in the 3rd grade.
But sometimes I get them from kindergarten children and 1st grade
children, talking about what they want America to look like.
And it is appalling the number of letters I get from
five- and six-year-olds who simply want me to make their lives safe;
who don't want to worry about being shot; who don't want anymore
violence in their homes; who want their schools and the streets they
walk on to be free of terror.
So, today the Department of Justice is establishing a
new initiative called "Safe Start," based on efforts in New Haven,
Connecticut, which you will hear about this afternoon. The program
will train police officers, prosecutors, probation and parole
officers in child development so that they'll actually be equipped to
handle situations involving young children. And I believe if we can
put this initiative into effect all across America, it will make our
children safer. And I'm glad we're announcing it today during
Victims of Crime Week.
We all know that it's going to take a partnership across
America to help our children reach their full potential. But the
toughest job will always belong to our parents -- first teachers,
main nurturers. Being a parent is a joy and a challenge. But it's
not a job you can walk away from, take a vacation from, or even apply
for family leave from. (Laughter.) The world moves too fast, and
today, parents have more worries than ever. Work does compete with
family demands, and finding a balance is more difficult than before.
That's why this must always be part of the public's business.
Let me come now to the bottom line. The more we focus
on early years, the more important they become. We know that these
investments of time and money will yield us the highest return in
healthier children, stronger families and better communities.
Now, let me say, finally, I know that none of us who are
in politics, none of us who are just parents, will ever know as much
as the experts we're about to hear from today. But what they're
going to tell us is the most encouraging thing of all, which is, they
have found out that we can all do the job. No matter how young, a
child does understand a gentle touch or a smile or a loving voice.
Babies understand more than we have understood about them. Now we
can begin to close the gap and to make sure that all children in this
country do have that chance to live up to the fullest of their
Again, I thank you all for being here. I thank our
experts, I thank the First Lady. And I'd like to ask Dr. David
Hamburg to come up and sit there and take over the program.
Thank you. (Applause.)
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