This organization had its beginnings 30 years ago when, in my role with the New York City Department of Health, I served as a liaison to the Agency for Child Development and saw how little of the substantive body of knowledge about child development and early childhood education was understood or being applied in governmental systems -- judicial, housing, law enforcement and law-making -- that had indirect but powerful influence over the experience of childhood for some of our most vulnerable young citizens. In fact, the lack of coherent and "developmentally responsible" policies and programs was itself a risk factor for many of these children.
Jump ahead to a summer Saturday four years ago when my then 6 year old son and I were watching a televised Major League Baseball game on a Saturday afternoon. At a break in the game, I ran upstairs and when I returned he asked.....“Dad, what’s erectile dysfunction?”
These two things are connected because in both cases decisions were made by organizations and institutions who did not factor in the developmental sensitivities of the children who were attached to the end of their deliverables or determinations.
Having been in the advertising business, I knew that the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association had developed self-regulating “guidelines” for direct-to-consumer advertising that stated: “...advertisements should be targeted to avoid audiences that are not age appropriate for the messages involved. In particular, advertisements containing content that may be inappropriate for children should be placed in programs or publications that are reasonably expected to draw an audience of approximately 90 percent adults (18 years or older).”
So while the afternoon media placement met the letter of the guidelines, I was very concerned that it did not meet the spirit — and subsequently learned that I was not the only parent concerned about this ad specifically, but also other media exposure generally.
Despite my training in pediatrics and early-career focus on children and families, I have spent most of my career (20+ years) in the private sector outside of pediatrics, working in strategic communications, public affairs and marketing, information services and product management, health policy and program development, clinical analytics, management consulting and executive leadership. As a result, I have deep experience and intimate knowledge of the powerful strategies and tools the private sector and the media use to shape the knowledge, attitudes and behavior of target audiences.
With this perspective, I began to wonder whether it was possible to set some social standards for businesses to evaluate their strategies and policies in the context of developmental sensitivities of children and how this could be operationalized. While this could have been a research project, I looked at it from the perspectives of a public affairs campaign because unlike medicine, where we structure and validate the research specifying the scope and boundaries of a concept before acceptance, the private sector very successfully launches concepts into society and shapes them organically as data and feedback is generated from their operational application.
My interests in this area were further ignited during this year’s presidential campaign, which exposed many Americans to new touchstones of political incivility, but none more dangerously than our nation’s children. Many parents, educators and community leaders have expressed concern over the rampant public exposure of children to emotionally violent candidate commercials and news stories highlighting lying, bullying and disrespectful behavior and language; stories abound of children modeling this behavior in their schools and communities. Of greater concern is the fact that this exposure is a form of adverse childhood experience well established to have long-term developmental and social consequences.
Citizenship for Children has been organized as a watchdog group based on this concept of Developmental Responsibility — to establish and hold corporations, organizations, institutions and government officials to standards of developmental appropriateness. Some may say this is too complex, that child development can’t be parsed so simply; in fact, it can. There are well established models — some from outside of healthcare — to develop such standards. The scope of such standards may be limited; but limited standards are better for children than no standards at all. Our competition for the hearts and minds of America’s children and parents certainly does not adhere or respect our standards of academic excellence; however, we should not compromise professionalism, intellectual rigor and academic standards as we seek to draw some boundaries as to what ‘developmental responsible” is and is not.