“All babies and toddlers deserve a good start in life”
We spoke with Cecilia Vaca Jones, Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch foundation that believes that all babies and toddlers deserve a good start in life. The Bernard van Leer Foundation is a strategic partner of TRECC. They strive to inspire and inform large scale action to improve the well-being of small children and the people who care for them. Cecilia is Ecuadorian and have been working in the field for early childhood for over 20 years.
Today is Global Day of Parents, an opportunity to highlight the crucial role of parents in the lives of their children. Working with parents is at the center of the Foundation’s mission. What does your work with parents involve and why the Bernard van Leer Foundation makes it a priority?
The early years of a child’s life are critical for their healthy development. From pregnancy to around the age of five, their brain and bodies develop faster than at any other stage in life. For children to thrive and reach their full potential, they need good nutrition, a safe environment, and positive stimulation from all caregivers. Early experiences shape brain architecture. In the Bernard van Leer Foundation, we know that the best way to give children a healthy start is to support the people who care for them. That is why, we focus on working with parents (and caregivers) because the way they nurture and support their children in their early years is a decisive factor for their optimal development. We know that parents love and care for their children, but sometimes if they are not healthy and supported, they will find it more challenging to remain responsive to their children’s needs.
Babies and toddlers need someone who feeds, talks, reads and takes care of them in order to build positive connections. To make that happen, parents need support from society, which includes both governments and communities. We work with governments, civil society, other foundations, and communities to support parents to build these healthy connections with their children. In order to promote positive and healthy connections it is also fundamental to improve access and utilisation of services such as health, nutrition, social protection and early learning. We also work with city leaders and urban planners so they can improve the conditions of cities as these represent a unique opportunity to promote a good and fair start for all children. If we get cities right, we can support babies and their families thrive. Policy makers working at a city level can improve the way young children and their families connect, discover, explore, play, interact and move through the urban space.
“we focus on working with parents (and caregivers) because the way they nurture and support their children in their early years is a decisive factor for their optimal development. “
Bernard van Leer Foundation is working in many different countries accross Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Parents you are engaging with represents very different cultures. As it comes to parenting practices, what are the main differences and the main similarities?
Parenting practices and beliefs around the world are different. Nevertheless, probably one common factor is that all parents love and care for their children (as a general rule), they want the best for them, and they express that caring in diverse ways which are influenced by the specific culture, values, and beliefs of each society. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, communities are very involved in raising their children and the community courtyard represents an important physical and social space for mothers to support among themselves and to care for all children. In contrast, in some European societies the child-rearing is more family-focused with almost no community involvement. While context matters and without losing the diversity of influences that different cultures have in children’s well-being, it is always important to support parents to provide a nurturing care.
With the evidence of the Early Childhood Development (ECD) science, there are a couple of indicators that are crucial to determine which kind of caregiver behaviours will positively impact the development of small children in all different cultures: good health, adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, opportunities for early learning, security and safety. In each of these elements, there are different ways to support families, always adapting the best practices to every culture and geography.
What are the challenges facing parents and young children in the context of COVID19? How are these challenges being addressed around the world?
As all international organizations are highlighting, children are in risk of being the biggest victims of this pandemic. There are estimations that between 42 to 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty. Because of the lockdown, children are not playing outside and are not interacting with others. The physical distance is isolating caregivers and children from their support network and peers. While domestic violence is spiking, the health crisis has suspended many of the health and nutrition services, childcare and education services, violence prevention measures and even vaccination programmes. It has been estimated that in low and middle countries, maternal mortality and child mortality will raise because of the reduction of basic-life saving interventions. The pandemic is showing how these services, often undervalued and underfunded, must be protected and maintained. While we must advocate in favour of the maintenance of the services, even if remotely whenever possible, we also need to start thinking on building resilience for the next disaster, build communities with enough green space, and mobility solutions that allow easier access to the basic health and social services.
“It has been estimated that in low and middle countries, maternal mortality and child mortality will raise because of the reduction of basic-life saving interventions. The pandemic is showing how these services, often undervalued and underfunded, must be protected and maintained.”
Worldwide, the challenge is to make children and their parents and caregivers visible, with a strong focus on equity. The consequences of the pandemic are unequally distributed, and governments, the philanthropy sector, international organizations, private sector, all need to be aware of this, and act on addressing not only the consequences but the causes. Efforts globally should be concentrated in ensuring, restoring and funding early years health and nutrition services. Governments need to continue supporting parent’s well-being and mental health, resume the provision of childcare services and address violence against women and children. All societies need to explicitly address the protection of the most marginalized.
You have been involved in the TRECC program for the last 4 years, helping us in shaping our work with parents and caregivers in Côte d’Ivoire. What are the main achievements and challenges so far, and the prospects for the future?
Currently, the main challenge is the pandemic crisis and its consequences for Ivorians, in particular for young children and their caregivers. We trust Ivorian government will be able to ensure health and nutrition services, parent coaching support, and preschool activities that have been suspended or significantly slowed down.
During these last 4 years, we have been able to build a strong relationship with the Ivorian Government. They are aware of the cruciality of the early years to promote the best present and future for Ivorian children and they are committed to work and invest on early childhood development. We remain positive that Côte d’Ivoire will continue to work on strengthening nutrition, early learning and parenting services in the coming years. We will continue to support them in their multiple efforts to improve children’s wellbeing. Also, we have witnessed how cocoa and chocolate companies have invested in promoting evidence-based interventions to support parents in the cocoa regions. Some of these interventions have shown positive results that will now allow to scale-up these parent coaching services to reach and benefit more Ivorian families.
Cecilia Vaca Jones (@CecyVacaJones) joined the Bernard van Leer foundation in 2016 as Programme Director, and became Executive Director in 2020. She has over 20 years of experience managing social development policies and programmes. Before she joined the Foundation, Cecilia was the coordinating Minister of Social Development of Ecuador from April 2013 to March 2016. She was responsible for policies in health, education, housing, sport and social welfare.