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Statement Announcing the Establishment of the Office of Child Development

April 09, 1969

IN MY MESSAGE to the Congress of February 19th on the Economic Opportunity, Act, I called for a "national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life." I again pledge myself to that commitment.

No such commitment has ever before been asked in our Nation. No such pledge has ever been given.

Two fundamental developments bring it about.

The first is one of the most characteristic developments of the modern age: new knowledge, new facts. We know today-and with each day our knowledge grows more detailed--that the process of human development is in certain fundamental ways different from what it has been thought to be. Or perhaps it is the case that mothers have always understood, but that only men have failed to take notice:

We have learned, first of all, that the process of learning how to learn begins very, very early in the life of the infant child. Children begin this process in the very earliest months of life, long before they are anywhere near a first grade class, or even kindergarten, or play school group. We have also learned that for the children of the poor this ability to learn can begin to deteriorate very early in life, so that the youth begins school well behind his contemporaries and seemingly rarely catches up. He is handicapped as surely as a child crippled by polio is handicapped, and he bears the burden of that handicap through all his life. It is elemental that, even as in the case of polio, the effects of prevention are far better than the effects of cure.

Increasingly we know something about how this can be done. With each passing year--almost with each passing month, such is the pace of new developments in this field of knowledge--research workers in the United States and elsewhere in the world are learning more about the way in which an impoverished environment can develop a "learned helplessness" in children. When there is little stimulus for the mind, and especially when there is little interaction between parent and child, the child suffers lasting disabilities, particularly with respect to the development of a sense of control of his environment. None of this follows from the simple fact of being poor, but it is now fully established that an environment that does not stimulate [See APP Note.] learning is closely associated in the real world with poverty in its traditional forms. As much as any one thing it is this factor that leads to the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. It is no longer possible to deny that the process is all too evidently at work in the slums of America's cities, and that is a most ominous aspect of the urban crisis.

It is just as certain that we shall have to invent new social institutions to respond to this new knowledge.

Elementary school, kindergarten, even Head Start appear to come too late for many of those children who most need help. This is no ground for despair, but to the contrary, a clear challenge to our creativity as a great urban, democratic society. Ways of reaching and helping the very young and their mothers--when they need such help--must be found. There must be ways that protect the privacy of that relationship, and the sacred right of parents to rear their children according to their own values and own understanding. But they also bear a solemn responsibility to insure that the full potential of those children is enabled to come forth. Finding a balance between these imperatives will test our moral wisdom as much as our scientific knowledge. But it can be done, and it must.

The delegation of Head Start to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was the first step in fulfilling my commitment to the first 5 years of life. In HEW, this program can be supported and supplemented by other Federal programs dealing with children in the early years.

The second step, which I announce today, is the creation of an Office of Child Development, reporting directly to Secretary Finch's office. This Office must take a comprehensive approach to the development of young children, combining programs which deal with the physical, social, and intellectual.

Preliminary evaluations of this program indicate that Head Start must begin earlier in life, and last longer, to achieve lasting benefits. Toward this end, Secretary Finch has decided to expand the Parent and Child Center and Follow Through programs, while reducing summer programs.

We must remember that we are only beginning to learn what works, and what does not, in this field. We are on the verge of exciting breakthroughs, but much more must be learned before we can prepare a successful nationwide preschool program.

There are any number of urban problems that can be dealt with promptly-and should be. Others can be approached in terms that admit of clear results in 2, 3, and 4 years. But some matters take longer. Above all, the process of a child's maturing is one of slow and steady growth that will not be speeded up for all our scientific knowledge.

America must learn to approach its problems in terms of the time span those problems require. All problems are pressing; all cry out for instant solutions; but not all can be instantly solved. We must submit to the discipline of time with respect to those issues which provide no alternative.

The process of child development is such a matter.

Our commitment to the first 5 years of life will not show its full results during my administration, nor in that of my successor. But if we plant the seeds and if we respond to the knowledge we have, then a stronger and greater America will surely one day come of it.

Note: Also released by the White House Press Office was the text of a news briefing by Dr. Daniel P. Moynihan, Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs, and officials of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare including Secretary Robert H. Finch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, Robert E. Patricelli, and Acting Chief of the Children's Bureau and Director of the Office of Child Development, Jule M. Sugarman.

APP Note:  In the Public Papers of the Presidents the word printed was "simulate" rather than "stimulate." We have corrected this spelling.  Multiple contemporary sources, including the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, used "stimulate."

Richard Nixon, Statement Announcing the Establishment of the Office of Child Development Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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