His film is designed to have broad appeal and address a universal issue, but Greg Jacobs had a pretty specific target viewer in his sights during the making of No Small Matter.
“The audience we have in mind is the guy who’s always the first or second poster in the online comments, who says, ‘It’s called parenting. If you can’t do it, you shouldn’t have had kids,’ ” said Jacobs, co-director of the new documentary, screening at the Montshire Museum of Science on Friday.
He’s joking, sort of. And you can expect plenty more such incisive wisecracks in the film, a surprisingly entertaining journey through the jungle of early childhood education in America. But Jacobs and his team also understand the reality expressed by the curmudgeons of cyberspace. Sure, children are our future and all that. But like a baby with a smelly diaper, the question of what to do with them prior to kindergarten tends to get passed back around to Mom and Dad.
“One of the things that we realized early on is that this is an issue that has everything going for it, but for some strange reason the issue itself is very nebulous for the public,” said Jacobs, co-founder of the Chicago-based film production company Siskel Jacobs, which partnered with the Kindling Group, a filmmaking and activism company, to create the film. “It’s an issue that needs a narrative.”
Like most feature-length documentaries, No Small Matter weaves together multiple narratives. Viewers ride along with a mom leaving her infant daughter off at daycare for the first time, drop into the kitchen of a weary couple working opposite shifts while sharing parenting duties, visit a parent-child program where a single mom is learning about child development and practicing her English skills and watch an impossibly perky teacher study insects with preschoolers.
At the same time, there’s a sense of a larger story arc: that of early childhood education in the United States, from the era of big, extended families, through the age of the working dad and stay-at-home mom, into the harsh no-man’s-land in which many families currently find themselves.
Running alongside that narrative is a timeline of scientific advances and research findings that have transformed experts’ understanding of child development. The idea, said Jacobs, was to pull together relevant and compelling research and data so that general audiences can get their arms around the topic.
“Part of our goal with the film is just to catch people up with what (experts) know,” said Jacobs, who became energized by the topic while working on a short video for a Chicago advocacy group.
One of the scientific advances highlighted in the film is recent work in neuroimaging that has fundamentally changed the way researchers view infancy by demonstrating how neural pathways develop in a baby’s brain during the first three years of life. Pathways that are regularly used grow stronger, while those that aren’t used are essentially “pruned” away, the film explains.
And how are these pathways created? Through rich sensory input and social interaction: The stuff of peek-a-boo and nursery rhymes, picture books and warm hugs.
It sounds simple enough, but many young children aren’t receiving this kind of nourishment, experts say, largely because the childcare infrastructure in the United States hasn’t kept pace with the realities of working families.
“Our society has a diminished capacity to support parents in what our society expects them and needs them to do,” narrator Alfre Woodard explains in the film.
That’s true even here in the relatively prosperous Upper Valley. A recent report by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy reveals that the Upper Valley falls about 2,000 slots short of the estimated number of young children in need of early care and education.
The majority of parents surveyed for the report said that finding child care had been somewhat or extremely difficult, and many cited long waiting lists and limited child care options. The report also found that child care costs consume a significant portion of working families’ incomes.
Maureen Burford, director of the nonprofit educational organization Creative Lives, sees these realities firsthand in her work with Vermont parents. Along with struggling to find quality childcare, the parents she meets through partner organizations such as the Family Place in Norwich routinely grapple with paying for it, she said. What’s particularly frustrating for many middle-class families is the quandary of childcare subsidies.
“What happens so often is that a family will be in one (income) bracket and have three kids in childcare, and then somebody will get a job and then bump into the 50-percent bracket,” said Burford, who lives in Thetford. “Sometimes when that happens, a family has to pull out altogether.”
For Burford, who also volunteers for Let’s Grow Kids, a Burlington-based public awareness campaign advocating for high-quality, affordable child care, the issue is not just financial. It’s deeply personal. Burford was a 26-year-old soon-to-be bride when her mother was murdered in her hometown of Palo Alto. The case went unsolved for 20 years, during which time Burford had two children of her own. When the killer was arrested and confessed to the crime, Burford attended his trial and sentencing and learned about his own traumatic childhood and upbringing in foster care, in a poor community a few towns away from where she grew up. Instead of seeing a hardened criminal sitting in the defendant’s chair, she saw a hurt little boy.
“I spoke in court about who we are as little children and how that shapes us ... it really deepened my resolve that we need to be attending to our children as a society,” Burford said.
It’s a sentiment shared by a growing number of professionals across numerous sectors. Along with featuring parents, childcare workers and child development professionals, the film includes interviews with prison officials, economics experts and high-ranking members of the military, all of whom affirm the value of early childhood education in preparing future Americans for productive lives.
“What I think the film does really well is help the viewer understand how connected this issue is to … everything,” said Robyn Freedner-Maguire, campaign director for Let’s Grow Kids, which is presenting the film and post-film panel discussion in partnership with the Montshire Museum. “For every dollar we invest in high quality childcare, there’s a real long-term gain for us as taxpayers.”
If the economic data don’t win viewers over, the filmmakers have a few other tricks up their sleeves as well. Packed as it is with research, the film doesn’t forget to have some fun. Each segment is peppered with the antics of the youngest demographic, and a surprise guest well known for his love of a certain baked good shows up to help teach viewers the value of executive functioning skills.
There are also touching moments. Mothers speak emotionally about their struggles to find childcare and their daily worries about who’s taking care of their children. A slump-shouldered dad who works the graveyard shift gamely follows his young son down a playground slide. A preschool teacher tears up talking about how undervalued she feels by society.
“The thing that surprises people when they’re watching the film is that there are real moments of powerful emotion,” Jacobs said. “People come up (after the film) and say, ‘that was me.’”
What the film doesn’t attempt to do is propose specific solutions. “It’s not so much to advocate for particular policies as to tell the story in a different way, then hand it off to the policy makers and advocates,” Jacobs said.
Freedner-Maguire agrees that public awareness is a key first step. Let’s Grow Kids has been working with partner groups to develop a blueprint for how to make high-quality, affordable child care readily accessible to Vermont families. A governor-appointed commission comprising business owners, child care professionals and parents, released a report in 2016 that defines high-quality child care, attempts to put a price tag on it and provides suggestions for filling the gap between that price and what families can reasonably afford. Let’s Grow Kids is also working with other Vermont child care advocacy groups to create a list of recommendations, with the goal of implementing them by 2025.
To reach that goal, they need people to understand that quality child care has far-reaching implications. Healthcare costs, prison costs, special education costs, the economic and human toll of the opioid epidemic, the challenges of attracting workers to an aging state — all of these have roots in childcare, she said. And while she acknowledges that the film is mostly likely to attract those who already believe in their mission, she’s also optimistic that it will have a broader reach.
Jacobs, too, hopes that by first firing up the proverbial choir, the film can work its way to the masses, and even that inescapable online commenter. “If we can get people excited about it,” he said, “there’s a real opportunity to use the film to start to move the needle.”
No Small Matter will screen at 6 p.m. on Friday at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. A panel discussion will follow, featuring Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America, Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, and Dr. Alan Guttmacher, pediatrician and former director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Space is limited. To reserve a spot, visit montshire.org/programs/detail/no-small-matter-a-film-screening-with-panel-discussion. For more information on the film, visit nosmallmatter.com.