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Kid Friendly: Neal Halfon


By Jack Feuer

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Q. In childhood development, we hear the phrase "failure to thrive." What does that mean?

A. Failure to thrive is a diagnosis that is often given to children whose bodies stop growing and brains stop developing. This may happen as a result of psychological and social trauma, [such as] in children who have been abused and neglected. Failure to thrive can occur in spite of adequate calorie intake, as body systems shut down in response to toxic stress. Optimal lifelong health is about the experiences children have and the environments in which they live, not just the medical care they have access to once they get sick. We know what it takes for an individual to live into his 80s and be healthy. The decisions to facilitate that process are political, not medical.

Q. So the challenge to optimize children's health is as much political as medical?

A Before 1950, people in the U.S. were the tallest population in the world. Since that time, average height in the U.S., which is a reflection of how well we are achieving our human potential, has actually decreased relative to other nations. Holland and several of the Scandinavian countries now exceed the U.S. average height. Economists writing about this major shift in bio-demographics highlight how each of these countries has engaged in a concerted effort to make strategic investments in young children in order to assure optimal development. [In the U.S.,] we have not mustered the political will to make the kind of difference that we know we should.

Q. You played a key role in the development of California's First 5. Could you describe this effort to transform the way we raise kids in their first five years of life?

A. First 5 is one of the most ambitious health promotion and developmental optimization initiatives that has ever been launched in this country. It is part of a growing international movement that is based on our changing understanding of brain development and how much future human potential is programmed early in life. In much the same way public schools were developed to support the major social transformation that took place during the industrial revolution and the movement of individuals from farms to factory work, First 5 is about building the public health and educational infrastructure to support the development of children, who will become our future workforce in the era of information technology.

Q. Which policy makers have you worked with to realize your vision?

A. I began working with Al Gore, when he was vice president, on a national family policy initiative focused on family-centered community building. That led to an ongoing relationship and collaboration in developing a course and curriculum that he and I, along with fellow UCLA faculty, pioneered here at UCLA and in universities across the country. [In California,] the Schwarzeneggers are very committed to children's issues, and I have been working closely with the first lady on issues of childhood obesity and health care.

Q. The 2008 presidential race has begun. What advice would you give the next president?

A. One who stoops for the child stands tall. The time is right to transform the U.S. child health system and to consider a new social "operating system" that encourages greater investment in children and in the future well-being of our nation.