Episode 38 Show Notes

(Read the episode transcript below)

On episode #38 of All Ears at Child’s Voice: A Hearing Loss Podcast, we talk with Pediatric Otolaryngologist Dr. Dana Suskind about her new book “Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise.” “Parent Nation” offers a powerful blueprint for a society that helps all families meet the developmental needs of their children. Weaving together the latest science on the developing brain with stories of families from all walks of life, Dr. Suskind shows that the status quo—scores of parents left to shoulder the enormous responsibility of early childhood care and education on their own—is not only unsustainable, but deeply detrimental to children, families, and society.

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Resources from this episode:

https://parentnation.org/

https://www.healthysteps.org/

https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/comer/conditions-services/ear-nose-throat/hearing-loss-cochlear-implants/cochlear-implants

 

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Special thanks to John McCortney for his work recording All Ears at Child’s Voice episodes. Episodes of All Ears at Child’s Voice are graciously edited by John McCortney.

 

Episode Transcript:

Haley:

Welcome to all ears at Child’s Voice, a podcast discussing all things hearing loss. We aim to connect parents of children with hearing loss with the professionals who serve them. And now to start the show.

Wendy:

Welcome to All Ears at Child’s Voice a podcast, discussing all things hearing loss. We aim to connect parents of children with hearing loss with the professionals who serve them. I’m Wendy Deters, today on the show we’re talking with Dr. Dana Suskind about her new book “Parent Nation.” Dr. Suskind is a pediatric otolaryngologist who specializes in hearing loss and cochlear implantation. She directs the University of Chicago Medicine’s pediatric hearing loss and cochlear implant program. She’s recognized as a national thought leader in early language development. Dr. Suskind has dedicated her research and clinical life to optimizing foundational brain development and preventing early cognitive disparities and their lifelong impact. She’s the founder and creator of the TMW center for early learning and public health, which aims to create a population level shift in the knowledge and behavior of parents and caregivers to optimize the foundational brain development in children from birth to five years of age, particularly those born and into poverty. Her first book, “30 Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” was published in 2015. Dr. Suskind has received several awards for her work, including the Weissman Women for Science Vision and Impact award, the SENTAC Gray Humanitarian Award, the LENA Research Foundation Making a Difference Award, the Chairman’s Award from the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 2018, and the John D. Arnold MD Mentor Award for Sustained Excellence from the Pritzker School of Medicine. Dr. Suskind, we are so honored to have you with us and excited to talk to you about your new book “Parent Nation.”

Dr. Dana Suskind:

I am so happy to be here, Wendy, but if you call me Dr. Suskind, I won’t speak. You have to call me Dana.

Wendy:

I will, I will do that. So Dana is a long time friend and supporter of Child’s Voice. She and I have known each other for a long time. I know her first as an ENT as we’ll kind of discuss, I’ve also come to know her as a researcher and a scientist and a public health advocate, and it’s, she’s just an incredible person. So I think everyone’s really gonna like this discussion. A lot of our listeners probably already know you from the world of hearing loss, but can you give us just a little brief background about how you started as a pediatric otolaryngologist?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

I went into medical school thinking that I was gonna be a pediatrician. I knew that I wanted to work in some area related to healthy brain development and children, but when I was in medical school, I realized, oh, wow, I really enjoy surgery. And being in the operating room as well. And initially I thought I was gonna be a neurosurgeon, believe it or not because the brain is just so incredible. But then I stumbled upon the field of pediatric otolaryngology, specifically the world of hearing loss and cochlear implantation and absolutely fell in love. And so when I finished my medical school training, I went to the university of Pennsylvania where I did my residency in otolaryngology. And then I did my pediatric Otolarangology at Washington University under Dr. Lusk. I learned about the world of cochlear implantation. And as you all know, St. Louis is sort of a Mecca for deaf and hard of hearing and listening and spoken language. So that’s sort of how I got into it.

Wendy:

Yeah, that’s how we first met. And like I said, I’ve known you for a while and now seeing you take on so many incredible things, you are much more than a cochlear implant surgeon. You’re a researcher and you also care so deeply about public health, especially when it impacts young children. So how do you think your career evolved in this way?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

Everything that I do, not only did it start with me being a physician and sort of seeing these disparities and outcomes amongst my patients and trying to figure out why this was and what I could do about it. Really, this is part of being a physician and a healthcare provider, someone who cares for children, you know, as a speech language pathologist, we can work with families, work with children, but so much outside of our clinical visits impact their health and wellbeing. So really I think of my journey and what I’m doing today, even though it’s very far outside the operating room as really coming from the operating room and coming from my experience as a doctor, this is allowing my patients hopefully to reach their potentials.

Wendy:

Yeah. A lot of us have read and loved your first book, “30 Million Words” so much. We could have a whole podcast episode on that. But just to summarize that book really focuses on providing children with the quality and quantity of language that they need to develop their brain. So it was this specific look at brain development. And then as I started to read “Parent Nation,” you brought some of the work of TMW in, but it really expands on that. So can you explain for our listeners, how did your work on TMW inspire you to write this current book “Parent Nation”?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

The first book, 30 Million Words came out of the fact that I was taking care of all these adorable children with hearing loss. And after cochlear implantation really saw these huge differences in outcomes, differences in listening and spoken language. Many of your listeners will know this so well. And in trying to figure out why I was seeing these differences stumbled onto just how important the first three years of life are, how critical parents and their rich talk and interaction was for allowing children after implantation to thrive. And then realizing that what allows a child after implantation to thrive is the same thing that allows all children to thrive. And so really my work at the TMW center, my work related to the book, looked at the individual level. What does it take to allow children to thrive in the first three years of life? All your family listeners know it’s rich language, nurturing interaction, and protection from toxic stress. So I went along this journey, I wrote this book and started developing programs to help families understand how powerful their language was and to turn it into action. But along this journey, what became clear is that parents glamming on and just really embracing their own power, barrier after barrier after barrier would be placed in the way of so many families to make their power into a reality. And just realizing how hard we make it on so many families to do what all families want to do, which is nurture their children to their best potential. It really inspired me to write this next book and take this next journey, because you can understand how powerful your words are, but if you’re never around, what good does it make it?

Wendy:

Yeah, it reminds me in my own life as a parent, I’ve read a lot of Dr. Ross Greene. And one of the things that he says is children will do well if they can. And it kind of seems like that’s it for parents. Every parent wants to be the parents they aspire to, but like you’re saying, all these societal barriers get in the way, it just makes perfect sense. And every paragraph I read in the book, I just wanted to highlight every word of it because we see it every day. So this is one of the things that really jumped out at me too. So you cited some statistics on how the United States supports or rather doesn’t support caregivers of young children. You write that we spend less money on early childhood care and education than any other nation. We are one of the only developed countries that does not mandate paid paternal leave, fewer than 10% of childcare programs are judged as high quality by the NIH. These are just a few of the research statistics that you quote in the book. How do we wrap our heads around this? What are some of the causes of all of these things? Why do you think it’s like this?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

When I was starting this journey? What was so clear is that here we know so much about what allows children to thrive. And at the end of the day, it’s about parents and caregivers being given the opportunity to be their children’s first and most important brain builders, but society doesn’t put into action. What we know is so necessary and why is this? Why is it that we are the only country without mandated paid leave? Why do we spend literally an average of $500 per year on early childcare per child? Look, I’m not asking for us to be like Finland and Norway. And those places that spend $28,000, the average of all these developed nations is $14,000. And we’re down at $500. So the list goes on, but why is this? What I’ve come to realize? It’s, there’s no one simple answer, but it comes down to this. Sort of mythic idea of American individualism, that we are, have to be tough and rugged and go it alone. And for some reason, it’s seeped into this idea of parenting, none of us parent alone. And I think COVID 19 really showed that none of us can parent alone, but yet our policies have set it up that in those first five years of life when we could use the most help as parents. We basically leave parents on their own and parents have internalized this idea. Instead of saying, I wish I could get more support in making the choices that I know are best for my children. We’ve convinced them to ask for help is the sign of weakness. Honestly, I love the world that we’re part of. Because, we really try to instill in parents that they are their children’s most important advocate and that’s part of the training, but the rest of the world in early childhood is not like that.

Wendy:

I didn’t think about it that way. That does make me really proud of working with children with hearing loss, cuz that is something we teach grad students and new professionals. You coach the parents, you don’t work with the child. Your job is to empower and coach a parent, to be able to talk with their child and facilitate their child’s language. Well, I’m very proud of us.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

You should be incredibly proud of us. When I think about all that I learned coming from the world of hearing loss, which is still my home. That’s always with me, I think about what are the things that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers that they need to advocate that language, rich language is key to healthy brain development. Those are core and fundamental ideas in our world. That’s why let’s face it. Some of our children after implantation are ahead of typically developing children.

Wendy:

Yes. I was just gonna say that I did a home visit yesterday and this little guy is the youngest of three boys. And the mom said he’s doing all these things that his brothers did and more because we’re so focused on his language. And we do really see that a lot that, sometimes our kids from Child’s Voice and many other listening and spoken language programs or anything, that’s focusing on language development. Like they go into kindergarten or even preschool sometimes ahead of their hearing peers.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

You know, it is phenomenal, but it really makes sense. When we think about a child with hearing loss who has no other associated comorbidities hearing is not about the ear. It’s about the brain. It’s about getting that rich language in to allow all those neural connections. I always call it the universe’s greatest. The reason that we as a human species are so smart is that first period after you come into the physical world is when you’re building that brain. The brain is more of potential than reality. Unlike our heart and our lungs that are fully formed. We know that brain has to be wired up. And so for children who have that rich language environment and let’s face it, some of our parents are incredibly intentional, just pouring language in and they’re really supported. Then you get children who reach their potential. You’re never gonna go past what your potential is but the brain is waiting for instructions from the outside world and our children from the world of hearing loss. When they go to Child’s Voice are getting lots of it

Wendy:

To get back to “Parent Nation”. And what you learned from the pandemic, I really loved how you tied all that into the book and it highlight some underlying societal issues that we had. So what insights did the pandemic give you on how parents are forced to choose between work and their families?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

The pandemic was like a powerful earthquake that showed us just how shaky our nation’s infrastructure of support for the children and parents, really parents and therefore children really was. And is I started off writing this book just before the pandemic. What I decided was that I would use that same guide of healthy development of children to say, we know what a child needs at an individual level. That was the first book. What do children need at an individual level? Language and nurturing interaction. But I sort of zoomed it out and said, well, if we know all of this, that what children need, what does a society look like? That really aligns with the early developmental science? And I was going to use the powerful story of the families that I, I worked with at the TMW center, really incredible families with really difficult situations that are unnecessarily placed in front of parents and then the pandemic occurred. And what was so clear was that it wasn’t just the families that I work with and care for deeply at the TMW center that are dealing with things like mass incarceration and homelessness and having to work three jobs and never being at home. But this was something that was affecting all families, except for maybe the top 1%. The fact that we basically during COVID 19 left parents and caregivers on their own day in and day out having to be everything for their children while trying to keep a job that was just absolutely unsustainable. It’s not to say there’s equivalency. The stuff that the families that we partner with, the TMW center, we make it almost impossible for them, but in this country we make it hard on almost everyone. And so I decided to tell all these stories to show one, the universal love of all parents, for their children and their desire for all parents, just to see their children have opportunity and be happy. Because I think sometimes we forget that that is a common thing that binds us all. But then just to show the myriad of ways that we have this huge disconnect between what we know children need and what we do. And to try to tell that story as a path forward through building a Parent Nation,

Wendy:

It really did. And you really opened my eyes so much to something we’ve been, hopefully all thinking about a lot, which is equity and the families that seem to need the most help tend to get the least. Families that don’t have the option to work from home families that tend to have lower income levels. They suffered the most because of the lack of societal support. And it’s easy, I think to lose sight of that. If I’m not constantly pushing myself to look at it, because if you don’t experience that, I’m lucky enough to not experience those insecurities right now in my life, I, I could very easily as could many people, but if I don’t force myself to look through a different lens, then I’m not learning anything. And I love how you highlighted the differences between families, but also how society has lacked support for all of them.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

Just building on that. When we think about those first five years of life, amazingly, we leave pretty much all parents on their own. The difference of course is when you have the resources to backfill it. Still parents are struggling. The amount of money for childcare, people are spending more than on mortgages, even if they can find it. So everybody is struggling, but when you have very little safety net, then you suffer more. And the thing is, is that if we were able to see the allyship and commonality in our common love for our children and the fact that these are the future citizens who are gonna take care of us and that building this idea of a parent nation, where we support all families, it benefits all of us. One in four parents go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. This is not just for some families. This is something that can support all of us. And there’s another commonality that we have as parents in the United States. Overall, parents in general are less happy than non-parents. It’s hard to raise kids, but a study by Jennifer Glass and colleagues looked at this parental happiness gap. And she looked at countries all across the world and compared the happiness gap to social supports for families. And as you can imagine, the less social supports for families, the less happy we are. I mean, we love our kids, but parents are profoundly stressed in this country. And we think it’s because it’s just, cuz it’s really hard and it is hard, but we make it harder by not supporting them because in this country, when you look at this graph, I wish that I could show you this graph. But at the very bottom, the largest gap of all these countries is the United States. I don’t think people realize we do nothing in those first few years of life compared to everyone. I’m not talking. We need to be like Finland. We just need to be a little bit more, would be better.

Wendy:

Let’s talk about that part. Let’s get to the hopeful part of what we can do to get there. Even preschool for all. That’s a good start, but it’s not quite enough. So one of the main concepts that you suggest for building a parent nation is through the healthcare model. So that’s one of your solutions. Let’s start there and talk more about if we can’t change the macro level today, which unfortunately we can’t. But what can we do on a smaller level?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

Obviously, there are many things that I talk about in the book. So I’ll talk about the health care, the role of healthcare, as you say, pre-K, K12 that’s all critically important. This is not about those things. Aren’t important and yes, we can invest more et cetera. But the big idea is that we need to start investing in supporting when learning begins and everyone in the world of hearing loss knows that learning doesn’t begin on the first day of it begins on the first day of life. And we need to start investing with that in mind. I think the healthcare system and partners like Child’s Voice can provide this network and mechanism for reaching all parents to both support them in understanding how their children develop. Because right now the truth is, is that we leave parents like, oh, go read a book and you can get a great book, which is great. Or you can get false information. And I can tell you from the research we do, there’s lots of misconceptions that are still there. So I think the healthcare system can really provide a way to both provide educational support for families, obviously early intervention, as well as other supports so that families will have different levels of stressors that occur. And we have no way to reach them. I think the healthcare system, pediatricians, providers can be there with their issues of homelessness or losing a job or developmental issue. They’re there to help support families. In that model.

Wendy:

You wrote that 90% of families attend medical visits. Everybody goes to the pediatrician, even if you don’t get prenatal care necessarily after babies are born, they almost always get some sort of medical follow up. And so that seems like the best way to catch everybody.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

Yeah. And I don’t think a lot of people think about the fact that in those first three years of life, we don’t really have an infrastructure to reach families. Like everybody knows most kids are born in a maternity ward, but how do you reach families? And for those who are part of early intervention, that’s great. But how do you get there? How do you get that support? And I think that a, a greater investment in the pediatric model, and it’s not to put more things on the shoulders of pediatricians who are already stressed, but to have a more holistic family oriented model, I think could be really powerful.

Wendy:

I remember going home after I had my first son, I was terrified to leave the hospital. And I’ve been in early intervention for years. And you write about this in the book too. There was a doula who had her own child and it was “no, no, I’m not ready for this.” And I just remember being terrified that the nurses weren’t going to come home with me and I didn’t know what to do. And again, this I’ve been in early intervention for so long. I work with babies. I’ve been around babies, but it’s so different. And I do feel like that pediatrician, that medical model was the touchstone. I had to make me feel that and my friends and my family, those were the things that I went back to to make sure that I was okay.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

You’re exactly right. Even I, as a pediatric surgeon, I remember when my late husband and I brought our firstborn home and I was like, oh my gosh, I do surgery on little kids, but I’m terrified just looking at her. Oh my gosh, am I gonna do something wrong? And it would’ve been nice to have a single visit. Just saying, look, you’re doing okay. Even when you’re lucky enough to have strong family supports, that’s great. But here we’re saying you’re the most important teacher brain builder for your child, but we often just say, oh, go it alone. Good luck call us if there’s a problem. And it’s just not the way I think it should be set up in, in many places. It’s not, we skip over that time period.

Wendy:

Yeah. So you mentioned that particular program and then some other ones towards the end of the book, all of these really great programs. Can you tell us about some of those and what those models look like?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

I don’t know about you, but I remember going to my pediatrician who was absolutely lovely. And so often we would talk about the things that I thought about. And remember when I had my kids, I didn’t know any of this stuff, none of this stuff. And we would talk about how Genevieve was eating, sleeping. My concerns about colic, never did we really talk about healthy brain development or language? And really our research has born it out that in the very short time period to talk to or pediatrician, they often focus on these more sort of physical aspects because the time is limited. But there’s this really cool model called Healthy Steps that comes out of Zero to Three and Rahil Briggs actually leads it. And the model is they put a developmental therapist in with the pediatrician in the pediatric sites and they are there to talk about these developmental milestones to do it more in depth, a pediatrician can’t spend long periods of time. There’s the medical model. Unfortunately, doesn’t allow it at this point, but this Healthy Steps supports the parents and understanding how to best develop their child’s cognitive language socio-emotional and helps with the gaps of issues related to all those things that can happen in your life. Homelessness, losing a job. I tell the story of this young mother who was an immigrant. She was kicked out of a distant family’s home because her, her son who turned out to have autism was being really disruptive, cuz they didn’t even have a diagnosis and how they slept on a park bench. But then she went to see this pediatrician in New York, her local pediatrician and the pediatrician immediately, as soon as she shared sleeping on the bench called in this Healthy Steps provider who immediately took her under her wing, got her set up in a homeless shelter, which eventually transitioned to an apartment. But more importantly saw that this child had other issues. And ultimately the child was diagnosed as having autism received the right therapy. But I guess the, the long and short of it is that we need a more holistic family oriented approach to families. We do it with children with hearing loss and we probably need to do it more. But all families in this important job of raising the next generation is hard, need more support. We need to value and support them.

Wendy:

From that story, it speaks to just asking the right question and asking questions and not assuming. You also talked about a family that these three children came in and appeared as if they had a lot of resources, but then after asking a question, their situation was completely the opposite. So what do you think on smaller level, speaking to our audience, a lot of whom are providers, what are the small questions that we can ask so that we understand what’s going on with families and we’re not gonna be able to solve every single problem, but we can maybe connect families with places that can.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

As you know, it is so much about that relationship, allowing that family to feel comfortable to ask for help. So I don’t know if I have an exact question other than probing, but also I think it’s a pretty powerful thing to allow families to know that they don’t have to go it alone. I think sometimes because we’ve internalized, especially women, this idea that if we ask for help in some way, we’re failing as parents. But just to say, look, it is so hard. And I want you to know, I’m glad that everything’s going well. Or if it’s not that you don’t have to go it alone. We are here as your partners and support because you are doing such an important job. You are raising little Johnny or Joey or Janie to be a productive member of society. We are here to support you. This is not about, oh, we’re helping you. No, this is part of being allies. I think we need to start looking at families as allies. So often it’s funny when I talk to providers and not even in the world of hearing loss all over the country, we often talk about, oh, we need to engage parents. Which of course we do, but it sounds like we’re not also parents. We’re all parents. We need to engage all of us and we need to look at them and engage with them. Not just as professionals, which we do, but I’m a mother too. I get it. You love your child so much. And there’s nothing more painful than when you’re worried about your child, et cetera. And I’m here to be your ally. You can’t fix everything, but I think that’s a, an important start.

Wendy:

Well, we’ve talked about so much. I could probably talk about this book for hours, but our listeners might fatigue at some point. So what else haven’t we talked about, how can we kind of pull this all together?

Dr. Dana Suskind:

If you ask me, what do I hope comes out of this book and the work that we’re doing on the ground. If your listeners would go to Parent Nation.org and see the resources that we have and how to activate and start elevating our expectations, parents have enough on their shoulders right now. This is not about like one more thing you have to do, but I want your listeners. I want all of us to start elevating our expectations that society can. And it’s not just about policies, but can and should play more support for us in the early years that the support that children and with hearing loss need is critical for allowing them to be productive members of society. And that I want your listeners to know that what they’re doing is so, so important and just to feel good about it and to look at other parents at Child’s Voice or around their community as allies. And that the more we come together and bring our voices together, that we all deserve support and all children deserve to thrive. That’s part of the change.

Wendy:

Yeah. That’s so empowering. I, I love that. Well, Dana, thank you so much for this conversation. I was so excited to talk to you. And like I said, I think we could go on for hours, but I really hope that everybody has the chance to read this book because it is really inspiring and gives not only just great scientific information, but pulls in personal stories and then gives the reader an opportunity to think about, okay, what can I do? Because anyone that reading this book is going to care about children and care about families. And so it gives you all of those things in one, and it’s just really special. So we’ll have some links in our show notes on how to find it. But I thank you so much for talking about this with us. And I really appreciate you being here.

Dr. Dana Suskind:

My pleasure, and you know that I love Child’s Voice with all my heart. What child’s voice does is part of building a parent nation. It’s a, it’s about allowing children to thrive and reach their potential. So it’s an honor to be part of Child’s Voice, to be a support Child’s Voice. And I’m just thankful for that.

Wendy:

Thank you. Well, we’re thankful for you. We can always do more. We can always learn more. We can always grow more. And I think this is an important piece in us. Moving forward. Thank you for joining us on another episode of All Ears, Child’s Voice. Be sure to join us for our next episode. We release episodes once monthly, you can follow us and this podcast on Instagram with the handle @childsvoicepodcast, we’d love to hear from you. So please send us an email at podcast, a child’s voice.org. You can find episode show notes and archived episodes, website, childvoice.org. And if you’re interested in learning more about us, we’re on Facebook as well as Twitter with the handle @childsvoice. No apostrophe, thank you so much for listening. Bye

Dr. Dana Suskind:

Bye.

Haley:

And that’s all. Be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to don’t miss any episodes. If you are interested in, in supporting child’s voice in the programs like this one, please visit us at child’s voice.org and click on the donate now button. Thanks for listening. Bye.