University of Southern California

Early Childhood Development and the Law

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Article by Clare Huntington
From Volume 90, Number 4 (May, 2017)

Early childhood development is a robust and vibrant focus of study in multiple disciplines, from economics and education to psychology and neuroscience. Abundant research from these disciplines has established that early childhood is critical for the development of cognitive abilities, language, and psychosocial skills, all of which turn, in large measure, on the parent-child relationship. And because early childhood relationships and experiences have a deep and lasting impact on a child’s life trajectory, disadvantages during early childhood replicate inequality. Working together, scholars in these disciplines are actively engaged in a national policy debate about reducing inequality through early childhood interventions.

Despite the vital importance of this period, the law and legal scholars have been largely indifferent to the dynamics of early childhood development. Doctrine and legislation are rarely developmentally sensitive, lumping children into an undifferentiated category regardless of age. The legal system thus misses key opportunities to combat inequality and foster healthy development for all children. And most legal scholars do not engage with the wealth of interdisciplinary research on early childhood, nor are they part of the interdisciplinary dialogue and policy debates. As a result, that conversation does not include the voices of lawyers and legal scholars, who are uniquely positioned to add critical insights.

Remedying this stark disconnect requires doing for law what scholars have done in other disciplines: creating a distinctive field. Accordingly, this Article proposes a subdiscipline of early childhood development and the law. The new field crystallizes a distinctive interest that the legal system must attend to and charts a path for legal scholars to follow for years to come. As with the dawning of fields such as juvenile justice, domestic violence, and elder law, early childhood development and the law will be a focal point for research within the legal academy, a vital bridge to scholars in other disciplines, and an important means for bringing lawyers and legal scholars to the heart of emerging policy debates.

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