Incarcerated Parents, Children of - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Incarcerated Parents, Children of


The Problem

Because of the large numbers of Americans arrested for drugs in recent years and many draconian plans for imprisonment (“three strikes” laws, to mention but one), the numbers of children impacted by their parent’s incarceration has skyrocketed. 1,500,000 children in the United States had a parent in prison in 1999, up by more than 500,000 since 1991. By 2004, there were 2.3 million (Mumola, 2000). The needs of these children regularly go unmet, and they are in our classrooms, family child-care homes, and after school programs.

In 1999, 2.1 percent of American children had one or two parents in prison. This number has increased substantially by publication, probably to above 4 percent and, for children of color, into double digits. Black children were at 7 percent in 1999, nearly 9 times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children (0.8 percent) or Latino children (2.6 percent, 3 times as likely as white children to have an inmate parent). More than 22 percent of children with a parent in prison were under five years of age. And about half of the inmate parents were living with their child(ren) at the time of arrest (Mumola, 2000).

Early educators will likely meet these children in the course of their work. Since having a parent in prison is an enormously stressful experience, one that usually impacts a child for the rest of his or her life, adults who are with the child have the opportunity to help the child develop resilience. Children in families impacted by imprisonment suffer emotional stress, social isolation, difficulties in school, mood changes, regression, and health problems (notably asthma). Boys tend to explode, becoming anxious and aggressive, and girls to implode, becoming silent, anxious, withdrawn, and depressed. The arts can help them to mediate their pain. Offering open-ended art activities and dance and movement, giving children time to express what is inside them, can be a major support to children who are carrying any heavy burden.

After the arrest of a mother, children are most often sent to live with relatives, and sometimes into foster care. If the father is arrested, children generally stay with their mother. These new homes are usually far from the prison, making visiting rare. Regular visiting almost never happens, threatening the relationship between the parent and child. Prisoners from Hawaii are now often incarcerated on the mainland, meaning that visits are generally out of question. Our society has not been making provision for minimizing the upheaval in the lives of children whose parents are removed. And the huge increase (more than 100% since 1996) of women in prison has meant a doubling of the number of children with a parent in prison, and much more use of the foster care system to see to the needs of these children.


What Is Needed?

According to the Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents, children with parents in prison have eight rights that should be written into the laws and social practices of our communities. These rights are as follow:

1. To be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.

2. To be heard when decisions are made about me.

3. To be considered when decisions are made about my parent.

4. To be well cared for in my parent’s absence.

5. To speak with, see, and touch my parent.

6. To support, as I struggle with my parent’s incarceration.

7. Not to be judged, blamed or labeled because of my parent’s incarceration.

8. To have a lifelong relationship with my parent.

The early childhood teacher can help children of incarcerated parents in the following two ways:

1. Working to change social policy so that children’s outcomes are part of what is considered in arrest, trial and sentencing of parents (political help).

2. Making many connections with the child and offering to talk about the problems (direct help).


Political Help for Children

Early childhood educators are shocked by society’s neglect of children under so many and varied stresses can become active in their public policy organizations, working to implement the Bill of Rights and also working on alternatives to locking up mothers and fathers in prison. Many of these parents would be able to care for their children from home if they were sentenced to do their time there, and their children would be the ones who would benefit most from this change.

There is almost no public outcry on behalf of these children, and public information programs are essential. If small-model programs such as the one begun in 2004 at the office of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi were brought to the attention of policymakers, more attempts to serve this community must come into existence. Keeping these (and all) children safe, comfortable and whole must become a national priority. Young school-aged children of prisoners often fear disclosing their story to others because of the shame and difference that attach to their status. They may surround themselves with an aura of secrecy.


Direct Help for Children in Educator’s Care

It is important for early childhood educators to help these children feel valued and let them know that having a parent in prison isn’t what defines them. If a child feels there is someone who is interested and nonjudgmental, who will listen and talk about the difficulties s/he is facing, that will help.

An adult can say to the child: “It must be hard to have your daddy (mommy) in jail.” And then continue the discussion if the child wishes. If the child doesn’t have anything to say at that time, it’s a good idea to repeat the remark in a few weeks. It lets the child know that she or he isn’t being judged and excluded, but only offered help or comfort.

Early childhood educators can be sensitive to the fact that children have different families, and approach holiday gift making or Mother’s or Father’s Day with language that includes this child. “Mother’s Day is coming and you may want to make cards for your mom or your grandmother or your foster mother or any other woman you love very much.” Or, “Here are materials to make something for your grownups.”

The adult who has assumed care for the child may be angry at the incarcerated parent for leaving the parenting to be done by others, or for the crime itself. It is important that the child shouldn’t find himself or herself in the midst of such anger between parent and caregiver. Sometimes the early childhood provider can help find counseling or other support systems for the caregiver, or can listen and point out what the child needs in this situation ... a sense of being valued and protected, and a continuing connection with all the people important to him or her. Small services can make a difference in the tension levels of these families—someone to shop for groceries or take the child to visit in prison.

The teacher might have discussions with the whole group of children about people we miss. Children with parents in prison will be interested to hear of others missing people who have died, moved away, gone off to work in a far-off place, are in rehabilitation programs or are in the armed forces. There is a companionship among those with loved ones who aren’t close by.

The teacher can invite children to draw or paint people they miss. This work should be supported and given a place of honor in the classroom. The teacher can invite the children to make a play about people they miss. Such activities benefit all children, and don’t point a finger at the child with a parent in prison, but include him/her in the human story.

The teacher will also want to read and discuss books on this subject. While there are many titles, some may too wordy or too judgmental for young children. A few good ones are the following:

• Maury, Inez (1978). My mother and I are getting stronger. In English and Spanish. Volcano Press, P.O. Box 270, Volcano, CA 95689. Available online at

• Woodson, Jacqueline (2002). Our Gracie Aunt. Hyperion. Two African American children react differently to their change in circumstances. Also by the same author is the book Visiting Day.

• Williams, Vera B. (2001). Amber was brave, Essie was smart. New York: Green- willow. This book offers poetry and drawings about two sisters who react very differently to their father being in prison. The significance of the two children having different reactions is that conversations with children can begin, “would you feel like Amber or like Essie?” and that’s a good start for exploring what children might feel. If you have a child or children with parents in prison, don’t require that the child come forth with his or her opinions; let the others do the work and let the child with the real situation listen to the concern and sympathy that these books evoke for the children in them.

Starting in 2004 the 125,000-member National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) formed an Interest Group for Children with Incarcerated Parents (CHIPS), which meets annually at the NAEYC conference. Up-to-date information can be obtained from that Interest Group by telephoning the NAEYC headquarters at 800-424-2460 and asking for contact numbers or calling cochair Sydney Clemens at 415-586-7338.

Further Readings: Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents (November 2003). Available free by request from, online at http://www., or by calling Friends Outside at 209-9380727; Child Welfare League of America has a current bibliography available online at; Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (2001). Incarcerated Parents Manual: Your Legal Rights and Responsibilities. Revised ed. Contact the LSPC at 100 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94102; 415-255-7036, ext. 310;; Mumola, Christopher J. (August 2000) Special Report: Incarcerated Parents and their Children. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.; Seymour, C., and C. F. Hairston, eds. (2000). Children with parents in prison: Child welfare policy, program, and practice issues. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publisher; Yaffe, R. M., L. F. Hoade, and B. S. Moody (2000). When a parent goes to jail: A comprehensive guide for counseling children of incarcerated parents. Windsor, CA: Rayve Productions.

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens