Advance Copy: Neil Boothby

Welcome to Advance Copy, a look at the people, perspectives, and scholarship of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, home to the University of Notre Dame’s initiatives advancing its long-standing commitment to the future of K-12 schools.



Neil Boothby


Just Launched: 

Invest in our Youth, by Dr. Neil Boothby and Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, discusses how faith and early childhood development science can converge to create a world where the most vulnerable not only survive but thrive.


Hails from: 

Southern California


Notre Dame Initiative: 

Founding Director, Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child



Ed.D. Harvard Graduate School of Education


Favorite place on Notre Dame’s campus: 

I like walking around the lakes and, in particular, the Virgin of Guadalupe painting in the tree.


What drew you to Notre Dame (for work)?

I was at Columbia University. I had a grant to assist organizations in five countries implementing education programs. One of those was Notre Dame's program in Haiti. And I just was very impressed with the commitment to serving children—putting their education needs first—and then the research was embedded within the doing. And that was a very compelling approach.


Why this book? Why now?

So in Haiti in particular, but also other countries such as Kenya, we work on education programs and early childhood development programs through the Catholic Church. In rural parts of developing countries, the church is often present and maybe the only education provider. And when you have a Catholic church in rural parts of Kenya and Haiti, you also have a school and then you have families that go to each. So we've been working on the concept that the Catholic Church in the parish is the unit of change, and we want priests and other religious leaders to be involved actively through sermons and pre-baptisms and other means of promoting the science of healthy child development.

We were able then in Haiti to engage in a way that we are now able to work with priests and sisters during their formation period. Fr. Lou DelFra and I started a conversation looking at the dialectic between faith and science in order to inform those efforts more. We decided we would record that. And then after recording it, we turned it into a book. So the motivation was to make it useful to our efforts, in this case in Haiti, but we're finding a much wider audience, including young parents in this country who want to raise their children well and do so through a Catholic lens.


Tell me about the style of the book. What can readers expect? Is it full of facts and figures or is it more of a conversation between the two of you?

What it really is is a conversation between a priest and a child psychologist in which they're looking at the compatibility of Catholic social teaching and early childhood development science. And to me, what was remarkable is the understanding that human beings were meant for each other, they're meant to be in relationships, and we're sort of not only biologically wired for relationships, perhaps even spiritually. One can take the Genesis story, for example, where God created the Earth in a number of days. And after each day He concludes that this is good, this is good, this is good. Except when He created the single human being and he said, this is not good, and He put the human being back to sleep and created two out of one. I think that's just emblematic of the importance of relationships. 

Then if you go over to the science, we know during the first thousand days of life in particular, about 80 percent of our intellectual capacity is accumulated or created. The main ingredients are responsive social care, or love, and nutrition. And without that human connectedness, children don't survive, and they certainly don't thrive. 

So we just continued the conversation looking at various aspects of child development and what faith has to say about that, including looking at the home as the domestic church and parents as the first teachers. Because we know even before kids start school, especially those growing up in poverty, 60 to 70 percent of achievement gaps between kids in professional families and kids that are growing up poor is evident before they even start formal school. This is such a critical part of the human equation, and we need to learn how to invest in that. And there's many things the church could be doing to foster that resilience. 


Can you give us an example or two of something you think the church could be doing? 

Well, there's a liturgical calendar and children come up a lot—the Birth of Jesus is one of those moments. And from the pulpit, priests can get the message out about how is it that God wants us to raise God's children? And they can work in some of the science: that it's your love. When you pick a baby up and you talk to her and she cries and you feed her… this is growing healthy cognition.

And it's remarkable to me—and maybe the only sort of scientific miracle I've seen in my lifetime—is the way in which that social engagement in real time, like right now, now becomes part of our children's biology through epigenetic processes, etc… When parents understand the transformative nature of their relationships, the way that they're contributing to brain health, linking that to responsibilities as a Christian or a Catholic parent of raising our children well, it can be transformational. So the church can do it through sermons. It can do it through pre-baptism preparation, working in some of the science and nutrition. This is what we do in Haiti and Kenya, for example. There's ways in which you can form mothers’ groups and start looking at that again, the dialectic between faith and science. So there's a myriad of ways the church can really engage in child development and learning beyond the school itself. 


This is very exciting, but I wonder if people don't think of those nurturing elements as “science"? Maybe they just think holding their child is what one normally does… not seeing the scientific element? Do you find that?

We do find it—if you're a parent that understands that love is important. How you express that love can be, in many ways, incredibly kind. But in many parts of the world the way we raise our children, the way we discipline our children, can be extremely harsh and punitive.

One can look at colonial origins, for example, and kids in Haiti growing up first as slaves and then under French occupation. And parents and teachers had to ensure that their children were very compliant, that they showed deference. And in that sense, some of the anthropologists that study this would say that's one of the reasons why punishment tends to be extremely harsh, and we have to shift the mindset. And faith leaders have an important role to play in creating that change.


Sometimes I think people think science and faith are at odds. Is that something that you and Fr. Lou try to tackle in this book at all? 

We certainly live in a divided world. It does appear at times that making science-based decisions can be at odds with the way some people think. One can consider faith and science sort of being in opposition to each other. So Fr. Lou and I did start with that kind of exploration: where is the goodness of fit around the issues that we're talking about? And in this case at least, we found that there's high convergence in a certain sense. I think faith tells us what we should do, what are our obligations and responsibilities to our children, to God's children, who, in my opinion, God has entrusted to us. And science then tells us some of the ways that you do that.

Who's this book for? Is it for people in the United States or is it really more of a worldwide reach?

We wrote it particularly for our programs where we're working with the Catholic Church in sort of a low resource context. But I think it's applicable everywhere. I've had young Notre Dame graduates who are new parents that have read it and said it's changed the way they’re thinking about raising their children. So I think that the science and the faith pieces are important to everyone.

The other thing in this country is that we have a fairly robust health system compared to some other countries. There are ways in which physicians and pediatricians can do more than just look at physical health. They can work with parents around language acquisition and other things, especially when you're having your first child. Parents are really curious about, "How do we do this well”? That's the time to get a hold of young people that are having babies. And, again, if you're a faithful churchgoer, I think you also want to know how do you raise your kids spiritually? This discourse provides some ideas.

After reading this book, are there key takeaways that you'd like people to act on? 

In a generic sense, taking poverty out of the equation, because to some extent Catholic social teaching calls us to prioritize the poor. There is this sort of calling in the book, and our work out of the Global Center, really focuses on kids growing up in adverse environments.

If we take that as a given but then expand it into, let's just say parents, Catholic parents, faith communities more generally, I do think that there are certain things that we can do to raise healthy kids. 

Part of it is just the awareness of how critical those first thousand days of life are, and that learning begins at birth, not when they go to preschool or kindergarten, for example. It may be more about the way we talk to our kids and how many words they're exposed to before they start school. That could cut across some of the socioeconomic divides. If we can't change the economic situation of families and societies, we certainly can work with them to have them singing to their children, talking to their children, exposing them to words.

People are busy, but in their everyday lives there are always opportunities, too. If you're a mother in a market and you're trying to sell things, for example in Kenya, you can bring your child with you, you can point out colors and shapes and count money and change. And you can have your child learn in the context of your work.

And this is a message, I think if we actually got out to parents, if they understood the importance of this period of time to the success of their kids, long term, it could be transformational, I think will change the world. Mother by mother, child by child.


I can’t think of a more inspirational way to end this conversation. 

Thank you, Neil and a shout out to Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, as well for sharing your thoughts and expertise about ways we can invest in our youth from different perspectives, but through one common transformational lens.