Several years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a nationally known authority on children came to lecture on campus one fall and made a startling statement. He said that the United States was no longer a child-centered country. And he continued to build on the central theme that we cared less about our children than we had in the past. In addition, he quoted statistic after statistic that many children were better off being born in other countries.
His speech was unsettling. I thought about it for several weeks after. His ideas differed from the pictures Norman Rockwell had painted of family life in America on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazines in times past.A recent article in Time Magazine (Oct. 8) once again brought the issue to mind. It was titled "Do We Care About Our Kids?" Before you answer, consider the following:
- Nearly one in four children under the age of 6 in America lives in poverty.
- Every eight seconds, a child drops out of school.
- Every 26 seconds, a child runs away from home.
- Every 47 seconds, a teenager has a baby.
- Every 67 seconds, a child is arrested for a drug offense.
- Every 36 minutes, a child is killed or injured by a gun.
- Every day 135,000 children bring a gun to school.
We even neglect children before they are born. According to the article, nearly 250,000 babies are born seriously underweight each year in this country. And America's infant mortality rate is currently 9.7 deaths per 1,000, worse than 17 other developed countries. And consider this: The United States is one of only four countries that execute juvenile offenders. Who are the other three? Iraq, Iran and Bangladesh.
The article continues with more dismal statistics on America's children and then calls for action for the sake of our children. And it brings up an interesting issue. Who is responsible for America's children? Parents? Religious leaders? Educators? The medical profession? Government officials?
Actually all these groups and others share a responsibility for nurturing, teaching and developing today's young people. We in the Intermountain area would first note that children are the primary responsibility of the parents. And justly so. But what happens when either the mother or father, or both, are inept or incapable of caring for their children? And the same holds true for one-fourth of the families who are headed by a single parent. What if he or she lacks the skills, knowledge or motivation for care for the children? Who, then, must assume the responsibility?
A few months ago I was impressed by a television program about a middle-aged woman who taught kindergarten in an urban area. The teacher was doing more than finger plays and sandbox, which is the stereotype we have of those who work with young children today. This woman was teaching 5-year-olds the importance of nutrition, hygiene, common concern for fellow classmates, and some moral concepts of right and wrong. The TV commentator who interviewed the teacher asked if she felt she was imposing on the rights of the parents to teach their children these things. Wasn't that really the responsibility of the family?
The teacher replied that at one time she had left these things in the hands of the parents. But recently, she noted, most of the children in her class had little if any family life at all. There really was no competition, she said, because few others, including the parents, appeared to be nurturing these city children.
Who will nurture today's and tomorrow's children? Hopefully, the parents. And if not them, who? Perhaps others, in addition to parents, need to become involved. And what responsibility do we as adults have for the children who are not our own?
Robert Coles, psychiatrist at Harvard University, notes, "Children who go unheeded are children who eventually are going to turn on the world that neglected them."
If you have comments, write to 1036 SWKT, BYU, Provo, UT 84602.