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How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

UNICEF’s comparison of rich countries puts the USA near the bottom

In 1995, James Garbarino published a book, Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment. That was 15 years ago. Conditions are even worse for children today. James Heckman, nobel laureate, marshals data showing how US children are worse off than 50 years ago. The new UNICEF report, Children Left Behind, seems to concur and puts the USA near the bottom on all three of the measures they used--material, educational and health well-being. But the overall picture is much worse for kids in the USA. Why should you care? How about this---today's kids will be in charge when you are old.

Here are some quotes from the UNICEF report that relate to my topics in prior blogs:

• Children who fall behind begin to do so in the very earliest stages of their lives.

• During pregnancy and the first few weeks and months of life, critical stages in the child's mental and physical development follow each other in rapid succession. Each stage serves as a foundation for the next.

• By the age of two, cognitive ‘falling behind' can be measured. By the age of four, much of the potential damage may have been done.

Nothing good comes from allowing children to grow up in poverty and we've got about a one-fourth of US kids in poverty. Some families move in and out of poverty. Research shows that any experience of poverty in childhood is detrimental to health and well-being later on.

What areas need attention for children's well-being to improve? In my stream of consciousness here are a few that come to mind.


Why don't we in policy and practice put families first? From little things like coordinating school vacations across schools to excellent inexpensive daycare for when both parents have to work and extended family members are not available. Every government official should put families first in any decision that is made.

Daycare. Like it or not, most moms have to work (they may have the only job in the family) and they often have to put their kids in daycare. Daycare has to be government subsidized because it's one of the things that doesn't work in a ‘free market'--you end up with what we have now: regular people can only afford substandard daycare with poorly educated caregivers. Children in such care suffer in terms of cognitive, social and moral functioning. We need national standards for personalized daycare based on science and the ancient mammalian principles of care (e.g., prompt responsiveness to the child's needs, frequent positive touch).

Healthcare. Health is fundamental to a good life. We need easy physical and mental health care for parents and children. The new health care plan moves in this direction.

Perhaps two thirds of adults were relationally traumatized in childhood. Such trauma can influence one's parenting and family relationships. Because we allow children to be mistreated from before birth (with excessive stress to moms and lack of social support from the community), during birth (interfering hospital births that don't let the pregnancy last till the normal 40-42 weeks and interfere with mom-baby bonding and with breasfeeding), and after birth (e.g., a culture of non-breastfeeding and non-co-sleeping), the society is responsible for the damages to mental and health that occur. So healthcare should be supplied to all.

Jobs. Families are up against the wall. If one parent has a job, it often doesn't provide enough for what is needed to live. Sometimes a parent or both parents have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Everyone is stressed and that's bad for kids longterm.

You should not have to work several jobs full-time to have enough income to raise a family. We need living wages. If we value children, we have to give parents time to be with them and guide them. Too many children grow up with few adult guides on how to traverse the many dangerous realms of life, including the media.


Because adults are preoccupied with work most of the time now, we are allowing popular culture to raise our children. What does popular culture do? It glorifies self-centeredness, consumerism, immediate gratification, affluenza (getting more than the next guy), single parenthood, cruelty, greed, lust, envy, vindictiveness. Are these the characteristics of the neighbors or leaders you would like to have in the future? In terms of ethical and prosocial programming, television is becoming more and more of a desert.

Yet many families leave the television on all day long and many families think any cartoon is child-safe. What's wrong with these habits? There is great slippage in show content whether television or movies or cartoons. For example, movie ratings are documented to have slipped over the years. For example, PG13 today would have been R 15 years ago; G today would have been PG in the past.

More and more shows and advertisements show violence like it is wallpaper. It is rare to find a sitcom that doesn't insult and putdown others. Children cannot discern what is or is not important or real. They see and they imitate.

The culture may have changed but children have not. Under age 6 they still have highly reactive stress response systems that can get imprinted for life by trauma (like a horror movie, or being left to ‘cry it out'). Under age 12, most don't get the message intended from a story, but they pick up on the behaviors. Without adults around to advise, they may copy gruesome horrible acts. We need to return to the family hours of television (for cable too) when programming was careful not to promote violence or promiscuity.

Everyday parents put their children in the chicken coop with the wolves. The wolves of advertising want to imprint their brand on children before they are critical thinkers (adolescence) to build lifelong loyalty (but how many of their parents are brand zombies--see Brandedt)? We need to have much stricter laws about advertising to children as other advanced countries do.


The food supply is filled with non-nutritious and even harmful ingredients. Consumer products are loaded with chemicals that have either never been tested for their safety and if they have, are still allowed in products (e.g., mineral oil-see Devra Davis' work). Some are linked to ADHD. We need improved labeling and education. Parents in poverty are discouraged from breastfeeding and end up watering down formula so it lasts longer, not realizing the effects on their child's development. Parents feed children soda pop, junk food, and candy, not thinking about what that might be doing to the development of bones, blood and brains.


Why aren't we urgently moving toward clean, safe, renewable energy? Fossil fuel use has been so incredibly destructive of communities, ecosystems and health around the world. Coal plants emit all sorts of carcinogens like mercury. These harm children, yet we are slow to move towards renewables. Here is a town in Sweden that is totally off fossil fuels and uses mostly garbage to fuel its cars and lights. Where is our creativity?


Have you ever met a child who has been schooled at an alternative school like Waldorf or Montessori? Or even a homeschooled child who is well-loved? They look you in the eye. They are calm. They are confident. They are compassionate and empathic with you, no matter what their age. Does this sound unusual to you? Nearly all children used to be this way. Now, too manyl are not.

Our education system is now battering children--the adults are running wild with their stress (see the film, War on Kids). Schools have cut back on recess and field trips, suspend kids for crazy things like treating a french fry like a gun, and encourage parents to put their children on drugs for ADHD ("play in a pill" some call it).

These are just a few areas that greatly affect children's moral development. What would you add?


Thomas Sowell documents how some groups, like the Chinese, end up being successful no matter where they emigrate. They invest in their children---the whole family works for the next generation. This what we need to do as a country. Shift our priorities to the next generation instead of our own. It's an investment in the future of the country. Cultivating the well-being of future generations is a patriotic duty, not filling the pockets of the rich, not filling our own pockets or letting things waste away.

We subsidize farmers and corporations and highways, why can't we subsidize all the areas that affect children?

Since I hate to end on a sour note, here are some more stream-of-consciousness ideas of things we can all do.

Support parenting education for all ages. Roots of Empathy is a great program for elementary school children. But because kids are having babies at younger and younger ages, high schoolers need to know about such things as the perils of formula feeding. But adults need education too because I hear about too many grandparents discouraging their children from good parenting practices like breastfeeding and keeping babies content.

Change your family's leisure habits. Instead of shopping, take more time to enjoy each other and your neighbors with "cheap" leisure activities like sledding (even on cardboard), scavenger hunts, growing a community garden on a vacant lot. Lower your consumer expectations. Forego trying to keep up with the Joneses. Involve your children in coming up with ideas for non-consumeristic activities.To counter your children's complaints about not having enough, do what my parents did: show them examples of kids with much less.

Eat less but better quality food. Junk food keeps you hungry because you don't get the nutrients you need. As Michael Pollan suggests, buy food that is along the outside wall of the grocery store (where the vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products are) and avoid processed foods. On the web you can find simple recipes that take little time to make. Well being is vital for moral functioning.

Form a Milk Party in your state and agitate for children. We need a viral movement for kids.

Things have been going downhill for children for 50 years in part because we have failed to invest in underprivileged children (see Nobel laureate James Heckman's arguments for this). Unless we take action, things will not improve. One step at a time is how we forge a new path. What ideas do you have for what we should do?