Our young people need parents, not drill instructors

Kids "shape up" when they find an adult who reminds them, "You matter!"

Posted Nov 21, 2009

If, as I showed in my last blog, boot camps don't work except when they provide counseling in heavy doses, then what should we do to help delinquent young people make changes that stick? As simple as it sounds, kids change when they find a parent, or parent-like substitute who can remind them, "You matter!"

In fact, parents (and other caregivers) are so important that when Alan Sroufe and his team of psychologists tracked 240 first born children of mothers living in poverty in Minneapolis, following them until they were 20-years-old, they found that they could predict a lot of things about a child based on what they knew about the parents. Poor grades at school, and later, dropping out before completing grade 12, are "markers" for how well a child was cared for when he or she was three-years-old. In fact, Sroufe could predict with 77% accuracy which child would drop out in high school based on observations made of the child and his or her parents even before the child began school. And none of this had to do with the child's level of poverty or the child's intelligence (IQ). What made the difference was how well the child felt connected to the parent.

It was as if Sroufe could see in those neglected youngsters toddling around his laboratory and their homes the warning signs that these children had already lost faith in their future. Without a parent to encourage them, and see to it that they lived up to expectations, they simply gave up or felt excluded. How awful it must feel to be abandoned so young!

It is just as awful for an adolescent to feel that no one is watching. In my book The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids, I tell the story of a group of concerned youth workers in Toronto who go the extra mile to ensure the adolescents they work with go to school. It's not boot camp. Instead, it's a service in the child's own community, providing young people with expectations and structure.

One of the workers, Henry, working with HOODLINC in Toronto, knows what kids need. His own history is one of gangs and prisons, poor school attendance, and trouble at home. The organization he founded, HOODLINC, hand picks a group of grade nine students and provides them with a special classroom where the student numbers are kept low. Volunteers go to their homes and drag them out of bed if they don't come to class. Through their every action, the adults let the kids know they care about them and understand the odds stacked against them. These are thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds with records, most from fatherless homes that Henry describes as "survival units" with young moms just barely getting by. Peter Barrans, the principal of the special academic unit that houses HOODLINC, insists that it's consistency that counts when it comes to re-engaging the kids. Numbers too. There is something about the connection you get when you have just eight students and one teacher. As Barrans explains, "When I'm in a class of twenty-two, I teach science. When I'm in a class of eight, I teach students."

So think back to when you were a little kid? How did your parents make you feel connected? If you didn't feel connected, what did you wish they'd done?"

There are very few among us who would answer that question with, "Oh, I wish they'd shipped me off to a boot camp, and let people yell at me all day." Likely, we would have preferred someone who convinced us they were really there for us, not just to give in to our every demand, but someone who could provide us with both structure and caring.