American kids continue to fare poorly in comparison to much of the rest of the world’s students and we’ve thrown a ghastly amount of money at the issue to improve test scores. We’ve blamed the educational unions – and yes, there is some validity to those criticisms of teacher protectionism – and we’ve blamed teaching methods as well as teachers themselves. But a late 2010 poll by Stanford University in which they query adults found that fully 68%, more than two-thirds, blamed parents themselves. The surprising part of this was that more than half of both mothers and fathers agreed with the assessment. But it goes beyond education however, into general behavior, and I myself wonder, are we really to blame?
If there is blame to be apportioned, then yes, we deserve the lion’s share of it.
There’s a confluence of elements that have made parenting today’s children and teens especially difficult.
- A changing and increasingly competitive economy that demands greater and more intense attention for the dwindling share of the economic pie. The prototypical Monday – Friday daytime workweek has suffered as more are thrown out of work or have to work part-time at whatever hours they can in order to provide for food and a roof.
- A rise in the availability and prevalence of home electronics so that the large majority of American kids are plugged into some device for an average of 7 hours each day. Couple this with the fact that many of these computers, game systems and televisions are in the kids’ bedrooms means that the parents effectively have little control over what the kids are viewing and seeing.
- A stubbornly high divorce and single parenting rate so that the kids are overseen by only one parent who also has other household responsibilities with which to contend.
- A belief that there are limits to discipline and an increased permissiveness as parents shift away from being authority figures to something akin to friends and buddies.
Practically speaking, the parents who are around are being pulled in too many directions to effectively do those things that a parent needs to do – communicate with, monitor, discipline and enforce.
There are factors over which we have no immediate control, specifically jobs and to an extent, marital/parenting status. We have to keep a roof over the head and food on the table and I honestly don’t know how two people in a bad marriage can effectively keep things together for the kids. But the other factors are huge and are very much within our power.
Those factors within our power are the presence of the electronics and their usage. Does the child really need a cellphone? Does the child really need a laptop or iPad that they can carry to their room? Does each child require a game system or television set within their room so that they no longer have to leave that room to interact with the family? The point is that we’ve created – and permitted – an environment in which the kids are allowed independence to such an extent that there is no longer any required interaction with the remainder of the family and parents, and the ubiquitous presence within their rooms means that we’ve ceded the ability to keep tabs on what they’re watching and doing. I’m not a fan of MTV and what they’ve done with their new show Skins is a prime example of hypocrisy, greed and our inattention to the kids’ viewing. If my basic arithmetic is correct, Skins was viewed by a total of 3.3 million in it’s premiere with the majority – 2.7 million – of viewers between the ages of 12 and 17. The basic arithmetic comes in with the fact that the majority here amounts to fully 82%. My suspicion is that the majority of these kids have parents who aren’t aware that they’re watching the show in the first place. It is entirely permissible and appropriate for a parent to set limits on what the child and teens are allowed to watch and this doesn’t constitute censorship or cruelty in any way. If they’re watching something of which you don’t approve, turn it off. If you’re not around because of work, block the channel or program entirely.
We as adults and parents have also largely bought into the line that kids really aren’t all that different from adults, just less experienced and packaged in a pint instead of gallon container. Despite what’s been bandied about in the past, children are not just "little people" and while some say that it takes a village, the reality is that more than a few members of the village are working diligently to use the children as a wedge to separate you from your cash. But in their growth, they bear a striking resemblance to plants. They will absorb whatever attention they’re given like a sunflower absorbs sunshine and will continue, like the plant, to twist themselves in the direction of the light source to get everything that they need. Knowing this, it’s imperative for their best interests and well-being that you be the source. The research is becoming abundantly clear that kids are not junior adults and it’s imperative that we stop treating them as such. Their brains are being reconfigured as they grow and scientists now peg the age at which the average brain reaches adulthood in the mid-twenties. If they’re going to be out on their own in the world before that time – Please God, let it be so – then it’s crucial that they have a solid foundation when they leave the household for the great wide world.
Many families do have to work hard to make ends meet and provide food and shelter. But that doesn’t mean that we can use that as a reason to absolve ourselves from the responsibility that comes with raising a child and it’s ultimately in that that many do fall down.