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Midwest Today, December 1993


photo of children


Everywhere you look, kids today are being forced
to grow up faster. There's more violence, a higher
rate of illness, parental neglect, and a host of
things that make it more difficult being a child in
the 1990s

By NEAL LAWRENCE / Senior Writer

This is the season when our thoughts turn to children, in whose eyes we see our ideals still shining, our dreams still glowing, our hopes still bright. At this time of year, it is perfectly acceptable to be sentimental, yet we know that only sentimentalists have ever regarded childhood as a time of untroubled innocence. Today, there is more trouble for children and less time for innocence than in recent generations. It's not so much that kids have changed, but that the world has changed around them.

Youngsters are growing up so fast, they are virtually bypassing childhood as we knew it. They are proud, independent, strong-willed and sophisticated. They are a generation that has been raised to doubt and challenge authority, to accept little at face value - to enter the mature world long before they are mature.

Their lives contain things inconceivable a few decades ago: computers, medical breakthroughs, the entire planet accessible through television, satellites, cellular phones, FAX machines and air travel. But so much instant communication, so much information, can be chaotic and dangerous. School curriculums have been expanded to teach new topics: AIDS, adolescent suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, incest. Trust is a child's natural inclination, but the world has become highly untrusting and untrustworthy.

To an unprecedented extent, we are witnessing the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces in modern society.

Children have become second-class citizens. Teachers have experienced a long decline in public esteem. Day-care workers almost never earn a living wage. The role of parents is being rewritten.

Television and movies are imposing adult material on grade-scholars before they are emotionally equipped to assimilate it. Family structures are crumbling under the weight of divorce or parents who both work and have little time to spend nurturing their offspring. There's an increasing competition for college placement. The child of yesterday, who wandered in meadows of fantasy, whose tears were reserved for skinned knees and broken toys, has been replaced by kids who are burned out before they are old enough to vote.

According to Kay J. Hoffman, an educator at a progressive school, "There is a period of childhood, until about age nine, when children should exist in a dreamlike state. Instead, they are being hardened too early, jarred into an awake adult consciousness that is preventing the natural development of their imaginations. I see more children with high anxiety levels and learning problems caused by the enormous pressure that is being put on them to think and speak like adults before they are ready."

A lot of us so-called enlightened parents decided we weren't going to make the same mistakes when raising our children as we thought our parents made with us. We who began our families later in life, who came of age during the Vietnam war years, had ideas about child rearing that were like everything else we did: a bit radical. We wanted to give our kids the rights, importance and truth-telling that we had been denied. But many wonder: Have we gone too far? By thrusting too much on our children, have we taken away their freedom to be innocent at a young age?

This is a tough time to be a parent, too. Many parents are frustrated. They feel their best efforts are subverted by television and movies, peer influences and the troubled culture we live in. The end of innocence arrives before the age of reason - induced by a toxic pop culture, from the news and the street. It's a four-letter world out there, and with murder and mayhem, guns and gangs, this generation of young people is growing up dangerous and scared.

And the most vulnerable children - the poor, the disabled, those from dysfunctional families - have often fallen through the cracks.

Kids Are Losing Status in the World

According to a new United Nations report, the U.S. is one of the most dangerous places in the world for young people. While many other countries are getting better, we are getting worse.

"The Progress of Nations," a two-year study by the U.N.'s Children's Fund, says that nine out of ten young people murdered in industrialized countries are slain in the United States.

The report also shows that the poverty rate for kids is more than double that of any other major industrialized nation. UNICEF says that in the past 20 years, while other countries were bringing children out of poverty, only the U.S. and Britain fell behind.

It is here that wealth is failing to promote welfare.

By comparison, in developing countries, child death rates have dropped by 50-percent, life expectancy has increased by a third, and malnutrition rates have steadily declined. And in most developing nations, half the married women have begun using contraceptives, and average family size is falling at a speed unprecedented in history.

Strangely, the United States homicide rate for young people ages 15 to 24 is five times higher than neighboring Canada.

What Went Wrong?

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the guru of child-rearing in America for the last 50 years, says that the overriding problem in our society is "excessive competition and our glorification of it." He says "it may contribute to our rapid technological advance, but it has done so at a great price. We are taught to be rugged individualists, and we are obsessed with getting ahead. The family gets lost in this intense struggle."

Spock, who authored the classic "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" and who just turned 90, worries about today's generation of violent, angry, suicidal, illiterate and despairing children.

"In a healthy society, family should come first, community second, and our outside jobs third. In this country, it is the other way around."

Dr. Spock advises that "Children should be brought up with more emphasis on generosity and kindness, rather than on getting ahead.

"We're a society inundated with materialism, with getting ahead at all costs, while other countries balance that with more spiritual values. As a result, they have stronger families."

He points to the "extremely disturbing" statistic which shows that the U.S. teenage suicide rate has quadrupled in the last 20 years.

Spock theorizes that "One major reason for that is the lack of spiritual values in late adolescence. We're lacking strong guidance for our children. We've lost our sense of soul. It leaves young people feeling very insecure and alone. I am all for religion and spiritual values as a way of fighting this trend."

Be Firm

Although Dr. Spock advises parents never to spank, he emphasizes "love and affection, yes, but also fair, clear, firm leadership from parents, and politeness and cooperation from children.

"Not permissiveness. Never."

Benjamin Spock bemoans the loss of extended families and tight-knit communities, which "gave great comfort to parents in times of stress. Parents in a big city are unknown and virtually alone," he observes. "They are asked to work demanding jobs and raise demanding children by themselves. It's a terrible strain, and it's not normal. If there is any kind of a disaster, they have no help."

Another problem he sees is working parents with inadequate child care. "The fact that over half of all mothers as well as most fathers work outside the home would not be so bad if there were adequate, high-quality child care," Dr. Spock observes. "I think government and industry together should subsidize this as they do in Europe. It is one of the outstanding needs of children, along with good schools."

Kids Aren't Healthy

"If you want your child to be in shape, you can't rely on the schools, or on Little League or on some after-school program. You have to do it yourself," says Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics and author of a 1991 book, "Kid Fitness: A Complete Shape-up Program From Birth Through High School."

Cooper worries that "kids aren't following the example of their parents," who are losing weight, quitting smoking, eating healthier foods and lowering their blood pressure. He notes that children today are less fit, and weigh more, than kids in 1970.

He cites those children who count the slice of lettuce on their Big Mac as their daily requirement of vegetables and who implore their parents to drive around the mall until they find a parking spot closer to the door.

"We took it for granted that kids would get the exercise they needed in physical fitness classes, but it didn't happen," Cooper observes. In tandem with Colonial Bread, Cooper has started the IronKids Parent/Child Fitness program, which puts out a free 20-page pamphlet
(available by calling 1-800-FITKID-1).

It contains guidelines for exercise, nutrition and healthful habits.

Health care for children is another concern. While all elderly, regardless of income, have access to Medicare, there is no such health-care guarantee for children.

President Clinton is trying to change all that. The health care package he has recommended to Congress would, for the first time, ensure care for all children. It also includes coverage of such things as well-baby visits, screenings for lead poisoning and checkups at the dentist.

Health care for adopted children is another issue. Until the Family and Medical Leave Act went into effect this summer, few employers offered adoptive parents the same maternity and paternity leaves available to biological parents.

And in most states, insurance companies that provide immediate coverage for most newborns still delay coverage for adopted children until the placement is finalized - a process that can take two years. Even then they may not cover the baby's pre-existing medical problems.

A Child Abuse Epidemic

The daily news is filled with the most shocking stories: parents who leave their young children alone while they go on vacation, kids who are physically and/or emotionally brutalized by adults around them or other kids, members of the clergy and various authority figures arrested for sexual abuse of minors. Despite the plethora of reports, most of us still have not become inured to this specter.

Is abuse more widespread or is it just being reported more often? Probably both are true. In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. In order to qualify for funds, states had to adopt "mandatory reporting" policies. When teachers, health-care professionals and others suspect that a child is endangered - because they see injuries or have other reasons to suspect abuse - they are legally required to report the child to local authorities.

The number of cases has skyrocketed - up to 3 million children reported as suspected victims last year. Poor children are at the greatest peril, but due to scarce public funds, only about two-thirds of the families in which abuse or neglect was confirmed received help.

Elizabeth Vorenberg, president of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (a group of lawyers, academics and others who believe that the current system hurts kids), says "Children get placed in foster care when it may not be necessary, cases of real abuse go undetected and people are wrongly reported as possible abusers. The system fails everybody."

The truth is, no one really knows if child-abuse statistics are inflated with spurious allegations, or actually under-represent a crime that is often kept secret.

Child Abandonment On the Increase

Nearly half a million children reside in foster homes, more than a 50-percent increase since 1982. A growing number are being shunted from one placement to another.

Says one woman, whose impoverished circumstances forced her to temporarily give up her two children when she became homeless, "It made me angry that the state was willing to pay a stranger $1,200 to care for my children, when if they could have just helped me a little, I could have kept my own children. I was on my hands and knees to them: 'What do I do?'"

Columnist Mary McGrory writes, "Anyone who has been around abused and neglected children knows how badly they are betrayed by the law. They are routinely returned to the so-called home where they were beaten, burned, starved or sexually assaulted. This is done under the aegis of the Family Reunification Act, which codifies the sentimental view of 'family first.'"

Best Solution?

While social workers and judges often recoil at the idea of sending a battered child to an institution - so return them to precarious family environments instead - the orphanage is often the best alternative: a clean, safe place.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, an estimated 22,000 infants are abandoned in hospitals each year. Called "boarder" babies, they are the victims of crack cocaine, poverty, homelessness and AIDS. They range from basically healthy to medically fragile; children with heart defects, respiratory disorders, hepatitis, congenital syphilis, Down's syndrome, cleft palates and symptoms of drug withdrawal. They spend the first months of life in hospital pediatric wards, in legal limbo, while their mothers or social workers try to find them a home or family. The annual cost of the babies' hospital care is put at between $22.3 million and $125 million.

The majority of boarder babies are African-American, and over three-fourths who are tested have been exposed to drugs.

Violent Games

Dr. Robert Coles, a psychiatrist and author who has studied the lives of the young for more than 30 years, writes that "Children have always been, and still are, a mirror to us - ourselves writ small."

With a violent culture around us, it's small wonder that kids play at violence.

Typical is a highly popular new video game called "Mortal Kombat," released by Acclaim Entertainment on cartridges for Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems. The game features an imaginary martial-arts festival that, in the words of one reviewer for Newsweek magazine, "looks more like Jason Goes to Hell than the Karate Kid." Players use game paddles and joysticks to slap, kick and even burn each other. Sound effects include grunts, screams and a death rattle. In some versions the winner murders the loser by ripping out his still-beating heart or tearing his head off, then hoisting it aloft with bloody spinal cord still dangling.

Judging from the response from kids all across the country, Mortal Kombat will be a hit. The company received 750,000 calls in three days after it debuted. Acclaim expects to sell 2 million cartridges, at $35 to $75 each, by Christmas.

So much for childhood innocence.

The game has drawn heavy criticism from activist groups. "With all of the media around, kids do have a hard time telling fantasy from reality," says Parker Page, president of the Children's Television Resource and Education Center. Parker says in such cases, parents should be exercising some control and not just relent when children want something harmful. "Remember," he says, "it's absolutely okay to forbid some things."

Studies show that most video games actively encourage aggressive-competitive behaviors that value power, individual strength, violent problem-solving and instant gratification.

Paul Gathercoal, assistant professor of education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN says that "With different programming driven by the same high technology, video games could have strong potential for fostering socially acceptable forms of creativity, critical thinking and values development."

Younger Kids Committing Crimes

Law enforcement and public-health officials describe an epidemic of youth violence in the last five years, spreading from the inner cities to the suburbs and even into small towns and rural areas. "We're talking about younger and younger kids committing more and more serious crimes," says Indianapolis Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Modisett. "Violence is becoming a way of life."

Violence is devastating this generation, as surely as polio cut down young people 40 years ago. Attorney General Janet Reno says youth violence is "the greatest single crime problem in America today." Between 1987 and 1991 (the last year for which statistics are available), the number of teenagers arrested for murder increased 85-percent.

The Justice Dept. estimates that each year, nearly a million young people between 12 and 19 are raped, robbed or assaulted.

According to a Harvard School of Public Health survey, 59-percent of children in the sixth through the 12th grades said they "could get a handgun if they wanted one." More than a third of the students thought guns made it less likely that they would live to old age.

Thirteen-percent felt "seriously threatened" by guns. Fifteen percent admitted that they had carried a handgun in the last 30 days, and 39-percent indicated that someone they knew had either been killed or wounded by gunfire in the last year.

Kids have always played with toy guns, but increasingly real guns are being perceived as problem solvers.

One child with a gun is a danger, but a gang equipped with Uzis, AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns is a nightmare. Unlike adult criminals, who commonly act alone, violent teens typically move in a pack.

A casual attitude toward violence is most acute in inner-city neighborhoods such as in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha, where many youngsters have grown accustomed to the sounds of sirens and gunshots in the night, or blood-splattered sidewalks in the morning.

District Judge George Stigler of Waterloo, IA, speaking at a recent Iowa State University symposium, commented, "When you were in school and had a fight, you might meet in the parking lot and punch the guy in the nose once or twice. It wasn't an enjoyable event, but at the very least you could go home and clean up.

"Nobody does that any more," the judge told the hushed audience. "If you insult a kid, he will come up with a knife or a gun or God only knows what. His intent will not be to hurt you, but to kill you or give you very serious or lasting injury. Violence is the way of dealing with differences now."

Even in Iowa, which has been near the bottom of the nation's crime summaries (ranking 49th in murder and rapes, 41st in robberies and 40th in overall violent crimes), there's been a sharp increase in youthful offenders. While the state's juvenile population fell by 26-percent in the last decade, and juvenile crime against property fell proportionately, vicious "personal" crimes, including rape and aggravated assault, increased by 27-percent.


In many states, laws have not been updated to deal with youthful offenders. Iowa law, for instance, says that anyone under 18 and as young as 14 can be tried as an adult if a judge agrees. However, if the young defendant avoids adult court and is declared a delinquent, he or she must go free at age 18.

The perception among young people, says Polk county Attorney John Sarcone, and one that he feels is "most alarming," is that "many kids believe that you can't do anything to them until they are 18. They think they're going to be taken home and have their wrists slapped."

But, Sarcone says, his state has "sent the message that people who commit forcible felonies are not going to be tolerated. What they have done to the victims is wrong. They know better. They're not going to hide behind the fact that they're only 16 or 17."

Many Risk Factors

Behaviorists say childhood aggression is natural. In another era, that aggression was channeled into socially acceptable ways - such as the military, or hard physical labor - options that are less available today.

Terrence Thornberry, a psychologist and one of the researchers in a new study of violent youth, identifies risk factors: Children who grow up in families where there is child abuse and maltreatment, spousal abuse and a history of violent behavior learn early on to act out physically when they are frustrated or upset. Poverty worsens the situation. Parents who haven't finished high school, who are unemployed or on welfare, or who began having children while they themselves were teenagers are more likely to have troubled kids.

Learning disabilities and illiteracy are common among teens in the probation system.

The levels of tolerated violence in the media, in sports and in the real world keep ratcheting upward.

Brutality has even become a fashion statement: T-shirts with profane messages, such as "Bitches ain't s--- but hoes and tricks" are in vogue.

"Violence Is Preventable"

"Psychology has a message of hope: violence is preventable," said Dr. Ronald G. Slaby, a psychologist at Harvard University. "Violence is learned, and we can teach children alternatives."

It should be at least as hard to get a gun as to get a driver's license."

Intervening at an early age, especially from four to eight, before children's habits of aggression are firmly fixed, is among the main recommendations.

Violence "is learned very early in life, and learned well," said Dr. Leonard Eron, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, "Interventions work best if they are started early. The longer you wait, the harder it is to change."

There are effective programs in schools that teach social and emotional skills like managing anger, negotiating, adopting another child's perspective and thinking of alternative solutions to disagreements. Children who are aggressive can benefit from special tutoring along those lines.

Parents who have trouble maintaining discipline at home could get counseling or therapy. Some are advocating a shock approach. The prosecutor's office in Cook County, Ill. has come up with a graphic anti-crime video that has footage from the morgue. There's the big-brother model: an organization called Mad Dads, centered in Nebraska, which mobilizes men in a community to be role models.

Dr. Leonard Lawrence, president of the National Medical Association, which represents 16,000 black physicians, said that "we've really got to teach our young people that there are alternative ways of problem solving," and "that there is some value in being disciplined." You can get a handle on violent behavior, Lawrence insists, "if you begin to teach youngsters the positive aspects of discipline at a very early age, teaching them how to achieve, how to learn, how to interact with other people."

Dating and Harassment

Interviews with young people confirm that some of them are confused about where to draw the line between flirting and harassment, advances and abuse, media images and reality, and right and wrong.

Some boys say if they're caught treating a girl with respect, they lose the approval of their friends. As a result, in some circles the types of dating relationships that characterized adolescence in earlier generations have become rare and even clandestine, with some girls accepting the fact that their boyfriends will not acknowledge them in when they are out in public.

Young people also say their ideas of love, sex and commitment have been skewed by the failed relationships of their parents, the violence of their times and the degrading influence of their culture, which they say demeans women, cheapens sex and promotes instant gratification.

Davin Mintz, 18, says he feels that girls are just as disrespectful of boys.

"Okay, say you see a girl who's blazing," he said. "You say, 'What's up?' or, 'What school do you go to?' and she'd say something like: 'Are you a virgin? Who was the last girl you were with? How was your relationship?' She'd be like, 'Did you ever hit skins?'' - have sex?

Boys describe how they gain popularity by yelling explicit propositions or fondling girls who pass by. For them, sexual harassment is a game, and abuse a team sport.

A nationwide survey by Louis Harris & Associates of high school and junior high students released recently found that more than two-thirds of girls and 42-percent of boys reported being touched, grabbed or pinched on school grounds.

Two-thirds of the boys surveyed and 52-percent of the girls admitted they themselves had harassed other students.


Harassment is defined as a range of unwelcome talk or actions, including sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; bathroom graffiti; sexual rumors; accusations of homosexuality; being spied on in locker rooms; being flashed or "mooned;" being touched, grabbed or pinched; having clothing pulled at in a sexual way or being forced to kiss someone or do something sexual.

Sexual harassment has been a hot topic in Minnesota, where a seven year old girl, who said she had been harassed by boys on a school bus, garnered national attention.

Sharon Schuster, president of the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, laments that "Students and teachers, particularly the adults, haven't understood the impact that it has on a young person's life, that it really can interfere with learning. It isn't just part of growing up."

Minnesota is a leader in handling sexual harassment in schools, according to Schuster, who noted that it was the first state to require schools to have a policy on such matters. The state also has good materials to help train school employees on how to deal with such incidents.

"Kids aren't starting it; they reflect what they see around them. But the fact that there may be sexually explicit material on MTV doesn't mean it has to happen in school," Schuster adds.

People need to know that serious harassment can mean expulsion for students as well as monetary damages against school districts.

What About Teen Sex?

The moral standards society once embraced, fell victim to a sexual revolution and a medical tragedy. A decade marked by fear of AIDS and furor over society's values made it hard to agree on the ethical issues and emotional context that used to be part of learning about sex.

"Family values" became a polarizing phrase.

Now, children of the sexual revolution are having to grapple with how to teach their own children about sex.

By 15, a quarter of girls and a third of boys are sexually active. Among sexually active teenage girls, 61-percent have had multiple partners, up from 38-percent in 1971.

"It used to be easy to say it's just wrong to have sex before marriage. You could expect churches to say that, adults from many walks of life to somehow communicate that," observes Peter Benson, president of the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, a research organization specializing in child and adolescent issues. "We went through a sexual revolution since the '60s that poked a major hole in that. And nothing has come along to replace it. What's responsible sexuality now? Does it mean no sex unless you're in love? No sex unless you're 21? No sex unless it's protected?"

Since the turn of the century, because of better health and nutrition, the average age of sexual maturity has steadily declined. The onset of menstruation in girls has dropped from 14 to around 12. At the same time, the typical age of a first marriage has risen from 21 to 25, meaning there are more years of singlehood and experimentation.

Although a lot of teens have after-school jobs, many more have a car which gives them the freedom and opportunity to socialize more with peers.

Teens typically watch five hours of television daily, and see nearly 14,000 sexual situations in a year, according to the Center for Population Options.

Schools have tried to fill in the gaps, but it's been hard for educators to know what to teach when society can't even agree on what direction to take. As a result, the typical sex ed. curriculum is amazingly minimalist. Most schools spend one or two days in fifth grade dealing with puberty; two weeks in eighth grade health classes dealing with anatomy, reproduction and AIDS prevention. Everyone agrees there needs to be more attention paid to building relationships based on dignity and respect.

U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders comments, "We've spent all our time fighting each other about whose values we should be teaching our kids. We've allowed the right to make decisions about our children for the last 100 years, and all it has brought us is the highest abortion rate, the highest non-marital birth rate and the highest pregnancy rate in the industrialized world." However, she is no advocate for values-free instruction. Instead, she observes, "Proper sex education would be teaching kids how to develop relationships and about the consequences of their behavior. Kids can't say no if they don't first learn how to feel good about themselves."

Educator Sol Gordon reflects, "There's something wrong with a country that says, 'Sex is dirty, save it for someone you love.'"

Heather Johnson Nicholson, director of the National Resource Center for Girls Inc., in Indianapolis, notes that "It's our experience that kids this age really know it's too early to be having sex. But when you're that age, you don't want to be considered a complete dweeb. We're establishing a peer group that says it's okay not to be sexually active."

Seventeen-year-old Kristen Thomas of Plymouth, Minnesota, told Time magazine, "Not all teenagers have sex. They're not all going to do it just because everyone else is. They kind of have a lack of faith in us - parents and general society."

Girls, Inc. has developed a multi-faceted program that encourages kids to think through the reasons for not having sex. It "is not a Just Say No program," Nicholson explains, because "when kids ask questions, they get straight answers. While we're focusing on postponement, we're not doing it in a context of fear and scare tactics."

Another successful program is "Sex Respect," developed by Project Respect in Golf, Illinois, which is widely used by a couple of thousand schools nationwide. Class activities include listing ways humans are different from animals, making bumper stickers that read "Control your urgin'/Be a virgin," and answering multiple-choice test questions about what sorts of situations put pressure on teens to have sex. The teacher's manual features a section on sexual messages in the media, a list of suggested alternatives to sex when on dates (bicycling, dinner parties, playing Monopoly) and a chapter on "secondary virginity" - the decision to stop having sex until marriage, even after one is sexually experienced. What Sex Respect does not include is information about birth control.

Education and Double Standards

According to CBS News, the top seven problems in public schools in 1940 were identified by teachers as talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress-code violations and littering. Now the seven top problems are suicide, assault, robbery, rape, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and pregnancy.

A lot of the problems, say experts, originate at home. And with a values system formed by vacuous television, demeaning rap and slasher movies, there is not a lot teachers can do to.

'Asta Bowen, a writer and teacher from northwest Montana, observes that "education suffers from a double standard in which a society built around television expects its schools to teach literature. A society built around making a fast buck expects its schools to teach delayed gratification. A society built on calculators and computers expects its schools to teach long division. A society built around conformity expects its schools to teach independent thinking. If you wonder why students aren't learning the '3Rs,' look around: You don't have to read or write to rent a video, and no one ever saw model Cindy Crawford working a math problem."

Educators and others have often lamented the lack of adequate funding for schools. While money shortages obviously have an enormous impact, even that doesn't tell the whole story.

Six years ago, Federal Judge Russell Clark stunned legal experts by ordering an increase in local property and income taxes to finance a complete rehabilitation of Kansas City schools. His decision produced an influx of $1.3 billion, or $36,000 in extra funds for every pupil in the system.

The goal was to combat racial segregation, and raise achievement levels to national averages "within four or five years."

Schools there now have every amenity an educator could want, including hundreds of personal computers, 15 science labs, greenhouses, a planetarium, language-immersion programs and specialized programs in agribusiness, engineering, Ancient Greek and advanced technology.

Gotten Worse

Yet high school dropout rates in Kansas City have soared since 1987 and now exceed 60-percent - more than twice the national rate. Data compiled by University of Missouri education professor John Alspaugh shows that many Kansas City grade-school students actually score lower on reading and math achievement tests today.

Psychiatrist James P. Comer, who teaches at Yale University's Child Study Center, observes that "American kids don't achieve as well as European kids and some Asian kids." He says American students are "scoring high enough to compete" but that there "is the large number of bright kids who fall out of the mainstream because their families are not functioning."

A survey of some of the nation's highest achieving teenagers found that even they are not immune to the troubles facing America. The Who's Who Among American High School Students 24th annual survey revealed that one third of all kids surveyed said they had considered taking their own life. Of those who reported being sexually assaulted, 56-percent said they had considered suicide and 17-percent said they had tried to kill themselves.

And President Clinton has deplored the fact that an estimated 160,000 students stay home from school each day out of the fear of violence there.

TV, Movies and Music

Television, which was described as a "vast wasteland" in the 1960s, has become, in the words of columnist Mona Charen, "a toxic waste dump. Whereas television used to be mindless but harmless, today, it is mindless and harmful."

Some people now say "TV" is an acronym for "Too Violent." Although the four major television networks, bowing to pressure from Congressional liberals as well as conservatives, have begun to label their programming, critics say that doesn't go far enough.

Daytime talk shows feature lesbian nuns, exotic drugs, transsexual surgery and serial murderers.

"Tabloid TV" shows snatch and air videotapes of gunshots, hostage situations, rescue teams and misery of all kinds.

And commercials for movies showing montages of blazing guns, exploding cars and shattered bodies are segued into family programming.

Experts at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington say that television could teach children positive alternatives to violence. "Television has great teaching potential," observes Dr. Leonard Eron, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. "It's just been teaching the wrong things."

Children sit in front of the tube for an average of 17 hours a week, watching depictions of remorseless murder and mayhem. The average young television viewer will see over 25,000 murders before he or she reaches the age of 18.

The greatest impact is on preadolescent children who do not yet have the capacity to separate what is real from what is not. To them, television is a report on how the world really works.

One Indiana school board had to issue an advisory that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't real, because kids had been crawling down storm drains trying to find them.

Television also presents children with jarring contradictions and fosters disillusionment. A child can view the cuddly dinosaur Barney, who leads them in singing, "I love you, you love me, we're a happy family,' and then switch channels to see on the news that a man who hosted a children's hour on Saturday morning TV has been arrested in an adult movie theater on a morals charge.

TV and films also show inept parents, greedy business people, war-loving generals, casual sex, coarse jokes and plots where moral rights and wrongs are ridiculed.


Three of the most dubious messages are that parents rarely come in pairs, father knows least, and adults are just overgrown kids.

One of the most reprehensible programs from the standpoint of its affect on young people is MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" series. The cartoon characters torture animals, harass girls, sniff paint thinner and set fires. They commit petty thefts, shoplifting, auto theft and credit card fraud. Reminiscent of the semi-sentient teens from "Wayne's World," for a generation reminded hourly of its diminished prospects, Beavis and Butt-head have become a trash phenomenon. There are now T shirts, hats, key rings, masks, buttons, calendars, dolls, a book, comics, movie, CD and Christmas special all celebrating their exploits.

Creator Mike Judge, writer David Felton and producer John Andrews deny that the antics of the two animated miscreants have inspired impressionable children to emulate them. But there have been some deadly results. Children in two separate incidents in Ohio set fires, one of which resulted in death. MTV yielded to an outburst of public anger by scheduling the show for a later time period. Yet the impact of such violent TV and movies is almost impossible to avoid since the advent of VCRs and video rentals. The best that can be hoped for is that such influences can be mitigated by a caring parent who sits down with a child and helps put things in perspective.

Ironically, the Children's TV Act of 1990 mandated that TV stations provide programming to meet the "educational and information needs of children" - an act that stations have often cynically sidestepped through legal maneuvering. It also established a national endowment to support children's programming, but the endowment has never been fully funded.

John Murray, head of Human Development and Family Studies at Kansas State University comments that "We have the framework to guide kids through the Children's Act. But it's getting more complex as the [number of TV channels] expands. Unless whoever sets a national policy ...[is] more concerned about the consumer than the investor, the impact of the 'information highway' is going to land us in a deeper quagmire than we're in now."

Linda Ellerbee, who produces children's news shows for Nickelodeon says that "When I was growing up, it was enough to learn to read and write. Now kids need to learn to be media-literate. The schools and parents have an obligation," she continues, "to teach children about this technology - to teach them that it's not always there for their benefit but for someone's profit.

"We have this monster that speaks with many voices and with many images, and on the other side we have a seven-year-old with a remote who doesn't distinguish between cable and network, what's appropriate and what's not."

While television is bad, movies are worst. People like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who holds himself up as a model for youth, whom George Bush appointed to a Presidential council on youthful physical fitness, and who writes a column for the mainstream Parade magazine, shamelessly makes films that contain the most graphic violence. In one, his hero kills his wife with the quip, "Consider this a divorce."

Rap music wallows in the most demeaning racial and sexual stereotypes.

The danger, psychiatrists say, is that the constant repetition of violence and violent imagery desensitizes viewers in the same way a therapist desensitizes a phobia patient: by repeated exposure to what's frightening.

The Importance of Good Parenting

Applicants for a job often have to furnish references and demonstrate their qualifications for employment. To lease an apartment or get a loan, you can count on having your background probed.

But no questions are asked if you just want to add another high chair to an already crowded kitchen. Nobody checks to see that you're taking care of the children you've got.

In ideal circumstances, parents have the time, energy, interest, patience and warmth it takes to raise kids. They listen and respond actively to their children, in terms that youngsters can understand. They serve as models of self-esteem and self-control, setting clear and consistent rules of behavior. They demonstrate to their children that in a troubled and uncertain world, it is still possible to find security, support and hope. Children learn that they are worthy of being loved.

A lot of kids simply aren't so lucky. They grow up in troubled households. Studies show that depressed or detached parental behavior especially hurts children's IQ scores and reduces their social competence. Youngsters miss a mother or father's normal responsiveness and affectional involvement, so they don't have the secure base they need to be open, accepting and responsive to parents, peers and other adults. When there is trouble in the home, kids display more aberrant and distorted behavior and unresolved feelings of guilt - implying that they may shoulder responsibility for their parents' unhappiness.

In adolescence, the troubles tend to mount up, coming to a critical mass. Children often develop serious behavioral and emotional problems. Some kids turn their pain against the world, acting out in aggressive and inappropriate ways. But studies suggest that most internalize everything, becoming intensely shy and withdrawn to hide their conflicts. A certain percentage of children strive hard for perfection, becoming junior caretakers for the disturbed adults and proxy parents for the rest of the family. It's not uncommon in such circumstances to find children acting like adults and adults acting like children.

Sherryl Goodman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Emory University, says the wild, out-of-control child and the quietly obedient, sensitive child have just found "two alternative ways of dealing with the same problem" - the desperate need to gain the attention of a preoccupied parent. And while the aggressive child runs into the most immediate problems, many of the "good" children eventually have a crash landing. Apparently, the burden of having been an adult long before their time finally becomes too great, and for a while, everything collapses in on them.

The point of all the current research on dysfunctional families isn't to aim an accusing finger at the parents for all their children's problems. There are lots of reasons why adults have problems of their own - poverty, divorce, poor marriages, low family cohesion, low social support and high isolation.

So to blame isn't the issue; the point is to find solutions, and untangle all those impaired interactions for the sake of everyone in the family. And these days, there are more solutions than ever.

Single Parent Kids

In the last 30 years, illegitimate births among whites have tripled (to 19-percent), and risen among blacks to 65-percent. Factor in divorce, and 22-percent of American children now live with a single parent. During this same period, there has been a 600-percent rise in crime, illiteracy, poverty and drug addiction.

A black child born today has only a one-in-five chance of growing up with two parents until the age of 16, according to University of Wisconsin demographer Larry L. Bumpass. A majority of black families with children - 62-percent - are now headed by one parent.

As University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson argued in "The Declining Significance of Race," the breakdown of the African-American family resulted from rising unemployment, not falling values.

Fatherless homes boost crime rates, lower educational attainment and add dramatically to the welfare rolls.

Professor James Q. Wilson, author of "The Moral Sense," reports on a study which shows that "By the time the children entered the third grade, those who lived with their mothers alone were the worst off in terms of their socialization. After ten years, the boys who had grown up in mother-only families...reported more delinquencies, regardless of family income, than those who had grown up in families with multiple adults, especially a father."

This is not to suggest that women are somehow deficient in their parenting skills; many work long hours and do an admirable job raising children alone.

The number of unmarried fathers living with children more than doubled during the last ten years, according to the Census Bureau. Fathers now head 14-percent of single-parent households.

While the research on single fathers is scant, one study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison shows that about 18-percent of the families headed by a single father live in poverty, although that is below the rate for families headed by single moms (about 43-percent). Nearly 25-percent of single fathers have never been married, and 7.5-percent are widowed. Roughly 44-percent of the children in these families are girls, and one-third are pre-schoolers.

Home Life in the '90s

One trouble is that so many parents are working 50 or 60 hours a week. Due to economic realities commencing around 1974, for the first time, 50-percent of American children came home to an empty house because both parents worked. Now, it's closer to 80-percent, but most schools still dismiss students around 3 P.M. Having two parents who work also has other effects on children.

Families are coping by teaching children to put the roast in the oven after school, enrolling them in day care, hiring nannies or making play dates. The very culture of children, of freedom and fantasy and kids teaching kids to play jacks, is collapsing under the weight of family schedules. "Kids understand that they are being cheated out of childhood," says Edward Zigler of Yale. "Eight-year-olds are taking care of three-year-olds. We're seeing depression in children. We never thought we'd see that 35 years ago. There is a sense that adults don't care about them."

There is also evidence that children aren't getting enough rest.

Sociologist Rosanna Hertz, who studies families, gender and work issues, says children are staying up later in all kinds of family situations, and not getting enough sleep. And that can impact on school performance and undermine self-esteem. Many teachers report that children arrive at school virtually stupefied, and don't wake up mentally until mid-morning.

Although studies show that children in the 6 to 10 age group usually require about ten hours of sleep - meaning they need to be in bed between 8:30 and 9 P.M., a majority don't retire until 10 P.M. or later. The reason often is that at least one parent doesn't get home from work until at least 6 P.M., so families eat supper later. By the time dishes are cleared, homework is finished, baths are taken, and parents are able to relax and spend some time with their kids - an important bonding process - late nights are virtually assured.

Ms. Hertz notes that "sometimes, whole families live on the schedule of a parent who works a late shift." Some children provide companionship for a lonely parent in the evening, and others stay up late to watch TV in their bedrooms, unbeknownst to their parents.

To compensate, many well-intentioned parents become indulgent parents, who give their children everything they want. Giving a child too many toys, says family psychologist John Rosemond, distracts a child away from self-discovery. Kids are led to believe that play comes from a toy store, when parents should help them realize that true play comes from the mind.

"There has never been a democratic family," Rosemond observes. "Parents have two choices: either establish a benevolent dictatorship or throw wide the door to anarchy.

"You cannot be a friend and an active parent at the same time. If you try to be a friend, you will not be a good parent, and later, when it would have been possible to be a good friend to your child, you won't know how."

Suzanne Fields of the Washington Times thinks parents have been abandoning moral responsibility. "Parents complain easily about cultural messages their children receive from television, as well as about peer pressure that it's 'cool' to drink. But children receive cultural messages at home, too, and parents submit to 'peer' pressures from other parents too busy to be parents.

"Parents put themselves on a slippery slope when they try to protect their young without taking the trouble - and it is trouble - to set firm standards.

"How can we expect a child to listen to his conscience when we haven't helped him develop one?

"How did we lose sight of the fundamental law, as absolute as a physics equation, that personal behavior has consequences for others as well as self?

Experts say children should be given some responsibilities - regular chores that bond children to the values and traditions of the family. In rural areas, where children often have to do chores as a matter of necessity to help on the farm, family values and traditions have most reliably been passed on from generation to generation.

Children rebel as part of the growing process, and it is the parents' responsibility to contain that rebellion within safe and appropriate parameters.

The other side of this coin, however, is that some parents are actually too strict with their children. Connie Shonka, director of child-care services at Creighton University in Nebraska says that young children can become overwhelmed if parents set too many rules.

"You just can't enforce them all," Shonka commented. It's better, she said, to establish fewer ones - but those that are the most important in the household - then consistently follow through.

While youngsters need to know that there are consequences to breaking the rules, the punishment needs to be fair. And, Shonka says, parents can expect too much from their children if they don't understand the development stages.

Finding a balance between too much and too little praise is tough.

Kids who receive too much praise - especially for the end product rather than the effort itself - sometimes don't develop a feeling of inner pride or self-worth. Conversely, those children who do not receive enough praise will be insecure.

Another important part of child rearing is recognizing that kids can get your goat sometimes. It must not prompt parents to use physical discipline or abusive language.

Instead, parents should tell kids it is their actions that are bad - not the children themselves. When anger builds, parents and their offspring can benefit from a "time-out" - a cooling off period in separate rooms, if necessary.

Searching for Alternatives

The experts who toil for solutions face a Sisyphean task. In the schools, the streets and in what's left of homes, they are willing to try almost anything to reach a generation that is on the verge of being lost.

James Wilson senses that the American people "want our leaders, the media, television programs, and motion pictures to take their side in the war over what the family is. It is not one of several alternative lifestyles; it is not an arena in which rights are negotiated; it is not an old-fashioned and reactionary barrier to a promiscuous sex life; it is not a set of cost-benefit calculations. It is a commitment."

Maybe someday more Americans of all races will decide to get and stay married. For the time being, however, we must contend with a sobering fact: fewer and fewer Americans are belonging to "traditional" families. Many women - especially black women - will be raising their children alone. The question is, how can those large numbers of kids who will be raised without fathers have a decent shot at life?

The disdain for "traditional values" is a prescription for social disorder.

The suggestion is that those people - whether they be Hollywood stars or blue collar workers - who casually bring children into the world without a long-term commitment to assume child care and economic obligations should be scorned as selfish, irresponsible reprobates. This may seem like self-righteous moralizing, but the consequences of their actions are so demonstrably devastating to children and society, the problem can no longer be ignored.

Photo for Midwest Today by Brent Isenberger. Coordinated by Julie Ann West.

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