The Face On The Milk Carton
Movies, books, and music have portrayed the first half of the 20th century as a fairly idyllic age for children and childhood. If we ignore the minor issues of race, poverty, and injustice that, also, are part of the story of this time, there is much truth to this perception. There were few drugs; no counter-culture, as of yet, children were largely protected from negative influences, and the neighborhood was a protective place in which to slowly grow.
As we trace the changing views of childhood and childrearing, we can view this period as a “quiet” time in the history of childhood. The new American nation had required that independence be fostered in children; the nineteenth-century view of childhood was of a time of innocence; the industrial 20th century saw a gradual, positive evolution in child labor laws so that by the 1960s the demands placed on children were reasonably simple: graduate from school; stay out of trouble, and live up to the family and community expectation by becoming a productive citizen and adult.
A Changing World
Many look at the sixties as the time when everything changed and, of course, a lot was challenged and a lot did change at this time. However, I look more to two different periods of time and to how they have negatively impacted the concept of American childhood. By the 1970s, an increasingly “soft “ USA economy was failing to meet the challenges of the times. This, and the structural changes of the 1980s that were needed to right the American economic ship had a major impact on the family.
The new financial normal of the 1970s and 1980s meant that the previous generational practice of the stay-at-home mom began its slow, but steady decline as more and more mothers were forced (or went increasingly happily) into the workforce. Over time, what began as a need for mom to provide income for the “extras” that made life good, increasingly became a need to work to provide family essentials.
Without mom at home, there was nowhere for a child to go after school. Soon, whole neighborhoods became more like ghost towns with no-one home during the day… Nature abhors a vacuum, and soon this space became increasingly filled by structured, activities, sports, and clubs organized by adults. The free-wheeling days of the after-school pick-up game or the neighborhood bike ride were over. Moreover, a few isolated, but well-publicized child-related crimes and the “helpful” practice of placing missing children’s faces on milk cartons created a culture of anxiety that pushed more kids into organized activities. The community’s fears surrounding perceived threats to their children overwhelmed any desire for creativity and freedom.
Technology And The Culture Of Anxiety
The second period was the 1990s wherein technology had a significant impact on all aspects of the economy and society. As a result of what began in this time, parents are permanently connected to their work; there is an expectation to be always doing more and to be doing it faster; to be always available for the next text or email. This has become an economy-wide expectation and has helped to produce a level of anxiety in employees that is palpable- no performance is ever enough; there is always another hill to climb.
Recently, I read two articles about two related companies-Whole Foods and Amazon, that claim that their work cultures are such that employees are reluctant to even take a trip to the bathroom as it will impact their personal performance metrics. Even if this is the extreme, there is a general anxiety in corporate America about job security, and more importantly, an anxiety regarding the future for their children.
Many parents have transferred this anxiety to their children. Children must climb similar steep hills and are expected to perform at a level of near perfection. Nothing can be left to chance. They need to produce straight As in school in order to get into college; any weakness and an overpriced tutor will be on hand to fix it (a friend in NYC charges $130.00 per hour, and he cannot meet all the demand).
Soccer, drama, baseball, etc is often no longer fun; they are organized by adults, and they judge the child from an earlier and earlier age, demanding ever more. Parents go from laughing as he runs the wrong way with the ball to making a greater and greater level of commitment that is exhausting physically, emotionally, and financially on them, but that they often hope will give their child an edge over his peers.
The Road To Adulthood
Our colleges are filled with bright, athletic students who have jumped every hurdle and ticked every box to ensure success, but who lack direction and a core reason for being. Everything has been organized for them, and they have difficulty in coloring outside of the lines to take initiative; to be creative; to take risks; to fail and pick themselves up again. They view success through metrics: how high the grades; how far the ball can be thrown, etc. because this is how they have been taught by parents, teachers, and coaches for most of their lives.
However, their interpersonal skills are often weak; their intrapersonal skills weaker still, and their empathy for others underdeveloped. For too many, they are in danger of getting an A for academics and an F in Life.
While more continues to be asked of children in academics, we are often asking less of them as people, often excusing poor behavior, instead of using it as an opportunity for personal growth. Parental anxiety means that their trust in the institutions of old- school, church, doctors, police, etc. is less and less, and a “not my child” approach is increasingly the norm.
In the eyes of some parents, a child cannot afford to make a mistake. As a result, our children are less ready for the challenges of childhood and adolescence, and the transition to adulthood is becoming longer and harder, with some suggesting it extends into an adult’s early 30s.
Fostering Independence In Your Children
What can parents do to help their child’s transition from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood? Parents must take the opportunity to identify with those core values they can share with previous generations and reconnect with them while ignoring those that have run their historic course.
Parents need to learn to foster independence in their children while providing a safety net for when they fall; the community needs to build trust with the parents so that they understand that when a child falls, they will help to pick him up. Parents need to help the child find that balance between the student and the person, and they need to expand their definition of competence beyond performance to include social-emotional wellbeing. Only when we start to view the child from a holistic perspective will we be on the road to his/her true success.