This Culture Puts Too Little Value on Our Children

[Thomas Moore, "This culture puts too little value on our children" Charlotte Observer (09/09/03): 9A]

When convicted child molester and defrocked priest John Geoghan was murdered in jail a few weeks ago, I realized his horrible crimes had saddened but not shocked me. The child molestation and abuse scandal in the Catholic church is just the most recent example of how our culture devalues children. Our inattention, and sometimes outright contempt, for children isn’t limited to any one institution, but permeates American culture. As an early childhood specialist, I see it everywhere -- from how children are treated in grocery stores and restaurants to how they’re treated in public policy.

Others have seen it. In her essay collection "High Tide in Tucson," novelist Barbara Kingsolver writes of the year she and her 4-year-old lived in Spain. Strangers were kind and loving to her daughter, not occasionally, but all the time. "People there like kids. They don’t just say so, they do," she writes. "... My own culture, it seemed to me in retrospect, tended to regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not our own we don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it."

If you believe our society practices "family values" and really likes children, consider this:

• In 2000, childcare workers earned a median hourly wage of $7.43, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. In this difficult economy, I’d be surprised if the median has increased much since then. Benefits for childcare workers vary; in many jobs they are terribly inadequate. Imagine what your life would be like if you earned $7.43 an hour with no health insurance. Now add a full day caring for toddlers. In a 2001 survey, childcare center directors in Mecklenburg County reported 34 percent of full-time teachers left their center in the previous year. In Cabarrus County, it was 33 percent. No child can feel secure when teachers frequently leave. If we paid teachers and caregivers more, we could diminish turnover rates. To those who say mothers should stay home, I offer an observation. The same people who want single mothers to get off welfare and work one or more jobs typically argue that wealthy mothers should be productive by staying at home. Opportunities should be available for all parents to care for their families as they see fit, to provide decent food, clothing, housing and education for their children, and to enjoy some fulfillment of their own.

• We don’t encourage our best and brightest to pursue careers as teachers. We treat education as though it’s lesser than other professions.

• Schools are increasingly run like businesses -- and that’s not a compliment. Example: We provide poor quality food to students because it’s cheaper. We’re even letting cola and fast-food companies sell their products in certain lunchrooms because the profits are so attractive.

• In 2000, over three-quarters of women with children ages 6 to 17 were in the labor force, and most worked full-time, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. But we pay scant attention to after-school programs, leaving many kids and teens to fend for themselves. Our lack of concern places them at greater risk for numerous problems, including cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, academic difficulties and violence.

• We send our children harmful messages. I’ve heard parents say, "Stop acting like a baby" to a 4-year-old boy. They later wondered why he became a bully. Girls in 4th grade want to diet and wear revealing clothing because our magazines and TV shows convince them that’s the way to be pretty. The religious among us talk about loving our neighbors, but children often see we don’t like certain groups. As they come to understand prejudice, they realize they can’t trust their parents to be honest with them.

• We protest when teenagers crowd our malls and shopping centers like Birkdale Village, but we don’t provide other places where they can have fun safely and inexpensively.

• We’ve created a bureaucratic foster care system in which children can actually get lost, as one did recently in Florida. That happens when children, especially poor kids, are disposable commodities. You might claim none of these issues matches the magnitude of evil in child abuse. But I believe they are all part of a continuum in which we disregard children and teens at our peril. If we value them as much as we say, our behavior -- and our public policies -- must change.

The renowned psychoanalyst and author Alice Miller describes what happens to children who are ignored, silenced or abused. In "For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence," she examines the abusive childhood of one well-known boy. He grew up to make a deep mark on humanity. His name was Adolf Hitler.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.