Youths’ Lack of Values, Character Worries American Public

By Millicent Lawton — July 09, 1997 3 min read

The American public is anxious about an apparent crisis in the moral well-being of children and teenagers, and parent and school are largely to blame, a national survey has found.

More than six in 10 adults, or 61 percent, said youngsters’ failure to learn such values as honesty, respect, and responsibility is a very serious problem, according to the study. Only 37 percent believe today’s children, once they’re grown, will make the United States a better place.

“The traditional ideal of children as a source of renewal and hope has, for the majority of the American public, been seriously undermined,” says the study, “Kids These Days: What American Really Think About the Text Generation.” It was conducted by Public Agenda, a policy research and citizen-education group in New York City, and released last month.

Overriding Concern

Adults’ overriding concern about children is not health problems, safety, or poverty--topics so often the focus of professional child advocates--but rather their character and values, the report says. “The public believes values are a vaccine; if you inoculate teens with them, they will be able to resist the world’s many troubles,” it says.

The report was based on a telephone survey of 2,000 randomly selected adults ages 18 and older in the continental United States. The survey was conducted last December, with oversamples of 300 African-American and 300 Hispanic parents. It carries a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Conducted for the Advertising Council, a New York City-based provider of public-service advertising, the survey and related research were underwritten at a cost of $450,000 by the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Oak Brook, Ill. Both organizations intend to use the results from the survey to direct multiyear child-serving initiatives they have under way, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda’s executive director. Public Agenda, which has conducted several influential surveys of attitudes toward public education among the general public and teachers, intends to repeat the new survey annually over the next four to five years, she said.

Schools’ Role

The public’s disdain for teenagers extended to children ages 5 to 12, too, the report found, with 53 percent describing children negatively in such terms as lacking discipline or being rude or spoiled.

Yet, poll respondent appeared determined in their refusal to write off troubled children. Seventy-two percent said that “given enough love and kindness, just about any kid can be reached.”

Parents are primarily responsible for the bad state of today’s young people, according to those surveyed. Only about one in five American polled, or 22 percent, said it’s very common to find parents who are good role models for their children. And parents are equally critical of themselves, the survey found.

At the same time, those surveyed were sympathetic to the plight of parents. Four in five said it’s much harder for parents to do their job today than in the past, and 51 percent said that parents who sacrifice and work hard for their offspring are very common. Fifty-five percent said more flexible work schedules would be effective in helping families.

Although survey respondents placed little stock in the ability of government programs to help children, they looked to schools as a critical point of contact with young people. But they also voiced the criticism that schools need to beef up their teaching of societal ethics and values. While 49 percent said public schools fail to give students a good education, 67 percent said that improving the public schools would be a very effective way to help young people.

Those polled also said greater availability and use of after-school programs and volunteer groups, such as the Boy Scouts, would be an effective way to help children.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week