Acting for Children in a 'Crossfire' World

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As a former teacher and principal, I am keenly aware that society sees patience as one of the most valued qualities for those of us who work directly with children. But given the evidence of how much we have raised the ante on growing up, it is clear to me that those who work with children should no longer view patience as a virtue.

Continuing to be patient at a time when children and childhood as we have known it are in terminal danger is irresponsible, if not outright criminal.

The task of creating a platform for concrete action on behalf of children is fraught with formidable but not insurmountable difficulties. But the consequences of not taking action are horrendous.

Some of the obstacles to meaningful action are familiar:

  • The rapid changes in the structure of the American family, traditional institutions, and gender roles--a pace of change that seems to have outstripped our ability to adapt to the changes.
  • Worsening social conditions, such as the greater availability of drugs and pervasive/concomitant violence, and the widening chasm between the "haves" and "have nots." To rephrase a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is a time when events are in the saddle and ride mankind.

Some of the obstacles are less obvious, but just as pernicious:

  • The habitual thinking and description of children as "our future," which seems to excuse us from paying sufficient attention and resources to them in the present.
  • Our confusion between "adult time" and "child time," which causes us to believe that if it takes a year to change something, this is not too long. But the year between age 5 and age 6 for a child is very different from the year between ages 35 and 36 for an adult. This time confusion fosters our propensity to label children as "at risk," when we really should be calling them "in trouble." Indeed, all children are growing up in a world at risk.

The World Summit for Children held recently at the United Nations provides an excellent opportunity for us to demonstrate our resolve to act on behalf of America's children. This historic meeting was the largest gathering of heads of state in history--more than 70 actually participated. But its real importance will lie not in how many presidents, kings, and potentates participated. It will be in the response their nations fashion to the crisis facing the children of the world.

In America, the crisis is very real: an increasing number of children are living in "war zones" in our "peaceful" land and are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. U.S. children increasingly are being forced into premature adulthood, and for many, as one commentator has phrased it, "their nightmares come in the daytime."

The latest lexicon of childhood descriptors in the United States, in fact, might prompt us to question whether we rightly merit the title of "civilized" nation: "crossfire children," "crack babies," "shelter kids," "throwaway children," "boarder babies." And added to this parlance of shameful childhood modifiers is the fact that we are no longer shocked when children are routinely referred to as "homeless," "abused," "abandoned," or "missing."

The litany of facts describing the status of children in this country is now familiar. They document one overriding fact: that our children are in crisis, and because our futures are inextricably intertwined, we are all in crisis.

Less than a year ago, a Congressional report based on a thorough review of the status of children and youths actually concluded that childhood is dangerous for children in this country. The Children's Defense fund churns out a mountain of statistics each year on the condition of our young that might legitimately provide the basis for a class action against all adults for endangering the welfare of children.

Each time the media make us aware of yet another horror committed against children we shudder, question whether it can get any worse, shrug, and continue to hope that things will improve: A newborn from Nebraska is chopped up by his father and fed to the family dog; a 12-year-old boy in Brooklyn is tied up and set aflame by a 13-year-old for refusing to take drugs; a Texan forces a 5-year-old to drink 10 ounces of bourbon--the child dies the next morning of irreversible brain damage; a 7-year-old girl in Detroit is raped and thrown from the roof of her apartment building to her death.

As individuals we claim to cherish children, while collectively our behavior seems to prove otherwise. We debate the merits of child-care legislation in a child-careless society. As the ante (anti) is raised on growing up, so is our indignation. But this indignation seems ephemeral and has yet to be translated into an agenda, a platform of concrete actions or legislation that unequivocally demonstrates that we care about children.

With the United Nations summit providing the impetus for hope that such an action agenda will be developed, not only for America but on a global front, it is time to consider new approaches and strategies. Here are a few that deserve careful thought:

  • Adopt a Cabinet-level Child Advocate General to develop and direct a coherent and comprehensive children's policy, create useful and realistic legislation, and set a national tone and attitude that reinforces the desire to champion children's rights and needs. This idea might, in turn, be effectively carried out at the state and local levels as well.
  • Adopt a Child-Impact Policy. Examine all existing legislation and all proposed legislation vis-A-vis its impact on children.
  • Issue Children's Savings Bonds to provide an opportunity to earmark resources specifically for improved and better coordinated children's services.
  • Reconceptualize schools as the locus of advocacy for all children, so that they, as the only agency seeing every child every day, can accept responsibility for mobilizing available resources and generating new ones as needed. (An advocacy role does not mean that the school itself must provide or perform the necessary services.)
  • Establish a policy requiring that any new funds for children and youths be given only to broad coalitions of professionals who will bring together their unique expertise in health (physical and mental), education, welfare, and parenting on behalf of the children they serve. We can no longer afford the luxury of allowing child-serving professionals to work in isolation of each other.

Using the World Summit for Children as a catalyst for action, we must summon our most compassionate--and passionate--individual and national instincts to assure that every child will develop to the limits of his or her capacity. As a nation dedicated to individual freedom and dignity, we can do no less.

Vol. 10, Issue 11, Page 44

Published in Print: November 14, 1990, as Acting for Children in a 'Crossfire' World
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