Leave No Child Behind: The Rights of the Child and the American Dream by Lisa Mayfield Stewart
Some karmic thing about children seems at work in my life. My fantasy about the child I wanted but did not produce is that I’d have cheerfully lived out my days in selfless service to his or her healthy rearing, bringing to bear everything I learned, didn’t learn, and un-learned from my own depression-ridden, alcohol-powered family of origin. As it is, my work has borne me on a 15 year journey through contemporary American life, as seen through children’s eyes.
As an attorney and former director of a program supporting volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children, I have long believed that children would benefit from better-articulated and enforceable rights. And as a family mediator, I often work around a void in conversations between men and women that the voices of their children might fill eloquently and persuasively. The dissonance between what we say we want for children and what we offer them shrieks at me.
We say we want our children to grow up to be happy, productive members of society. We say we want their dreams to come true for them. We say we want them to have better lives than we had. We want the American Dream for our kids so they can grow up to do, be and have whatever they want.
It’s hard to resist the urge to buy, and sell, the American Dream for our kids. But what is it and what happens when the dream comes true?
The dream that we sell ourselves and our kids maintains that in the land of plenty, if we work hard, we’ll be “upwardly mobile”, wealthier, conquering class barriers that may have stopped others less determined, or even our own family members in previous generations. But the dark truth of the American Dream is that something must propel the endless cycle of consumerism because, contrary to popular “conservative” fiction, the economy is managed, not market driven. The American Dream generates endless wants and manufactured needs in anyone susceptible—and everyone knows that children are the most susceptible of all.
The American Dream starts early because it quite literally needs children to grow up to be workers and consumers. A machine that achieves optimum performance when fueled by human resources who don’t ask ultimate questions, it must burgle the zesty little red wagon of childhood and promise to replace it with a shiny, leather upholstered, convertible badge of legitimacy in adulthood.
And people believe that promise. So successful is the American Dream machine that a recent Time poll, featured in a David Brooks essay for the New York Times, revealed that 19% of Americans believe themselves among the richest 1% of the nation’s earners, and another 20% expect to be . . . someday.
In the Shadow of the Dream Meanwhile, unprecedented numbers of Americans from all economic classes seek mood-altering pharmaceuticals to help us manage our burgeoning depression. The suicide rate among people 10 – 24 years old has tripled in the last 25 years. By some estimates, 700,000 young people will attempt suicide this year alone.
Our social ills certainly demonstrate that the Dream Machine extrudes, like so many widgets, more than its fair share of unhappy, disruptive, and/or dangerous people. Our prisons are filled to overflowing. There aren’t enough foster homes to supply the needs of severely neglected and abused children. Drug and alcohol treatment programs can’t begin to meet the need for their services. Domestic violence proliferates and intervention program staff know too well that their programs are largely ineffective. Any career child welfare worker, probation officer, judge, defense attorney or prosecutor will tell you about the generational nature of whatever it is that ails the families with whom they work. The old AA axiom—Hurt people hurt people—has its corollary in hurt parents who hurt their children. Emotionally crippled adults can scarcely be expected to rear emotionally healthy kids.
It’s no secret why society produces so many unhappy people. We know enough about infants and toddlers to know that the first two to three years are crucial. Crucial to learning how to connect with other humans, learning to love and to trust. Crucial to brain development, so much so that human beings can become “hard-wired” for violence. We know, for example, that most prison inmates endured the loss of a parent within the first two to three years of life. That many of the children housed as infants and toddlers in Romania’s orphanages during the 1980s and adopted by well-meaning American families suffer severe emotional and neurological damage. We know that serial foster care produces troubled children. We know that children growing up with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents share common difficulties. In short, parental loss or parental unavailability through illness, addiction or what have you, puts children at risk. Violence in the home and parental conflict harm children. We know that divorce itself is less harmful than persistent parental conflict in its aftermath.
Our social welfare structures, policies, and practices reflect all this understanding just enough, perhaps, to dodge a reprise of the French Revolution on domestic soil.
State Sponsored Child Abuse It may seem counter-intuitive, but the American Dream anticipates and welcomes a certain percentage of unhappy, disruptive and dangerous people, just as our economy requires a certain percentage of poor and unemployed. Unhappy, disruptive and dangerous people are productive, too, in their way. Dealing with us is a major industry. We buy therapies, treatments, interventions, training, education, and/or rehabilitation—and we fuel the industries of prosecution, representation, probation and incarceration.
Children’s programs live with chronic under-funding. They merely scratch the surface of demand, even those few excellent programs like Healthy Start, community “relief nurseries,” and Marion County’s Project Bond, which give early childhood its due by seeking to nip the cycle in the bud.
Our education system, to which we innocently feed our children, accomplishes precisely what the Dream Machine requires of it: dis-empowered young people, inured to their respective stations in life, whose entry into the job market is carefully regulated. One-size-fits-all schooling fits few in reality. Testing and categorizing occurs earlier and earlier, and earlier and earlier students learn to compare themselves to their peers and settle in to their pigeon-holes. School systems sell captive student audiences to commercial interests (Channel One, pepsi & coke machine contracts, etc.) in exchange for equipment and technology that otherwise bust under-funded school budgets. These interests then expand budgets by selling such captive markets to other commercial interests. Teachers become unwilling wardens, and graduates emerge without job skills but full of yearning for cars, electronic gizmos, or some sort of fix. Growing numbers drop out or join gangs where they can get money and feel a sense of belonging somewhere. Shockingly large numbers report that school just ain’t very interesting or relevant.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Children personify curiosity, the little walking, talking, why-spouting sponges. We know this but are still surprised by tiny multi-lingual people and six year old ham radio whizzes. Kids figure out so much if we let them, if we attend to their curiosities and help them learn about and manage their emotional lives. Which is exactly what doesn’t occur on any broad scale in the current cultural milieu. The calculated burgling of children’s zesty little red wagons while turning a blind eye to their suffering amounts to state sponsored child abuse.
The Rights of the Child That the Dream Machine actually does what it is designed to do for its children goes a long way toward explaining why the U.S. is one of only two member states, and the single industrialized country in the world, that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, adopted in 1990 after a decade in formulation, is a formidable covenant with children.
Were the Convention ratified by the U.S., the Dream Machine would have some things to answer for. Our nation’s ranking, for example, of 27th among industrialized nations in infant mortality. The shameful fact that the rate for black infants is more than double the rate for white infants. The United States’ rate of children living in poverty is substantially higher (as much as three times higher) than most other major industrialized nations. The only major nations that top it, according to the Luxembourg Income Study, are Mexico and Russia. And predictably, children who aren’t white have it worse. UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre has found that the U.S., the richest nation, actually tops the list for children in relative poverty, and offers less mobility out of poverty than those other nations. These are the realities lurking in the shadow of the American Dream.
Turn a bunch of us “radicals” loose in our legal system with the Convention on the Rights of the Child in our back pockets and the government could ill afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on “multiple simultaneous wars” to spread the lure of the American Dream around the globe. Its ratification would be tantamount to admitting that children have been on the endangered species list for quite some time. Move over Spotted Owl. The Convention would require new priorities and would give badly needed leverage to children’s advocates.
After Mother Teresa visited the U.S., she observed that the worst poverty in Calcutta did not compare to the spiritual poverty she witnessed in the U.S. It is a poverty of the soul begotten by insatiable desire and too much of a good thing. It’s the slow starvation of a national psyche in the thrall of a powerful addiction. The ultimate emptiness of lives lived in slavery to stuff and status and money is storied wisdom, handed down across ages—gone largely unheeded. Hollywood co-opts this wisdom in hackneyed animated features for our entertainment, as if seeing the film and buying the T-shirt will nourish our souls. But what if we lived the values?
Beating the addiction to money, stuff and status calls for a brand new American Dream. One that places those things in livable, workable, sustainable perspective. It beseeches us to lead by example and offer the children in our lives values and lifestyles that do the same. We can reject the self-serving values of the Dream Machine, and re-compose lives based on our own carefully excavated hearts’ desires. We can help ourselves and our children develop and access inner resources, cultivate internal motivation—and inoculate against the pervasive din of consumerism.
In that world, decent pre-natal and childhood health care would be entitlements. Educational opportunities that nurture the zest and curiosity inside all children would be the norm. Differences would be honored, so all kids would be gifted. Recognition would flow for excellence in compassion, tolerance, critical thinking, self-motivation, curiosity and earth-consciousness. Services with a real chance of healing the wounds too many children suffer and pass on to their own children would be there for the asking.
In that world we would, like certain Native American tribes, weigh our decisions and actions on scales wielded by the seventh generation down the line. The U.N.’s dream for children, ratified by virtually all other countries in our world, would be a good start.
Lisa Mayfield Stewart is an attorney/mediator and aspiring writer in Salem, Oregon. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to get involved in advocacy for children, contact your local Commission on Children and Families. View the Rights of the Child at www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm