The precarious state of childhood in America

I know very few people who would say that this is a good time for children in America.  Divorce, fatherless children, the pervasiveness of sexuality in the culture, and out-of-control, unsupervised technology are but a few of the factors that put children in harm’s way.
Considering each of these issues separately is dispiriting enough.  Considering them together is almost overwhelming.  Nonetheless, it needs to be done.  And thanks to Janice Shaw Crouse it has been, in her new book Children at Risk (Transaction Publishers, Oct. 2009).  

The information she has compiled is woefully compelling, and should be a wake-up call to anyone concerned about their children or grandchildren’s well-being, not to mention society’s future.
Starting with marriage, Crouse points out that there was actually a time, not so long ago, when “marriage used to be the only socially acceptable household structure for couples, and there was general agreement that children needed a married mother and father.”  My, how times have changed.  No one blinks when a single celebrity mom has a baby, and makes the cover of People magazine.  Living together is no big deal any more, especially considering that the number of couples doing that is ten times higher than in 1970.  Add to that the fact that approximately 40 percent of those couples have children.  It’s become part of the culture, and it’s easy to shrug it off.
“The data, however, are clear; and the experts agree: no other household structure comes close to the married-couple family where the father and mother work together to ensure their children’s well-being,” Crouse writes.  “The natural, traditional family produces the best outcomes for children.”
And the experts aren’t alone in thinking that.  According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans agree.  “Nearly 70 percent…believe that a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily.  More than 65 percent of adults think that single motherhood is bad for children and society and nearly 60 percent disapprove of cohabiting couples.”
We are reaping the fruits of the 1960s when, as Crouse writes, “sexual freedom, along with growing economic independence, lessened ties to marriage.”  That period of societal upheaval was also the breeding ground for what she calls a “preoccupation with personal fulfillment rather than individual responsibility and obligations to others – including children, a husband, or a wife.”
It all adds up to another phenomenon that’s become so common that we often forget about its significance: divorce.  Right now, the divorce rate is more than 60 percent higher than it was in 1960.   Thanks to the work of researchers like Judith Wallerstein and Elizabeth Marquardt, the long-term negative effects of divorce on children are well-documented, and some good is beginning to come out of that research.  Crouse writes that there is more pro-marriage literature, more written about how to strengthen and maintain marriages, and that marriage counselors aren’t as quick to recommend divorce.  “Counselors have found that couples who learn how to work their way through their problems when they are on the verge of divorce end up with happier marriages five years later than they were before they faced their seemingly insurmountable problems,” she writes.
Crouse is quick to point out that divorce is a serious problem for society as a whole, and that includes Christians.  Barna Research Group studies in 1999, 2004 and 2008 found that 27 percent of people identifying themselves as born-again Christians either are, or have been, divorced.  She writes that “statistics like these represent a tidal wave of change during the past century.”
Also feeding that tidal wave of change was feminism, when women began to exchange “fulfillment in motherhood for success in the workplace.”  We dare not question the choice to put babies and children in daycare, despite the evidence pointing to potentially serious negative consequences.  Crouse cites well-known child experts T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley Greenspan, who teamed up to write the book, The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn and Flourish.  In it, she writes, the authors explain “the importance of a continuous, close relationship between a child and his or her parents, and they stressed the difficulty of building that relationship when both parents work outside the home.”  Then there is the 2003 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) which showed that too much time in daycare “not only predicts problem behavior,” but leads to higher levels of “assertiveness, disobedience and aggression,” no matter how high the quality of the daycare program.  Despite all this, there are continual calls for government-funded daycare, taxpayer-funded early childhood programs, and mandated preschool.
Crouse also cites a ten-year British study that followed the development of 1,200 children and their families.  A quote from the study’s findings sums it up: “Children looked after by their mothers do significantly better in developmental tests than those cared for in nurseries, by child minders or relatives.”  That’s significant: mothers are better than even relatives or one-on-one babysitters!  And while that may not be shocking to many of us, it is not insignificant that most of us probably never heard about that study, despite the fact that one its leaders was well-known author and childcare expert Penelope Leach.
That same British study, according to Crouse, “noted the disturbing results of the loss of traditional marriage and family in that nation.  Children are suffering because parents are [in the study’s own words] ‘too self-absorbed; too focused on their own self-fulfillment; and too self-centered.'”
Children at Risk covers all this and much more – everything from abortion to the dangers of Internet pornography.  The bottom line is that it’s time to change course.  As Crouse so eloquently writes: “The promise of the twenty-first century rests on whether America reverses the disintegration of marriage and the family.”

Courtesy of


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