Back to School: Educating Our Country When It Comes To Parenting
By Dr. Jack Westman
The usual prescription for improving our economy is to improve schools by hiring skilled teachers and getting kids to work harder. That plan never mentions parents. It’s as if schools have the greatest and only influence on children…never mind the families and neighborhoods in which they live. The implication is that good schools can make up for bad families and bad neighborhoods.
Ignoring parents and neighborhoods is egregious. Disadvantaged competent parents with failing public schools actively seek alternative schools, such as in the charter system. Ignoring the fact that good schools are successful because they have the active support of competent parents denigrates parenthood. The exclusive focus on schools ignores the harsh facts that of our children:
- 1 in 3 live with single parents, most without a father.
- 1 in 4 experience divorce.
- 1 in 5 live in poverty.
- 3 million are referred to child protective services every year.
- 11 million children have been seriously damaged by abuse and/or neglect.
These figures might well create a sense of helplessness. No wonder it’s easier to believe that good schools will solve our problems, especially when schools are politically attractive as targets and as solutions. But blaming schools or expecting them to rescue foundering children from incompetent parents ignores the unmotivated, disrespectful students they are trying to educate.
Of course, many schools must be improved. Many of our public schools have rundown facilities and ineffective teachers. Our public schools can do a better job. If we give them the necessary resources, American education can once more lead the world in the qualities that characterize its best potential: learning how to learn by problem solving, being creative, thinking for one’s self and questioning authority.
Still, the unpaid job of parenthood trumps paid jobs and schooling in its immediate and lasting economic impact. Competent parents produce children with the drive and imagination that have made, and that can continue to make, this country great. Children become responsible adults when they internalize the values of responsible parents through limits and modeling that impart self-discipline.
At the same time, the costs of parenthood are significant. Monetary expenses increase and the loss of income is possible. Opportunity costs associated with career, leisure activities and free time are incurred. Psychological costs show when parents have less time for themselves, decreasing flexibility and mobility and increasing worries and concerns. There are physical costs from the strain of childbearing, childbirth, breast-feeding and lost sleep.
Our society also does not appreciate the enormous investment parents make in producing our citizens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it costs over $286,000 to raise one child over the course of seventeen years. That investment pays off when each child raised to become a productive citizen contributes $1.4 million to our economy. In contrast, each child damaged by parental abuse and neglect ultimately costs our economy $2.8 million.
The development of self-discipline and collaborative skills in childhood is the essential prerequisite for an adult’s ability to work productively in teams; to become a compassionate and involved citizen; and to become a competent parent. An insecure attachment bond with parents produces school-aged children and adults who lack self-discipline and consideration for others. Such individuals often are self-centered, impulsive and exploitative. They did not learn to trust others starting with their parents. By the time these insecurely attached children get to school, much of their potential has already been lost. They become adults who lack the emotional intelligence to form positive relationships. They have difficulty collaborating within their families and in their workplaces. They continue the cycle of unstable family bonds that further weakens our society.
For all these reasons, the quality of a child’s attachment bonding is more vital to our workplace productivity and to our collective future than the quality of a child’s education.
We can no longer afford to ignore the glaring reality: incompetent parents cause social problems…competent parents prevent them. We must understand what children really need in order to flourish─which is not the same as being happy─and to become self-disciplined, productive members of society.
If we are to do these things, we must confront the belief that little can be done to strengthen parent-child bonds and families, a belief that hands responsibility for childrearing to institutions. Paid childcare, schools and professionals are expected to fill in when parents fail. Parents today are not held as accountable for their actions with their children as they are for their interactions with people outside their families.
What do we need? We must align our public policies and economic priorities to support parenthood. We need to help struggling families through Coordinated Services/Wraparound Teams and neighborhood Children’s Zones and to prevent the formation of vulnerable families through an enforceable Parenthood Pledge. We need paid family and medical leaves, including for at least six months following childbirth.
Our nation’s future depends upon its investment in parenthood.
Dr. Jack Westman develops public policies to give every child the chance to become a productive citizen. During decades as a psychiatrist and professor, he has maintained a focus on strengthening families. Currently, he is a family lobbyist and author of Parent Power: The Key to America’s Prosperity. www.jackwestman.com and www.americasparentpower.com.