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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1999 Issue #62

How Did Our Children Get This Way?
By Lon Woodbury

(This is an update from an essay originally appearing in the Woodbury Reports’ April, ’92 (#15) newsletter offering some thoughts on what was becoming a growing trend of violence and unrest in the American youth sub-culture. When the original essay was written, only those of us working with at-risk teens were aware these problems existed in suburban and rural America as well as the inner city. With the recent series of school shootings in suburban and rural schools, the whole country is now aware that problems in the youth sub-culture exist in all segments of our society, rich and poor, urban, suburban and rural.)

The traumatic sequence of school yard shootings in the last few years, including Pearl, Mississippi, Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon and Littleton, Colorado gave even a louder wake-up call than the studies from the early 90’s that estimated about 25% of our children to be “at-risk.” Issues of drug abuse, pregnancy, crime, and/or dropping out of school, now pale in comparison to more immediate issues of life and death. The number of personal tragedies and wasted lives these new stories represent is mind-boggling, the burden to the rest of us, staggering, because they represent just the “tip of the iceberg.” It even more fervently raises our earlier question, will our schools, our justice system, our social agencies, and even our society itself become overwhelmed by the escalating needs and demands of this adolescent subculture who act out of emotional pain, anger, and narcissism? It makes sense that if we can understand what has caused this developing tragedy, we can do something effective to solve the problem. 

There has been no shortage of explanations. At various times, blame has been put on violence in the media, an affluent economy, break-up of the family, rising expectations of minority groups, weakened churches, poverty, and women’s liberation to name a few. While these all probably play a role, or are perhaps symptoms, a more useful explanation can arise from observing how American attitudes toward raising its young have developed during the 20th century. 

Every society that has survived any length of time has found ways to meet all the needs of its young. Each has found a way, usually through some kind of religion, system of myths, and/or value structure, to answer such basic moral questions as, “Who am I?” and “Why am I alive?” Each has fostered emotional growth using a system of discipline and consequences that teach acceptable behavior. Each has prepared their young for productive work using a system of schools and/or apprenticeships to foster mental growth and useful skills. While it is true that Modern American society provides for mental growth in an industrial and post-industrial society, it no longer has adequate methods to foster emotional growth and a value-system. We are reaping the consequences of this neglect, and we can see how it happened by using the evolution of our public school system as an example. 

Our public school system was designed in the early 20th century by zealous behaviorists who focused on mental growth. Behaviorists tend to discount the importance of spiritual and emotional growth since these cannot be directly measured, and they left those areas to the family, communities, and churches. The model the behaviorists based the schools on was the factory, which in the early 20th century had been doing miracles in mass production. The behaviorists designed a system, a “school” factory, to produce mental growth. This overall scheme worked fairly well in the first half of the century. The behaviorist school system fit our children’s mental growth needs, and society met our children’s other needs. By the 1990s, society had changed and was no longer as able to do its part. The family had become fragmented. As we became a mobile society, the community lost much of its stability. Churches lost much of their influence. Everybody’s lifestyle had become more sedentary; even so, people had less time to interact. For many, government was losing its credibility. 

Despite these changes in our society, most children are still fortunate enough to be raised in a supportive environment at home, and consequently most have adequate self- esteem, and can still take advantage of our school system. This is shown by test scores of the top US high school students comparing well with the top students from all other nations. Unfortunately, the changes in society resulted in fewer children growing up in a supportive environment, causing a growing minority of children to become emotional, moral and spiritual illiterates. It has become difficult or impossible for these emotionally, morally and spiritually illiterate children to take advantage of the mental education provided by our schools, because these children are confused, have a low self-image, and are unable to accept or understand the consequences of their actions. At the same time, formal education has become a requirement to share in American prosperity, leaving behind those who cannot succeed in school, with the experience of fear, anger, and a sense of personal failure, directed both towards themselves and others. It threatens to cripple a generation and overwhelm the public school system, social agencies, and the justice system. 

As the crisis became apparent, our public schools started to respond (and still are) as a typical factory would, by re-tooling and re-training the assembly line to meet the new needs. Using the best behaviorist knowledge, new courses for mental growth were added such as Sociology, Values Clarification and Sex Education. Curriculums and textbooks were redesigned. State legislatures and State education departments took on more power and education systems were centralized for better use of scarce resources. Teacher certification requirements were increased, as were student graduation requirements. Tremendous resources and energy was poured into improving the behavior of educators and systems with the result: the problem continued to get worse. 

This happened because the basic philosophy of our public school system discounted the real source of the problem: children needed to develop a value system, and grow-up emotionally. It is true our public schools are still doing a decent job at what they were designed to do, that is, provide for mental development, but society’s needs have changed drastically. Emotional Growth Schools and Programs are on the cutting edge of experiments on how to meet all the needs of their students. They are teaching morally, emotionally and spiritually illiterate children how to prepare them for productive lives. They do this by providing structure through immediate and appropriate consequences, and by addressing the individual mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the students. The results of this “whole child” approach border on the miraculous, to which, anyone who has seen the before and after results can testify. What these schools have learned can be used by the rest of society as a guide, for raising our children. Traditional schools, and even parents, can learn from what Emotional Growth Schools and Programs have found needs to be done. They should be listened to as pioneers who have found a way out of our dilemma. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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