Against Our Kids' Best Interests?

January 06 2016

Unlike many of the Listserve members, I am well past my sell-by date! Now in my late 60s, I’ve spent my life in dual careers – as an artist, a writer, a peace and justice advocate and trainer, often working in places no one wants to go – Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, etc. And one thing I’ve yet to figure out is why people do NOT act in their own interest, with our own children the most unfortunate beneficiaries of our neglect.

So, who's in charge?

Understanding the answer to this question, one of the many I frequently ask myself and others before whom I speak, is of critical importance if we’re to begin to understand what's going on with kids today.

The answer, of course, is simple. Despite the fact that they think they are in charge, our children are not. We adults are. Even though the world will be run by those who are children today, the decisions that are affecting them before they're old enough to assume leadership are being made by us, grown-ups who have the power, who vote, who contribute to the public fisc, and who make economic and political decisions that are, at least in theory, in the best interests of our children.

Why, then, do I see such a striking similarity between the symptoms our children are exhibiting and the symptoms of victims of traditional torture?

I first began to notice this resemblance decades ago as I studied the effects of war and conflict on children. At that time, because few people in this country noticed that our own children were in danger, it was easier to travel to the Middle East, the Soviet Union and Northern Ireland to gather my information. Recently, I've been stunned by how much our own children resemble those whom I've studied overseas.

There are, of course, many complex issues related to any discussion of torture, and it is especially difficult to formulate a perfect definition, but in my studies, several key points have stood out. The first is in the definition used by the United Nations General Assembly in 1984 which states that torture need not be physical, but can also be mental maltreatment. The second is that torture is defined not only by the acts committed but also by the individual's response to these acts.

Think about some kids you know and ask yourself these questions about them: Do they have a reduced involvement with, or are they numb to, the external world? Do they dissociate and disconnect from friends and loved ones? Do you sense that they experience the loss of the ability to feel close? Are they anxious, depressed, irritable, aggressive? Have they regressed in behavior and school performance? Do they feel powerless and vulnerable? And, most striking to me, have they lost the ability to maintain an optimistic outlook or a "futureview" of any kind? These are symptoms of children who have been tortured and, I am afraid, increasingly of our children, too.
So, who's in charge?

The sad fact is that few Americans blame themselves for having contributed to the social ills they bemoan. A recent poll, for example, indicates that only 11% of respondents say they believe that their own behavior has contributed to the moral problems the nation faces, and 96% say that they believe they are doing an excellent or good job teaching their children about morals and values. But 93% say that other parents aren't taking enough responsibility for teaching their children moral values.

The bottom line is that we remain reluctant to subject our own behavior to criticism or limitations yet we profess to abhor the national moral vacuum that surrounds us. But there is no moral vacuum. There is, however, a moral hypocrisy: the difference between what we say and what we do.

If we talk right and act wrong, according to Marion Wright Edelman, we are contributing to the crisis our children face. The phrase should be "watch my feet," not "watch my lips" because if we are not walking our talk, we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I’d appreciate any feedback!

With respect,

Jan Arnow
Author of In the Line of Fire: Raising Kids in a Violent World
[email protected]
Louisville, Kentucky and
Chicago, Illinois

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