While professing to love our children and to embrace an “it takes a village” mentality, the U.S. continues to enact policies that demonize our children and fail to address issues that are literally killing them. Rather than preparing young people to be amazing leaders, we more often throw them right under the bus. The examples I cite below are by no means exhaustive of the many ways we sell kids short in the U.S. Rather, they represent the vast array of actions and inactions that fails to protect kids, and in many cases, presumes they are the problem.
First, we distrust them, which results in ridiculous policies and recommendations for families. Take abstinence-only education, a hallmark of the George W. Bush presidency. Despite there being no evidence that abstinence-only programs are effective, schools increasingly used that approach since it was tied to federal monies.
The research is clear: Abstinence-only education does not curtail teen pregnancy. Studies have shown that kids who participate in abstinence-only educational programs engage in sexual activity at about the same age, with approximately the same number of partners, as do those who had no education or a different sort of sexual education. Critics have noted that the curricula often reinforce dangerous gender role stereotypes and were heteronormative, marginalizing youth who were gay, transgender or questioning their sexuality. Thankfully, President Obama has cut abstinence-only education from the 2017 budget, but the damage is done. Youth are left unprepared to engage in healthy talk about sex, and in many locations that provided abstinence-only education the rates of sexually transmitted infections soared. Yet it is these same teens that, if they happen to get pregnant before marriage, will again be demonized by politicians, pundits and the public.
In another example of distrust, for several years now, companies like Discreet Intervention have encouraged families to rent canine drug dogs to sniff around to find evidence of their teen’s drug use. This follows a push a few years prior to purchase drug testing kits and to surreptitiously conduct urinalysis of their loved ones. Because nothing says I trust you, or I really want to help you if you do have a drug problem, more than spying on them. In another chilling example, the FBI—already asking high schools to spy on kids–recently announced a new plan to encourage high school students to rat out their peers who might be critical of the government, alleging that this would help identify and curtail extremism. According to the FBI’s documents, even studying or taking pictures of potential targets, like government buildings, should be cause for alarm. No more Civics or American Government projects, I guess.
Second, we fail to enact laws and policies that will protect kids. No example makes this more clear than our inadequate gun laws. On December 14, 2015, NBC News reported that at least 555 kids had died from gun violence since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut three years prior. Annually, more than 7,000 kids are injured or killed by guns. In 2015, a toddler shot someone, on average, once per week. In homes where there is domestic violence, which most often children witness, the presence of a gun increases the risk that someone will be shot as much as 12 times. Yet no comprehensive gun control bills have been passed to protect our kids or their families.
Additionally, the U.S. sits on the bottom of the list of wealthy countries when it comes to infant mortality. We have one of the world’s worst relative rates of child poverty, as reported by UNICEF. Almost half of black children under the age of six live below the poverty line. We’re also near the bottom of the developed world in the number of four-year-olds in early childhood education. The U.S. is one of only two countries that has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To date, our political candidates have said very little about children’s rights. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have advocated paid family leave and Marco Rubio has recommended an increase in the child-care tax credit, but if they truly believe that children matter, their words are too few and their actions too little.