Oct 24, 2021 • 12M

America is Neglecting Its Children and Its Future

What price are we paying by not doing more to help our nation’s kids?

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America has PTSD and needs healing.
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“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

— Nelson Mandela

Children are our better angels, yet as a country and society, we don’t treat them that way.

Other rich countries contribute an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s care, compared with $500 in the United States. According to Elizabeth Davis, an economist studying child care at the University of Minnesota, “the science of child development shows how very important investment in the youngest ages are, and we get societal benefits from those investments.”

Although America would benefit from more investment in children, we’re neglecting millions of them. The Biden child tax credit and American Families Plan are a good start, but we must do much more.

Most of us likely don’t appreciate just how traumatized America’s children are. We’ve become desensitized to it.

The problem is complicated

Poverty, opioids, lack of education, chronic stress, the breakdown of the family, school shootings, and social media are all contributing factors.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households without consistent access to adequate nutrition. Families with children make up 30 percent of the homeless population. More children have been killed by gunfire in the U.S. since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School than American soldiers have been killed in overseas combat since 9/11.[1]

Four million children lack health coverage. Youth homicide rates are seven times the rates of other leading industrialized nations. The United States ranks toward the bottom on almost every indicator when it comes to governmental policies toward children.

In 2019, there were more than 650,000 reported cases of child abuse, and the most common form of maltreatment in the U.S. was neglect. And those are just the reported cases. Millions more likely suffer in silence and they have no collective voice and no rights.

I was one of them.

Molly Beane, 1988 — three years old

Imagine being a child and not having a source of safety, making your way into the world feeling unprotected and unseen. That’s what much of my early childhood was like. I’m saving the stories for a different platform, but my first years were abusive and dark.

As a result, I grew up with the vague feeling that there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. I felt rejected at the core of my humanity. Utterly repulsive. Shameful. Outcast. Humiliated. I carried these feelings around for much of my life.

A post shared by Molly Beane (@heymollyb)

My father ruled the household with a reign of terror and inescapable brutality. And he never let me get close to him. His high standards and lack of regard for my ordinary human needs, like affection and warmth, had a powerful unconscious influence on the trajectory of my life. He denigrated my instinctual emotional nature as though there were something acutely wrong with being a female child.

Because of this, I devalued my feelings and worth. I grew hard and aggressive even though my nature is to be soft and loving. I constantly felt ‘on edge,’ like a bubble-wrapped tortoise inside of a bank vault.

I abandoned my very essence because I assumed people would reject it. I secretly feared that others would hurt me or let me down because they are too fascinating and wonderful to be bothered with lil’ ole me.

To compensate for the lack of love, I developed high ideals and an aspiration toward knowledge and excellence. I could never meet my own impossible standards, forever punishing myself for my imperfections. I grew even harder as a defense against the loss of my dreams.

It took me until I was in my mid-thirties to unpack this core wound.

Childhood trauma shapes us for life

It causes us to repeat negative cycles and abuse, either to ourselves or others.

And I use the term ‘trauma’ subjectively here. One need not experience abuse to be deeply affected by a childhood experience or unhealthy familial behavior patterns.

Our ego isn’t fully formed until later in childhood; especially Freud’s superego, which is composed of the internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and society.

The superego’s job is to repress the parts of ourselves that are considered “wrong” or socially unacceptable. Traumatic or negative experiences in early childhood can become part of this superego, which may cause us to feel inherent guilt and shame without understanding exactly why.

Think of this superego like software that dictates how we interact with the world. For the most part, the average person doesn’t know how software does what it does. If we find a bug, we can’t fix it without learning the code and searching deep within it. In other words, we will keep repeating these unconscious programs on autopilot unless we deep dive into the ‘code’ underneath.

According to Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in his best-seller The Body Keeps the Score, children who are raised feeling safe and loved develop brains specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation, but children who grow up chronically frightened and unwanted develop brain circuiting which defaults to fear and abandonment.

Dr. Van Der Kolk explains that if your caregiver ignores your needs or resents your very existence, you learn to anticipate rejection and withdrawal. You cope as well as you can by blocking out hostility or neglect and act as if it doesn't matter, but your body is likely to remain in a state of high alert, creating a perpetual fight or flight state. Often, the only way to deal with this physiology is denial and dissociation. But when you don't feel real, nothing matters, which makes it impossible to protect yourself from danger.[2]

Van Der Kolk and his team found that adults who had been abused as children often had trouble concentrating, complained of always being on edge, and were filled with self-loathing. They had enormous trouble negotiating intimate relationships, often veering from indiscriminate, high-risk, and unsatisfying sexual involvements to total sexual shutdown. They also had large gaps in their memories, often engaged in self-destructive behaviors, and had a host of medical problems.

In fact, Robert Anda, architect of the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study, said that when the data began to appear on his computer screen, he realized that his team had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse and neglect.

He calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and that eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-fourths. It would also have a dramatic effect on workplace performance and significantly decrease the need for incarceration.

It’s clear: when we neglect and traumatize our children, we are creating a bleak future for them, ourselves, and generations to come.

“One of the most important social myths we must debunk if we are to become a more loving culture is the one that teaches parents that abuse and neglect can coexist with love. Abuse and neglect negate love.”

– bell hooks

Childhood is more stressful than ever

Even kids with benign origin stories are suffering. Social media in particular is eroding teenage mental health.

Social media usage is nearly ubiquitous among teens. Forty-five percent of adolescents report that they are online “almost constantly,” and another 44 percent are online at least several times a day.[3] And the average age at which a child opens a social media account is just 12 years old.

According to research from the American Psychological Association, there was a sharp increase over the last decade in the number of adolescents who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms — specifically in those born in 1995 or later (or Generation Z). The greatest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011, around the time when social media usage became more common.

FOMO (fear of missing out), social isolation, comparison culture, and cyberbullying all contribute to the problem. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that algorithms were driving teens toward destructive online content, leading to body image issues, mental health crises, and bullying. Seventy-two percent of teens report being cyberbullied.[4]

I know how devastating it is to be bullied. In second and third grade, my daily routine included wading through a sea of faces in the school corridor, trying to figure out who might assault me.  

I didn’t feel safe at home or at school, so I spent most of my time alone in my room with my nose in a book where I could escape to a faraway land. I shudder to think about how much worse my life would have been with social media.

Add the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s clear that the nation’s children are more stressed than they’ve ever been. It’s likely we won’t understand the full impact of the pandemic on our kids until years or decades from now.

We invest in what we value

"If you ask me why I’m in politics, my answer will be simple: children."

— Jacinda Ahern

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Governor-General of New Zealand, Jacinda Ahern

Our parents taught us that actions speak louder than words. And unfortunately, while America talks a big game about caring for its children and future generations, we do not back it up with action.

We invest in what we value, and children ain’t it.

Consider how the right-wing recently ridiculed Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave. If children were important to us, this wouldn’t be a headline because all parents would receive sufficient paid family leave. In Sweden, dads get 11 weeks. 12 in Spain. 35 in Japan.

Children can’t fend for themselves, so they need more help than adults; not less. But children can’t vote for or against special interests or generate profits for corporations.

Our children’s interests and wellbeing should be seen as one of our most important political concerns, not as an afterthought. All kids should have access to the means of self-actualization, adequate education, safe and beautiful parks, healthcare, a warm bed to sleep in, and enough food to eat.

Asking for those things is not too much. We have the money to do it; the funds are simply going elsewhere.

This is nothing less than a threat to our future.

In a 2018 speech to the United Nations, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ahern said her goal was to make her country the best place in the world for children.

Why shouldn’t the United States strive for the same?

[1] Marianne Williamson, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution. Harper One, 2019

[2] Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Random House, 2014

[3] Anderson M, Jiang J. Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center. 2018; 31:2018

[4] Selkie EM, Fales JL, Moreno MA. Cyberbullying prevalence among US middle and high school–aged adolescents: A systematic review and quality assessment. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2016; 58(2):125-33.