Friday, February 27, 2009

Lest you think I just complain...

I mentioned earlier my approval of President Obama's challenge to parents' being accountable. Something I wouldn't mind seeing and hearing from our leaders more often.

Anyway, in the comments on that post, Charley on the MTA asked "So what's the approach for those places that tend to have dicey or inconsistent parental/guardian involvement?" When I reached paragraph four of my response comment, I decided to just put it in a new post.

I desperately want solutions to some of the challenges faced by American students who lack adequate familial supervision, and valuing of education. From what I can see broadly, there are four ways to try to increase that supervision of children, and there aren't so many awesome choices here. In ascending order of plausibility, they are:

A - Demand true parental accountability.
B - Do nothing.
C - Encourage private society to take over familial roles.
D - Have government take over familial roles.

A - Demand true parental accountability. By true parental accountability, I mean that the government expects a lot more of parents than currently. Frankly, unless you regularly and savagely beat your child, the government is pretty much okay with what you do as a parent. Since DSS is so overstretched and underfunded, it takes a lot to face consequences for poor parenting. Telling the child that s/he isn't that smart and high school, much less college, is a waste of time for someone so stupid, isn't going to get the government involved. But it does deliver a body blow to that child's future.

Thus, putting in a regime of true accountability for parents would be expensive as heck to do. Furthermore, what are the consequences for not living up to standard? The current practice of taking away children to put in foster care has an uneven record, shall we say, and stricter accountability implies a willingness to follow-up, probably in more cases. How would the parents be treated, and what would happen to the children? Parental education classes that would be of value, administered before or after birth, would be rather expensive. We're talking more bureaucracy and more money to enter into a very messy discussion of intervention v. parental rights. So we head off to...

B - Do nothing. This is our current overall course of action. Broad change will cost money and require enormous political capital to conceive and implement. It also falls quickly afoul of a parent's rights to raise children as s/he sees fit. So for the most part, nothing is done for these children other than holding out hope that a cleric, teacher, or other adult figure will help a child in ways that his/her family is not. In that case we make a movie or write a book about them, and ignore the 10 children in similar situations who aren't so lucky.

C - Encourage private society to take over familial roles. Here, we are talking the idea that children are raised outside of families and government. I think a whole spectrum from Big Brother/Big Sister to private boarding schools. As with the other choices, the question becomes "where do the resources come from?" There are far more children who need help than there is currently the ability of the non-profit sector to serve. The greatest chance, and something not uncommon in the South, is for churches to fill this role. Given the declining religiosity of the country, however, as well as the everpresent church-state question, I'm not sure how well that would work out.

The non-government sector always has and always will play a big part in improving American society. I'm not a liberal who thinks that government is the solution to everything. However, government has the greatest raw ability to effect widespread change, and given this is a widespread issue, the private nonprofit sector clearly would need help.

D - Have government take over familial roles. Insofar as we advance beyond doing nothing, this is the most likely course of action. Government is a hyper-nonprofit in many ways, and can do things the private nonprofit sector can't. And given the queasiness implicit in more strictly monitoring what parents do, it seems most likely that government will be called in to fill in the gaps.

This is already happening in many subtle ways. Some familial duties are being moved into schools. Schools, in the guise of health class and counseling, increasingly offer guidance on decision-making, morals, personal care, peer relations, and a host of things that were formerly learned at home. Students are reminded that when they enter puberty, deodorant would be a good thing. They go through role-playing exercises on diffusing conflict without entering into violence. Somehow, I doubt this was common 50 years ago.

"Lunch bunches," "check-ins," and "inner circles" are all programs put into place at different age levels whereby school personnel monitor the non-educational portion of a child's life. Questions about parents, relationships, peers, frustrations, all come out at this point. It is amazing the spectrum of problems that teachers end up working with kids on, everything from handling the parents' divorce to what to do when your crush doesn't like you back. Often without the formal training in counseling.

Another approach that is gaining popularity is frankly to decrease the time children spend under the (non-)care of their families, and increase the time children spend under school care. This is the core point of extended-day programs. An extra two hours in schools (hopefully doing enrichment) is two hours less with poor or no supervision.

Not that this is all about schools. My prediction for years has been a merging and streamlining of DYS, DSS, and the Department of Education -- whatever Deval has now named those divisions. Call it a "Department of Children" where the people who ensure that the child is fed are in regular contact with school personnel, who are often the people who spend the most time with a child.

Frankly, (D) seems in some ways Orwellian, a shade lighter than the shadow of omnipresence implied by (A). At the same time, much of this is age-old -- teachers have been counseling their students for centuries (millenia, counting Socrates' example). The scale of the problem may be increasing, and I wonder for how long we will continue this ad hoc system of government intervention, and if somewhere somebody will try a wholesale reform, reactions be damned.

That is an honest answer to a question, but I don't mean to seem all gloom-and-doom. There are plenty of role models out there who help kids without the need for some program. It just often seems that more and more kids are slipping through the cracks, and the cracks are becoming wider. Lest I get too dark, though, I offer the following quotation:

“Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”

The source? Socrates -- over 2000 years ago.


Ryan said...


Just add a few hours to the school day and make kids do their homework and readings at school, with tutors available. Watch GPAs skyrocket. I don't even think it would cost that much.

Quriltai said...

Okay. What are the standards for the tutors? That's where the money comes in.