The specifics may change, but adult worries about young people continue on.
Teaching children effectively requires understanding them, but as times change, educators are left to wonder whether children are changing as well. And, if societal changes affect what young people need, then how should schools respond?
In the April 1938 Kappan, C.H. Blanchard (“Observations of a counselor”) summed up the issue:
There was much more in common between our great-grandparents and Julius Caesar than between the present-day child-youth and his great grandparents. Caesar’s roads, methods of transportation, bridges, baths, legal system, government, and many modes of living and of vocational opportunities were not far from being the same as those of our great-grandparents, the pioneers and the developers of our west. Caesar and our grandparents would be astounded at what the present-day child-youth of America takes for granted: the auto, high-speed trains, powered boats, airplanes, wireless, the radio, the modern talking movie, and our huge industrial centers. (p. 269)
Blanchard observed that the increasingly swift societal and technological changes were leading to a longer period of adolescence, as labor laws and union regulations kept young people out of the workplace and compulsory education kept them in school.
Yet, whatever changes were happening around them, parents at the time hoped that their children would go on to greater success than they achieved:
In our democracy there is, theoretically, no limitation to the success to be attained in life. Johnny Whosit may even become president someday. Almost universal in the American home is the hope that the youth will attain the better things of life — and by better is usually meant higher social and economic levels. (p. 270)
This parental ambition created a sense of pressure, as children were pushed into vocations and roles they were not suited for. Better, Blanchard attested, to listen to young people and try to understand their beliefs and desires.
Blanchard’s ideas echo across the decades, as Kappan writers have tried to understand both children themselves and how to prepare those children for life in a constantly changing world.
What’s wrong with these kids today?
Sometimes, the push to understand is less charitable than what Blanchard envisioned. For instance, in November 1958, Max Rafferty (“The cult of the slob”) inveighed against the young delinquents plaguing schools, criticizing everything from their manner of dress to their tattoos to the weapons they brought to schools. Although some of his concerns, especially regarding weapons and violence, are legitimate and understandable, his intemperate tone is off-putting, to say the least:
The Slob’s mental processes are so rudimentary as to be almost non-existent, although a certain amount of animal cunning is sometimes to be found in his agile twisting and turning to avoid work and to remain out of jail. The brain, however, is not so much deficient as unused. It has been short-circuited by a constant succession of appeals to the emotions. The Slob is ruled by his passions. He warms easily to rage. He burns with lust upon the slightest pretext. He shivers, occasionally, with clammy fear. He is adrenal rather than cerebral, physical rather than mental. (p. 58)
Yet, Rafferty was willing to acknowledge that schools may bear some of the blame for these students’ behavior by, for example, “never insist[ing] upon their mastering anything which required discipline to overcome” (p. 58). However, whatever the root causes, to Rafferty these “slobs” were beyond help from the schools and should, therefore, be removed.
Sol Gordon took a more measured approach in his February 1966 article, “Education and the impulse life of the child.” Gordon’s focus was on younger children than Rafferty’s “slobs,” and much of his criticism is focused on parents and teachers. But his criticism comes with an acknowledgment that it’s difficult for adults to know how to best meet children’s needs because “parents have become paralyzed by an overabundance of advice from magazines, from their own mothers and fathers, and from neighbors” (p. 310). His advice? Listen to children, reassure them, and address their behavior instead of communicating shock or disdain at their expressed thoughts.
From child to adult
Some authors have echoed Blanchard from 1938 in pointing out that adults and children are becoming too isolated from one another, creating problems not just in understanding between generations but in young people’s ability to prepare for adult life. For instance, in December 1972, James Coleman (“How do the young become adults?”) examined how families and workplaces had evolved so that children no longer learned their future occupations (whether at a workplace or at home) from their parents. And school-based learning offered fewer opportunities for “experiential learning” than home-based learning did.
In April 1976, Tony Wagner (“All is quiet but not all is well in suburbia”) noted that the separation between school and the adult world was creating an environment where students felt forced to compete to make good grades, even though much of the work they were doing had no relevance to their future:
In today’s high schools, winning is more important than being a craftsman or having integrity or enjoying what one is doing. Intellectual skills, the tools for high achievement on standardized tests, are emphasized without any consideration for students’ emotional development. The traditional humanistic goal of education — nurturing each unique human personality — has been disregarded. Students learn very little about being independent and cooperative, curious, creative, socially responsible, or craftsmanlike in their work. When these traits are emphasized, many students become actively interested in their work and happier and more productive in their leisure. (p. 544)
Wagner believed that the problem went beyond inappropriate career preparation, writing that “it is increasingly clear that the traditional methods of education and attitudes toward work and leisure in our culture have created serious emotional side effects for many students” (p. 543).
More evidence of how children were not being prepared for life beyond school appeared 10 years later in “Children’s views of the future: Innocence almost lost,” a May 1986 article in which Peter Wagschal and Lynell Johnson reported on a series of Weekly Reader surveys of students in grades 2-6, junior high, and high school. The surveys showed that students were unable or unwilling to connect their understanding of the future of the world with their own futures:
Somehow, whether they see the world teetering on the brink of disaster or blossoming with possibilities, their personal futures manage to remain unaffected. Most students’ views of their personal futures include a traditional family, an income somewhat larger than their parents’, a two-car garage in a suburban neighborhood, and a life very similar to the one they currently lead. (p. 667)
It seemed young people of the 1980s were not being encouraged to see themselves as connected to the wider world.
Signs of alienation
In the 1970s and ’80s, Kappan authors began expressing serious concerns about young people’s mental and emotional health, often in articles about the increasing suicide rate. In April 1976, Donald Smith sounded the alarm in “Adolescent suicide: A problem for teachers?” in which he noted the growing number of suicide attempts and considered possible causes and warning signs. Two years later, in January 1978, Edward Wynne (“Behind the discipline problem: Youth suicide as a measure of alienation”) linked suicide and other problems (such as homicide deaths, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, and sexually transmitted diseases) with the increasing alienation young people were experiencing.
This sense of alienation was quantified through years of surveys showing that students were becoming less interested in cooperative activities, more focused on themselves, and more withdrawn from social groups. And this happened alongside the growing suicide rate. Smith concluded:
In effect, suicide is a measure of the extent to which a given modern society has succeeded or failed in integrating its citizens and its institutions. If that level of integration is low, suicide will increase, because people will be self-centered and lonely, and they will crumple under the inevitable tensions that life generates. Less self-centered persons will withstand such pressures better, because they will be tied to social systems that provide them with demands as well as help. (p. 311)
What are the causes of this disconnection? In February 1986, Urie Bronfenbrenner (“Alienation and the four worlds of childhood”) followed the lead of past authors and looked at overall social trends, such as the growth of dual-income families. It is possible for children in such families to do well, but, according to Bronfenbrenner, “unlike most other industrialized nations, the U.S. has yet to introduce the kinds of policies and practices that make work life and family life compatible” (p. 431).
Through the 1980s and ’90s, authors continued to sound the alarm about various aspects of children’s lives, including obesity, prenatal drug exposure, lead exposure, violence, homelessness, HIV, and fetal alcohol syndrome. The September 1992 issue, in fact, included a special section on “Children at risk,” which covered the various crises afflicting young people and, by extension, their schools.
Who’s the problem, really?
Behind all of the conversations about the problems young people experience lurks the same question that Max Rafferty identified back in 1958. To what degree are adults, rather than children, the source of those problems? And decades of articles about adult concern for youth problems raises an additional question: Is it possible that the kids (of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and so on, up to and including 2019) are not so different from kids of the past?
In January 1994, Kirk Astroth (“Beyond ephebiphobia: Problem adults or problem youth?”) pointed out that adult worries over “kids these days” were nothing new:
Like previous generations of adults, we appear to be suffering from ephebiphobia — a fear and loathing of adolescence. Nearly every generation of young people has been chastised for being “out of control” or aberrant in some way. Adult claims of degeneration among the young can be found in nearly every previous decade. (p. 412)
Many in Astroth’s audience were probably of the same generation as Rafferty’s “slobs,” Gordon’s impulsive children, and Wagner’s disenchanted adolescents. Of course, none of these authors were necessarily saying that all young people were plagued by various forms of alienation, but Astroth worried that “the notion of ‘youth at risk’ has become a lens through which we view all young people, so that today adolescence is seen as some incurable social disease” (p. 412). Such a lens was preventing adults from getting an accurate view of the problems kids face and the help they need.
A special report by Stephanie Coontz (“The American family and the nostalgia trap”) published in the March 1995 Kappan pointed out how some commentators of the time were going wrong, with parents, schools, and policy makers pointing fingers at each other. Most of her criticism was directed at the advocates of family values who believed that any trouble young people were experiencing could be traced back to the demise of the traditional family. Coontz pointed out that this characterization oversimplified the situation and improperly stigmatized certain families:
The revival of the family values crusade poses serious dangers for people who sincerely want to improve the lives of American children. Of course values are important, and of course there are some truly awful parental behaviors and family dynamics out there. But polarizing the issue as their bad values versus our good ones or their bad parenting versus our commitment to kids ignores the fact that all of us have bad values as well as good ones. It vastly underestimates the role of external environments and institutions in reinforcing some values while extinguishing others and in letting some people get away with periodic lapses of personal responsibility while others pay dearly and permanently for even the smallest mistake. It also leads to unnecessary pessimism about the prospects for some families and unwarranted complacency about the prospects for others. (p. K3)
The Ozzie-and-Harriet childhood that family values advocates promoted was mostly a myth, according to Coontz, who further argued that good schools for kids and steady, well-paying jobs for adults would do more to elevate the prospects of young people than shaming families ever could.
Yet, some have claimed that government policy hasn’t done much to help kids thrive. In June 2006, Curt Dudley-Marling, Janice Jackson, and Lisa Patel Stevens (“Disrespecting childhood,” part of a special section on “Redefining childhood”) asserted that although America claims to be a child-loving nation, its policies, as well as the tendency to speak of children as a burden, show that this love has limits. They saw this in the way children were targeted for advertising, sent to poor schools (especially if Black or Latinx), incarcerated at young ages, tested for drug use, and so on:
In the face of such examples, we would do well to reconsider our sense of ourselves as a child-loving people. Examining the policies, discourses, and practices that surround children and adolescents sheds light on our ambivalence toward them, at best, and a profound mistrust and disrespect of our youngest charges, at worst. As educators, we have the responsibility to care for and guide our nation’s young people, and so we must be prepared to challenge the policies that frame our work with them. (p. 750)
The children of every generation face their own challenges, but adults themselves are responsible for cultivating a world that enables them to cope with those challenges. It is up to us.
Citation: Preston, T. (2019). A look back: Kappan authors on children and youth. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7), 5-7.