I sat with a high level administrator of a state agency recently and listened to her explain why she thinks we are losing the battle for so many of our kids’ futures. She truly lamented the fact that a large Midwest city that is under her purview from a service standpoint was dramatically affected by a large group of young parents and kids who have grown in an environment where little is expected and so little is realized. She talked about how 26-year-old moms have 12-year-old daughters and they both live with the 42-year-old grandmother. She talked about this cycle of kids having kids and parenting being abdicated to the system, or worse, to the streets.
As she talked, I watched the obvious pain on her face and listened to the true sorrow in her voice. She was genuinely hurting at the thoughts of generation after generation of youths repeating the mistakes and the cycle of dependency, reliance on entitlements, and living a life that is void of expectations and even hope. The pain really came to the forefront when she talked about the lost talent and the lost potential ambition, because so many of these kids are growing in environments where hope and ambition just aren’t part of everyday life. She spoke of unrealized talents and un-nurtured ambition and unclaimed hope. This agonizing cycle perpetuates in all corners of our society, but those who are poor seem to be the most susceptible.
When I asked her how she thought we could affect change, she sat silently for a moment and then boldly proclaimed, “We have to start teaching parents how to parent.” Now, this may seem a bit in your face to some, and it may seem insulting to others, but if you are reading this and you are offended, then she is not talking about you. She is talking about the kids who have kids and still live with the young adult who had them when they were a kid.
When we have generation after generation of kids having kids,
when do they learn to grow up and how to parent?
One of the harsh realities of parenting is that you parent without a net. We have a lot of people parenting without the benefit of actually becoming an adult and having the life experiences necessary to guide and nurture another through the travails of life. So, we end up with a young adult raising a young teen who is raising her young baby... and none of the three have life experiences to stop the cycle.
Why do I bring all of this up? Because we have to stop the cycle, and we have to help kids understand the concept of hope. We have to instill in kids that opportunity is out there and life can be more than their neighborhood. We have to help them understand that there is more to life than perpetuating the cycle of dependency and, ultimately, despair. But when the problem is at home, where can change occur?
∞ ∞ ∞
Rhonna is an old 14.
She has basically been on her own the better part of her life. Her Dad is long gone and her mom works double shifts at the nursing home and then the convenience store. When her mom is home she is checked out asleep or worse. Rhonna goes to school because that’s where her friends are, and that’s where she can get a meal that doesn’t come straight out of the microwave. Rhonna has friends, but she is in constant conflict with herself over her real self-worth. If she was all that great, then why did her daddy leave? If she was interesting at all, then why won’t her mom talk to her? Rhonna needs someone to make her feel like she matters. She wants to feel liked. She wants to feel special. She wants to feel wanted.
Malcolm is solid muscle.
Even at 16 years of age it is easy to see the lines of his triceps as he places his hands on the table in front of Rhonna. Rhonna feels flush because Malcolm is not only cute, he is handsome. Before she realizes what is happening, Malcolm is walking Rhonna home. She is loving the company and more importantly, she is loving the attention. When they get to the door of her apartment, Malcolm hangs around a while talking. He tells Rhonna how pretty she is and how he has watched her for a long time and how he has wanted to get to know her better. In fact, he says he wants to get to know her better now. He asks if he can go inside and spend some time with her. Rhonna hesitates, but the compliments keep coming and Malcolm seems to really likes her and really finds her interesting... and he really wants her.
Six weeks later, Rhonna is sitting in the nurse’s office waiting for her mom to get to the school so that she can tell her that she is pregnant. She isn’t really worried about her mom being mad, because she had Rhonna when she was 15. Rhonna really isn’t even that scared because, even though Malcolm only came around a few more times, when she has a baby she will have someone with her all of the time who needs and likes her and, most importantly, wants her.
∞ ∞ ∞
This scenario plays out daily in the homes of kids who need to feel needed and want to feel wanted. A compliment opens a door and a kind word opens a heart, and the feeling of being wanted opens the young girl to doing things that a 14 year old should not do. And now she, and her young child, will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. If only mom was home, and if only dad was there to tell Rhonna she was special, and if only Rhonna believed she was worth more than a look and a compliment, then Rhonna might not be a child about to raise a child.
We have a perpetuating problem because we have homes with missing fathers, and many mothers are emotionally gone. We have kids having kids, because they are using whatever means they have to validate themselves and feel needed and wanted. We have kids having kids because an adult has not stepped in and guarded the innocence of those kids by building a wall around them called self-esteem.
If this is what is happening or not happening in the homes, then how and where do we affect change? The answer falls to the schools. But how does a school teach self-esteem and self-worth when it is measured on reading – writing – and arithmetic? How does a school impart values when the test never mentions them? Why should a teacher take time from her busy schedule to worry with a kid’s self-worth when she has lessons to teach and papers to grade and planning due – not to mention a school play and lunch duty and kids of her own? Why does the burden fall to our teachers?
The answer is simple: If our teachers don’t step in, no one will.
We as a society have to make the conscience decision to reprioritize the education our kids are receiving. We have to educate the whole kid, not just the academic kid.
There will be some that scream, “That’s what homes are for!” and I will reply, “Yes, but what about the kids who aren’t getting it at home?!” It is easy to stand against affective change when you aren’t sinking in the whirlpool of dependency. But, for those kids who need validation and want to feel wanted and are looking to fit in somewhere, our schools have to become a proving ground for life, not just for a test. Our teachers have to teach our kids to thrive, not just recite. Our teachers are inheriting kids who have needs beyond the classroom, and we need to support our teachers and give them the resources to prepare our kids for life outside and beyond the classroom. Rhonna needed to learn self-worth, and she needed that lesson to follow her to the front porch of her apartment where she traded herself for the feeling of being wanted.
Rhonna is a smart girl with a great smile and a quick wit. Rhonna is funny and vivacious. Rhonna is 14... and she is a Mom.