Raising Children In The USA Today: Changes Needed In Policies And Structures
Excerpted from Bram’s unpublished essay called “What Must Be Done”
About Marvin Bram: Marvin Bram is professor of history retired from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where he taught world history and the philosophy of history. He authored multiple books and articles, including A History of Humanity and The Recovery of The West. He has lectured nationwide in the nature of civilization for the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Humanities Faculty. During the Obama administration he worked on new child-protection language for the Department of Health and Human Services.
If the United States is to be made up of women and men who are capable of self-rule, then our first concerns must be for the parenting of children particularly from birth to school age.
I.1 The psychiatrist Ian Suttie (1935) says that the setting we create for our children is either one of power or of tenderness. Suttie calls the leading feature of modern times the “tenderness taboo.” The tenderness taboo must be lifted. If it is not, we will continue actively to build a failing and decreasingly humane society, however resourcefully we believe we are designing new institutions and reforming old ones.
We know how to lift the tenderness taboo. In his Affect Regulation and Affect Disregulation, Allan Schore (2003a, 2003b) shows that it is in the preverbal, skin-to-skin, right-brain to right-brain communication between the mother and her infant that tenderness is laid down in the infant’s central nervous system for life. No research program has been more important, no conclusion more significant than this.
The next Amendment to the Constitution, the twenty-ninth, should stand to children as the Equal Rights Amendment will stand to women. An Equal Protection Amendment must make clear that the protections of adult assault and battery law will be extended to all children from birth. The necessary if not sufficient condition for seeing to a humane future is the cessation of the corporal punishment of children.
I.1.1 Following the Equal Protection Amendment being moved in the House or Senate, which can happen immediately, the Surgeon General’s Office would launch a nationwide educational program demonstrating the necessity of stopping the corporal punishment of children. Worldwide research such as Schore’s has established the necessity unequivocally. First, the research and its importance would be summarized and widely disseminated. Second, non-violent methods of childrearing would be described fully and clearly, giving special attention to the amelioration of stressful family situations in and away from home. The orientation of the educational program would be as much one of care and helpfulness toward parents as of loving attentiveness to children.
I.1.2 Later, following the passage of the Equal Protection Amendment, an expansion of traditional and non-traditional social services must be effected. A considerable expansion of the training of psychiatric social workers and public-health nurses will be necessary, for example, in order responsibly to intervene in homes where children are being struck or otherwise abused.
A preliminary word about taxation is appropriate in connection with such matters as the expansion of social services. Realistically to save American society means that we must save capitalism and democracy, both institutions in their present forms having revealed serious flaws. Financing expanded services – and indeed saving capitalism – requires a genuinely graduated income tax, immune to the manipulations of the powerful. Thus a “social capitalism.”
I.2 We must continue to work toward universal single-payer healthcare, financed entirely by a corrected graduated income tax, in this first instance so that all children receive the preventive and corrective attention they deserve.
I.3 Parental leave must be removed from the whim of employers and states and made available to all parents. Leave should be of two-years duration, at full pay, return employment guaranteed. I repeat that the right-brain to right-brain communication between mother and infant is essential to the child’s lifetime possession of the qualities that make a humane society possible. This is a matter that cannot be compromised.
I.3.1 Recourse to daycare facilities must be discouraged, by the argument of I.3 above. Regarding the fewer such facilities permitted licenses, all remaining daycare employees must have the same credentials as the new body of public-health nurses referred to in I.1.2.
I.3.2 In order to encourage extended-family settings – as distinguished from nuclear-family settings – for childrearing, tax incentives should reward the convergence of far-flung family members. Where possible, the purchase of a larger house or the renting of a nearby apartment in which relocated family members can live should be encouraged. Being raised by grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins helping the mother and father is the oldest and longest-lived of humane settings for the beginning of life.
I.4 E.B. White said before World War Two that television would be the test of the twentieth century. We have failed that test.
Imagine that a twenty-first-century American family feeds its children chocolate cake and orange soda exclusively. The children want the cake and soda; they sincerely do. The parents say that they, the hard-pressed parents, have no choice: “The kids say they want it, so we give it to them.” The children become sick. Let us say that the GDP grows because of the success of the chocolate cake and orange-soda businesses. A think-tank publishes a study arguing that not only does the economy benefit from the growth of these enterprises – perhaps the economy depends on their success – but the hard-won American tradition of freedom itself calls for the defense of the parents’ right to choose their children’s diets. Would we do something?
Of course we would do something. We would intervene. We need only use our common sense. Children need real food.
Therefore legislative intervention must limit what appears on television and other screens. They are universal chocolate cake and soda rationalized in bad faith, and our children are sick.
What of First Amendment protection? Here we have a consequential difference between the late eighteenth century, when the Constitution was written, and the present day. A popular culture that enriches itself on the packaging of hysteria and celebrations of violence and stupidity – contents by no means new to American popular culture – has only recently been made available in high-decibel saturated color to every single child and adult in America, continuously. That is new. In the 1960’s the dangers that television posed to children were demonstrated in university-sponsored research. In 1970 a distinguished and disinterested national panel brought together by Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island concluded that television programming was harming our children. Paul Simon of Illinois collected hundreds of studies confirming the Pastore report through the 1980’s. There were no disconfirming studies. In the 1990’s and in the new century the American pediatric institution has warned against putting babies and toddlers in front of television and other screens. By 1990 it was clear that all young children wrap their brains around what they experience: do we want hysteria, violence, and stupidity installed in our children? For all this, programming has steadily become more tawdry, and both the national tenderness quotient and the national IQ have declined. This is not a First Amendment question but one of conscious child-abuse in the interests of profit and of the decline of American society. Congress and the Supreme Court must rise to the occasion.
V Let us say that our childrearing and our public-educational systems have become more humane, that the gap between our rich and poor has significantly closed because of the perfecting of our graduated income tax, that work has become more personally satisfying and socially responsible, and that the right people are ensconced in government. These would be causes for an over-all feeling that our society is a fit one in which to live. What further can be said, about specifically social arrangements?
V.1 The nuclear family has become a problem. In I.3.2 an argument is made for the extended family. In the last decades, single-person households have proliferated and many children are being raised by one parent.
V.1.1 Friendship-groups become the alternative to kinship-groups or isolation. Mobility tends to weaken both kinship and friendship bonds, as the requirements of work or a desire for change separate persons from kin and friends. As local societies become more satisfying, however, under such influences as those enumerated in V above, more persons will remain home, and the possibilities of cementing friendships and reconstituting extended families will improve.
V.1.2 One parent can raise a child only with difficulty. Since the parent is often the mother, and friendship bonds among women are often easier to forge than such bonds among men – men being more likely to form bonds based on some hierarchical principle rather than on friendship defined by equality – several single mothers might choose to pool their resources and live together, forming small voluntary clans devoted to mutual help and childrearing. Mothers can alternate dropping temporarily out of the economy in order to provide continuous presence for the children. Many different arrangements become possible. The mother-infant bond would be preserved; daycare would be avoided; and all the mothers would provide help and be helped.
The multiplication of such maternal clans would be a considerable benefit to society. Pressures would be relieved as often from men as from women.
V.1.3 This is not to say that the nuclear family will disappear. Studies of the adolescent brain – adolescence defined as lasting until one’s late twenties – have shown a degree of unavoidable weakness of judgment coupled to weak impulse control in young women and men. Early marriage should therefore be discouraged. This matter can be taken up in the educational system, giving extended attention to parenting skills.
Schore, A.N. (2003b). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.
Suttie, I. (1935). The origins of love and hate. New York, NY: The Julian Press.