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Book Review-Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

My children haven’t seen Back to the Future. They’ve not seen the idealistic view of the 1950s portrayed in a movie from the 1980s. They don’t understand what it was like when I was growing up when we walked down to the park to play, rode our bikes all around town, and generally expected that the world was a friendly place. Kids today are taught to be warry and cautious. We teach them “Stranger Danger!” and “Don’t talk to strangers.” The world that our parents grew up in, the world that we grew up in, and the world our kids will grow up in are radically different. But this isn’t exactly new news. Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone discussed how our social lives were different. His new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis focuses on social mobility and how kids today don’t have the same opportunities that they did 50 years ago.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is simply the ability for people to change their social class. The focus is on how many generations it takes for a person in one social strata to move to a different one. Obviously, the primary focus is on our American dream of being able to move up the ladder. However, there seems to be evidence where the upper middle class has the capability of moving up, lower class and lower middle-class families aren’t able to help their children get ahead.

It’s important to note that social class – or social strata – is mostly defined by income but because income numbers are notoriously fickle as people misrepresent their income, studies shy away from asking the question, and people will outright lie, Putnam chose to use as a proxy educational level as the demarcation point between the upper and lower middle classes. This makes the analysis cleaner and mostly fits with the data – but it does mean that at times he my unfairly categorize high-income earners in lower classes.

Put Out the Fire

Attitudes and Acceptance

While there were (and are) pockets of the country which are preoccupied with prejudices and differences, for the most part after the second World War people just wanted to get along with one another and enjoy life. Putnam sites his home down of Port Clinton, Ohio as a place where race wasn’t a factor and where the social classes hadn’t split. Kids with parents of all income brackets and backgrounds played together and became friends.

It turns out that while race relations and prejudices still exist that many of the same social problems are working themselves through every race in America. The determining factor isn’t – it seems – race but is rather the support systems that are in place around our children that matter.

It turns out that children who are from homes in lower income brackets are more frequently struggling to keep a place to live, are living in neighborhoods with poorer school education, and are fighting off neighborhood forces that are driving pregnancy and drug use. It’s not a surprise that children today who are faced with more adverse childhood events (ACE) are struggling. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.)

The radical enforcement of drug laws in the 1980s exasperated the problem of single mothers raising children and made a reality out of dad being in prison for untold numbers of children. (See Chasing the Scream for more about the savagery of the war on drugs.)

Airbags and Active Defenses

Americans greatly value our rugged individualism. We love to portray ourselves as conquerors of the frontier. We love the image of the lone cowboy riding off into the sunset to meet his fate. However, this is a Hollywood movie not the realities of our westward expansion. In truth our grandfathers banded together with others who shared a similar taste of adventure and a desire to make a better life for their families. Our rugged individualist grandfathers created wagon trains that could be pulled together to support and protect a traveling community of people rather than “going it alone.”

Perhaps the Hollywood story explains why we buy into the idea of a “self-made” man. Someone that overcame all odds to move themselves up the social strata. However, the more we look into the stories the more we realize that there were people behind the scenes protecting the “self-made man” and allowing them to take more risks than others. Bill Gates, for instance, was allowed to spend so much time with computers as a child because of the relative affluence of his parents. (See Outliers for more.)

Affluent parents are more likely to engage on the children’s behalf. Whether it’s intervening in an unfair situation at school (as I have done) or helping them plan for college, affluent parents with their greater connections are more likely to lift up their children above the muck and to deploy “airbags” to protect them from unnecessary harm. While Putnam uses the term airbags – I believe there are two dimensions of which the term airbags only covers one.

Limiting the impact of a negative event is one dimension. However, the other dimension is what I like to call active defenses. That is what the parents do to actively prevent harm for their children and to enrich them. Whether it’s sending them on a mission trip (which I’ve done for two of our children) or facilitating conversations with business owners about a job – affluent parents are more capable (and perhaps therefore more likely) to support their children’s growth.

When you’re struggling to pay the rent and keep food on the table you’re simply not able to focus on these things for your children.

Schools and Saviors

Schools get a lot of flack for the lack of performance from students. While there are opportunities for improvement (see Schools Without Failure and How Children Succeed) schools cannot be held solely accountable for the educational state of our nation. Instead we have to look at schools as lifelines for students to learn good study practices and the “how” of how to learn. We’ve come to defer our responsibility to educating our children to schools.

Putnam discussed the differences that we have experienced as a society in Bowling Alone. Membership used to mean mutual commitment and somewhere along the way it meant writing a check. We as a society have decided that schools are responsible for educating our children. We are taxed for it and we pay fees for it so we expect the service to be that they’re educating our children. However, this is such a critical responsibility that we can’t completely defer the responsibility – even if we might like to.

Schools cannot single-handedly become the saviors of our children. While they can provide structure to their learning and can round them out in ways that we cannot personally, our children’s savior is us. It’s the parents personally taking an interest in their children and at a more communal level each parent looking out for the other children as well.

Defending Against Drugs

Drugs are an easy out, an escape that seems quick and easy. It’s no wonder that we have such a struggle with drugs and drug addiction. (See Chasing the Scream for more on drugs, enforcement, and addiction.) Despite the relative ease of drugs there are numerous factors which can influence a child’s decision to try drugs or to make a decision to abstain. We’ve all heard of peer pressure and thanks to Nancy Ragan have heard the public service announcements teaching our children to “Just say no to drugs.” The truth is that influence over a child’s life shifts to being less focused on parents and more focused on peers – but the influence of a parent doesn’t go away.

The parent’s attitudes – and particularly behaviors – have a profound impact on the child’s life. If you (or your spouse) decides to use drugs in view of the children then it becomes OK for them. It becomes acceptable to them. It’s normal. Even if you and your spouse aren’t engaged in drugs other members of the family or living in close proximity can be a powerful negative influence. Again the more OK, normal, or right the drugs become the more likely that a child will try them.

However, there’s more to it than this. Even attentive parents – those who know where their children are and what they’re being exposed to represent a protection to the children. Parents can prevent unnecessary exposure to elements that might lead towards an addiction. By knowing where your children are and what they’re exposed to allows you to redirect inappropriate energies.

Finally, there’s the challenge of economics. If a child believes that the only way out of the situation that they find themselves in is to sell drugs – then you can’t blame them for considering it. If you’re looking for a way to protect your children from drugs the answer may lie in giving them an awareness that they can make their lives better – without drugs.

Dinners and Dads

With social science there is almost always a twinge of suspicion. This weeks’ research study will be contradicted by next weeks’ study. When researching after reading The Cult of Personality Testing, I discovered that even though there were numerous personality tests that had been discredited through peer-reviewed journal articles there were still many practitioners using those tests – and that there were at least a few journal articles that supported the dubious techniques. Such is the nature of social science – it’s messy and rarely are there clean answers. However, when it comes to having dinner together as a family the research is unequivocal. Having dinner together as a family is linked to a variety of outcomes later in the child’s life. Sadly, my own children comment how few of their friend’s families make a point of doing dinner together. In our microwave, crowded schedule world, it seems that the glue that holds a family together – the dinnertime meal doesn’t fit or isn’t convenient enough.

Though not as unequivocal as the data regarding having dinners together, there’s a growing mountain of evidence that suggests that fathers are essential to the development of children – both boys and girls. As a father I’m glad to know that my impact matters. As a member of the American society where fewer children are in regular contact with their fathers because of unstable sexual relationships where the parents don’t see each other any longer, incarceration of too many fathers due to drug related charges, and the social factors that have led to a greater acceptance for unwed mothers.

Whatever the causes the downstream impacts are being felt by children. They’re being deprived of the input that they need to help them to grow up to be productive and well-adjusted members of society. At least part of that is due to the gap in time that’s being spent with children.

Time and Skills

Parents who are struggling to keep things together simply don’t have spare resources to divert to the enhanced development of their children. Holding down two jobs and keeping a household together means that there is little room to wiggle in the way of providing coaching to children who are struggling to make sense of their environment.

While studies indicate that working mothers have sacrificed themselves and other things to continue to spend as much time with their children as their non-working parents, it’s a hard road, and one that is really indicative of the upper-middle class who have the capacity to share the load across parents and who aren’t literally worried about how to pay the rent next week.

Those who are struggling to provide for the basic needs of their children spend much less time with their children. It makes sense and there may be no solution but it’s tragic. It’s equally tragic that the parents who have the least time also have the least ability to teach good life skills to their children.

Things like financial planning, grit, and persistence are some of the factors that have led to the parent’s – and therefore the child’s – situation. You can’t teach what you don’t know and in too many cases the parents haven’t developed the life skills to pass on to their children.

Community Caring

In the end the changes that have swept across the country are moving us into a more segregated, separated, and more self-focused point of view than we’ve had before. If we really want to improve society as a whole we may need to decide that all of the children that we know are Our Kids. We may need to return to a time when it took a village to raise a child. It seems it still does – even if we don’t behave that way.

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