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The Children Are Not All Right

Whether it was the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s or the dawn of video games and heavy metal music in the 80s, adults always have some reason to worry about whether the next generation of kids will grow up to be all right. Rock music is evil or video games will make you violent are common phrases most have heard (or maybe even said!). While these worries usually turn out to be unwarranted, some surprising facts about todays children, and the environments in which they are being raised, are cause for concern. Children who grow up in physically, cognitively, and emotionally substandard living conditions are at a much higher risk for school failure, behavior problems, violence, delinquency, substance abuse, criminal behavior, and symptoms of mental illness. From both a statistical and historical standpoint this is true. Case studies of Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson, and many other violent criminals provide additional evidence. With this in mind, consider the current problem that the U.S. has on its hands: There are 6 million children (about 8%) in homes where they were alleged to have been abused or neglected. There are 15 million children (an astonishing 20%) living below the poverty line. There are 1.5 million children who are homeless every year.

All of these situations can create unhealthy environments for children. The more negative the environments, the more likely negative outcomes are for the children, their families, and society. While most kids will likely be exposed to a physically and developmentally healthy environment when they first enter school, heres the trump card: Waiting until the age of 5 or 6 is already too late. Living in a predominantly unhealthy environment for that amount time has a huge impact on kids. Children who do not receive the necessary support in the early developmental phases are at a disadvantage immediately. Those living in poverty enter school approximately 1.5 years behind grade level, while children from middle class homes enter school 1.5 years ahead of grade level that is equivalent to the gap between a first grader and a third grader. It is not just about money, either. Children need nurturing, caring adults that can teach them skills and set good boundaries to help them grow up healthy. Children need adults that do not abuse alcohol or drugs and are emotionally healthy. The rest of kids lives depend on it; so does the health of society.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2009 there were over 7.2 million people on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end 3.1% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 32 adults. Think about it: Most people do not just wake up one day and decide to become violent criminals. The unhealthy environments in which they were raised are what put them at risk to develop that way. More criminals are not the reason jails and substance abuse programs are filling up. Child abuse and domestic violence are. They are the roots of the problem in many, if not all, of the cases. The current justice system primarily waits until people develop severe problems before it takes action. Delinquent behavior thats been going on since before the age of 12 becomes much harder to treat in adulthood, hence why so many people are incarcerated. The older they are, the more ingrained their ways become, and the harder the bad habits and delayed development are to change. It is far more effective, and far less expensive, to develop an understanding of the underlying causes of the behavior, catch the problem early on, and help kids who may be at risk for developing violent tendencies later on in life. Assessments and research are available to diagnose which kids are at higher risk, as well as how severe the impairment may be. Several programs have been found to effectively provide kids with the nurturing care that they need, including home visiting nurses, healthy families programs, and pre-school with parent involvement. The solution lies in making these services as universally available as possible. Also, therapists can help children understand the circumstances of their lives, overcome problems, and learn new skills to help them function well in their families, schools, and communities. Placing public mental health therapists in schools rather than the community clinics is efficient, effective, and cost effective. The percentage of follow-through is higher for school based services than it is for community clinics as well. It is up to adults to help the next generation of children grow up all right. From a personal standpoint, this means understanding early childhood development, acting upon that knowledge, and providing a caring and safe environment for kids. From a civic standpoint, this means fighting to make sure the right programs are in place so that all children are getting the stable, healthy and enriched environments that they need not just the ones born into the best circumstances. Armed with additional information and inspiration, it is time for all adults to do their part in reversing the trends of crime and punishment. The focus needs to be on prevention. Starting with todays children, it is time to stop the cycle.