We are letting our children down.

Photo courtesy Adam Swancor


We are letting our children down. They’re our future and they may be the parents of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, if we’re lucky.

Signs of our failure are everywhere   ̶   in our emergency rooms, our classrooms, our prisons, our cemeteries, on media, in our kitchens, our environment and in our own homes.

In the largest economy in the world, we can’t feed our children?

Almost 10 million children in America (12%) are at regular risk of hunger, 22% for Black and 18% for Latino children. In 2021, a quarter of single-family homes headed by women were food-scarce.

Our failure to regulate the massive food industry has left the poor with expanding “food deserts” and few options for the kind of nutritious food that grows healthy children. I would put many industrial food-system providers, along with the legislators who curry their favor, in the same class as drug dealers. They differ only in how they concoct addictive agents   ̶   heroin, fentanyl, xylazine for street drugs and sugar, refined carbs, and trans fats for junk foods.

Some conservatives love to cite the apparent paradox that hunger and obesity often go hand-in-hand. But nutritionists know that obesity is caused more by what you eat rather than how much you eat. It’s hard to get fat on fresh fruit, vegetables, unprocessed meat and fish or whole grains.

Many rural communities and low-income urban neighborhoods have become food deserts. Convenience stores in these food deserts sell gas, tobacco, lottery tickets, and junk food. Meanwhile, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world   ̶   nearly 40 million tons or 80 billion pounds, every year. And we can’t feed all our children good food? Shame on us.

A former president of UVM Health Network confirmed to me that, on any given day in their emergency room, there are from 10 to 30 young people in some form of medical crisis: self-harm, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation or attempts, or hyper-anxiety disorder, and we have a severe shortage of inpatient treatment options for our young people in crisis. Shame on us.

At least 700,000 adolescent ages 13-17 (one in 30) experience some form of homelessness in the course of a year; in total, 4.2 million children experience homelessness from couch-surfing to living on the streets. So, how many of these hungry, homeless children fall prey to sexual abuse?

Meanwhile, here in Vermont, with the second highest homeless rate in the country, Governor Scott and the Legislature have agreed to shut down the motel/hotel emergency shelter option for some 2500 homeless adults and children. Shame on us.

Talk about adverse childhood experiences… . there have been over 377 school shootings since Columbine and over 349,000 students have experienced gun violence at their schools. Many children have become so terrified that they cannot set foot in a classroom. But every American, including the ones who shoot children, has a “constitutional right” to have a gun. Meanwhile, Intergenerational trauma is the transmission or transfer of the oppressive or traumatic effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) onto succeeding generations. Shame on us.

There are four million (5.4%) uninsured children in our healthcare system. But as we know, having some form of health insurance and being able to afford healthcare premiums and copays are entirely different matters. Children without healthcare are six times more likely to go without medical care than children with employer-based or private insurance. We can’t provide our children with healthcare?  Shame on us.

The Pew Research Center reports that U.S. schools placed “in the middle of the pack and behind many other advanced industrial nations.” The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results which are from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

My wife and I saw this firsthand when we hosted two FLEX students, Marcela, from Moldova, who arrived aged 15 speaking four languages and Mina, from Serbia, who was fluent in three. Neither was from a privileged family. Both expressed surprise that our schools have no foreign language requirement.

When the sad moment to leave us came and we were saying our goodbyes, we asked about their educational experience here. They were polite but blunt. Both expressed disappointment at how little they had learned beyond American history. Both excelled during their school year here, earning As in most subjects, grades that were rarely if ever given when I was a child in school in Morrisville, or later at Phillips Exeter. Almost no one got A’s. They both got all As.

They were appalled at our classroom culture and told stories of kids watching movies on their cell phones during class or simply talking among themselves. They were surprised that cellphones were even allowed in the classrooms, even more that students used them freely during class.

They both loved being here, making new friends, and absorbing American culture, but were disappointed in their school experience.  Shame on us.

A recent white paper by educator T. Elijah Hawkes deserves wide attention. Hawkes has taught in Vermont and was the founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City.

Since 2020, Hawkes has been a faculty member at the Upper Valley Educator Institute as Director, School Leadership Programs. He is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Schools Committee and Senior Education Advisor to the Polarization and Extremism Research Lab (PERIL) at American University. He’s also the author of two groundbreaking books on the culture of education.

“I know more than one middle school teacher who decided to leave their job this year. And another who says it’s the most challenging year of his life. And a principal who says it’s the 8th grade hall where she’s needed the most. (A bar graph of the school’s discipline data shows the 8th grade stats towering over the rest.) And I know a high school teacher who hears warnings about what’s coming — from his middle school colleagues.”

“And what is coming? Students unwilling to follow the rules. Some students won’t even acknowledge the right of the adults to make them.”

“Some people think the current trouble is a phase, a transition back to pre-pandemic normal. But we are wrong to think this will soon pass or that it’s a consequence of pandemic interruptions. Yes, the pandemic had an impact — but it merely accelerated our pace down paths we were already traveling.”

“There are many factors at work. One factor is largely external to schools: the distrust people feel toward our nation’s institutions, including our public schools. Another factor is more internal to schools and it has to do with what and how we teach. Educators can do something about both.”

Nor have we understood or been willing to regulate the deleterious impacts of social media on our children and our democracy.

The American Psychiatric Association says, “Daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders, as well as making them susceptible to future health problems.” The loneliness that develops from overuse at an early age of social media is now an epidemic according to the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. School systems in six states have sued Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube, alleging that social media companies use advanced artificial intelligence and machine-learning technology to create addictive platforms that cause young people harm.

If our children develop their sense of self from paid “influencers” rather than live social and cultural interactions, who do they become? It’s the real-life interactions with real people in their family and communities  ̶  a form of social education  ̶  that helps young people develop life skills.

And what will the unknown impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) mean for the next generation of our children?

If, on behalf of our children, we don’t have the courage   ̶   or are to “influenced” ourselves by vested interests  ̶  to regulate social media and emerging AI, then who are we?  Shame on us.

Greta Thunberg has become a leading voice of conscience for young people in an effort to get our generation to stop poisoning the planet they’re inheriting. The Guardian reported on May 1 that “Plastic is already in blood, breast milk, and placentas. Now it may be in our brains.” These are the pre- and postnatal sources of nutrition for our children and are believed to be the primary source of inflammation and other neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  Shame on us.

Contrary to accepted tradition, we could also listen to and learn from our children.

I’ve been part of a biweekly online summit exploring the ramifications of the healthcare system’s failings on our society. Its leader, Cheryl Mitchell of the Early Care and Learning Partnership in Addison County, suggested we take a break from listening to one another and listen for a change to our children.

We were charged with inviting our children to join us online. The rules were simple. They were asked three questions in advance: What kept them awake at night?, What were they most angry about?, and What should we, as elders, have done differently?

We were not to speak, only to listen. Nineteen of our children, ranging in age from eight to forty, spent an hour addressing these questions, and I, for one, learned more from them about destructive forces at work in society than I had learned at any previous session with my peers.

Our children were angry indeed, anxious about our miss-steps, especially environmental ones, thoughtful about what we’d gotten wrong, and creative and intelligent in their suggestions to us, their elders.

I realized that we don’t even have structures for listening to them or for eliciting their concerns. They may have answers that don’t occur to those of us who have lived longer. How do they feel about their own lives, life on earth, and how we might make a better world for them?

If we see the future stewards of our planet simply as consumers, debtors, and workers, we imperil our planet from the outset.

The U.S. is the largest consumer economy in the world and is known as the richest country on earth. It also has the greatest concentration of wealth, with 735 billionaires. A billion is a thousand million. Unless one is fearful, insecure, or mentally ill, one cannot spend that much money on oneself in a lifetime. If each billionaire contributed a few of their billions to each of the problems above, what difference would that make for our children?

And, if we took our role as citizen-parents seriously, we would tax our wealthiest a bit more to reduce poverty and its destructive impacts on our children. Then, we could begin rebuilding our fracturing communities and begin the healing process for democracy and for earth’s future generations.


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