In the wake of the wretched events at Penn State, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone writes “it’s not about football, it’s about the children” after or before spending the majority of a column talking about anything else but children. Most of us perform more subtle versions of what the so-called grownups at Penn State did—it’s always someone else’s fault or someone else’s job. I submit to you that we are all to blame for a culture in which these travesties can happen, because of our murky and confused handling of the rights of our children. And when we fail in our civic duty to speak up about it, we are all Joe Paterno.
Despite laws limiting the extent to which adults are allowed to injure children, we still protect the choices and freedom of parents more than we do the civil rights of young people. Conservatives who would imprison or give the death penalty to doctors for abortions fight us tooth and nail when we try to protect children after birth. It took years of wrangling in the Alabama Legislature to get the most minimum child passenger safety law passed, despite motor vehicle collisions causing the plurality of child deaths over age 1. When pediatricians were lobbying for it, I called in to one of the talk radio shows—I was snarkily accused of promoting a “nanny state.” We got the law, but it is minimally enforced, as is the bicycle helmet law for children.
As a pediatrician, I do see and report cases of frank abuse that would horrify you and that don’t usually make it into the press. More often, I see neglect, endangerment or psychological abuse that doesn’t rise to the level DHR is willing or able to address. I see children forced to breathe smoke fumes all day, who wheeze and cough their way through life. Children who never so much as enter the same room as a vegetable, so that they are deprived of cancer prevention while their bodies are in a state of most rapid growth. Children left behind in our dysfunctional school system because we refuse to contribute enough resources to educate them properly. Can I ask DHR to round up every adult voter who blocks taxes for schools?
Progressives can be just as culpable. We fight legislation that might protect children from permanent neurologic damage in the womb (such as from exposure to drugs) because it might cross the line into outlawing abortion. We neglect to consider the emotional impact on children of unregulated free speech, in media such as violent electronic games or manipulative advertising targeted directly at them. Some of us focus exclusively on the needs of children and ignore the needs of their parents and community, although children cannot be truly healthy in a neglected community. The American Academy of Pediatrics does this by supporting universal healthcare for children without including the adults who care for them.
Children are not special because they are cute. They evolved into being cute and appealing to us because they are critical to our survival as humans. That’s not how I think of them, of course—I have that same biologically driven protective, nurturing and “aww” feeling towards them that most of you do. I had a toddler in the office a couple of weeks ago who, when told by his aunt “I love you”, responded “I love you more.” Whereupon she spontaneously told this gorgeous boy “You can have anything you want that I own. Just ask.” He didn’t know what she meant, but I do—I wanted to give that baby the moon.
Children need extra protection by the law because they are helpless to assert themselves against poor adult choices. There is no way possible for the police and DHR to tackle the majority of endangerment, abuse, and neglect. They can take only the worst cases.
Our current murky, vague treatment of child rights has created a milieu where corporations and celebrity and even football are given more priority than our nation’s children. It’s a breeding ground for disaster. We can do differently. A good start would be ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If you are not familiar with this document, please take a look. Pick one of the elements and commit to working on it in some way. Examine your own politics closely and see where you may have let any other principle supersede what children need to thrive. Report abuse to the police—report social conditions that perpetuate it to your communities and elected officials. Then you can earn the right to say, like a pediatrician friend of mine says when asked if he is a Democrat or Republican, “I’m in the Children’s Party.”