The Rights of Children, the Duties of Adults

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.”






Filed under Children's Issues

3 responses to “The Rights of Children, the Duties of Adults

  1. Pippa

    Good comments. Your neo-cons have made a lot of noise about the ills of the UN Convention – so you might like to start to tackle their lies (as they are) and the sheep-like representatives on Capitol Hill who are backing their ‘Parental Rights’ amendment. The US has signed the CRC (Clinton) but not ratified it. The PRA lot include a bevvy of fundies, and their real issue with the UNCRC is that kids get to choose their religion. Oops, can’t have that can we?

    I’m from the UK not-for-proft Fair Play for Children (Right to Play focus), always glad to hear from like-minded on your side of the Pond, we run a pretty cool daily news service aggregating stuff from around the world as well as the UK.

    Currently we are focusing on telling our House of Lords (actually more enlightened and progressive in many areas than the elected House of Commons whose Con-led majority actually want to roll back some of the laws we have passed re checking backgrounds and banning bad people from working with kids because they want to “redress the balance between child protection and the rights” as if ….) Again based on, at the best half-truths and myths not facts and reality.

    It’s always a fight. I’m telling their Noble Lordships (only a few are hereditary these days, most are what are called Life Peers, enobled because of public service in some sector or another) what has happened at Penn and pointing them to the Grand Jury Report – very painful reading, 8 alleged victims reported but now perhaps another 10 on the way. See our site.

  2. Jaime

    I love your take on the responsibility of adults. I frankly find that for every child in trouble – no matter the type or degree of trouble, there is at least one adult that dropped the ball.
    However, you lose me when you mention that we as adults/society are not contributing enough to the school system. I happen to have some experience here and I can tell you that school systems in North Alabama get plenty of money. Now, how much of that money makes it to the children where it counts is a different matter. For instance, consider the taj mahal Madison City Schools is building as their new High School. Can anyone tell me, honestly, the educational value of a video wall in the “cafetorium”? They have built a “Harvard” room where they plan to host invited guest speakers. The way they are spending money is insulting to me as a tax payer. The sad thing is this is not the exception rather the rule.

    I digress, children today deserve much better than we, as a society, are doing for them. But I don’t think its money we need. Frankly, it is we the adults that can use a timeout, even a good swat on the rear for losing sight of what matters. Children do not have to have an iPod by the time they are 11, they do need sound nutrition. They do not need an xbox, but learning to read would come in handy, and no, they do not need leather jackets or $150 sneakers – when a YMCA membership will do just fine. Of course, that interferes with our social schedule so forget the kids ‘ma we are going out!

    • Well, I am not an expert on the school system budget– you are probably right there is waste. But I was thinking of the inadequate funding I see for teacher salaries, etc. Teachers are having to buy their own lesson supplies out of pocket. Kids I see can’t get tested for learning problems in a timely way because they can’t afford more than a certain amount of testing at a time. My mother was a high-school teacher– the work was strenuous and many more hours a day than the time students were actually in the building. Is all the lack of money really due to misallocation of funds? Do you have the budget copy and would you be interested in posting a proposal to revise it? Maybe a specific alternative would raise some interest!

      The physical buildings in some cases have deteriorated to the point they are unhealthy– I’ve had many students react to severe mold issues whose parents told me they literally had to wipe black mold off the textbooks. I’m not sure what the price differential is between the fancy looking buildings and something plainer– if it were me, I’d have picked the plain one anyway at least to show some effort at economizing. But would be nice if they were “green” buildings.

      Technology expenses– I have mixed feelings. There is some evidence that the way kids think today is very different from how we did, because of media use. They will be competing in a technology-loaded environment and I don’t know if it will be a problem if the schools don’t expose them? I have a gut reaction against a lot of it, but it may be necessary now. We may not be able to answer that question with good evidence.

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