But despite this constant flow of advice, we have very little idea how to make kids happy. Quantitative measures show that American children are among the most miserable in the developed world, and there’s a growing gap between our kids and those in other nations. America’s teens “trail much of the world on measures of school achievement, but are among the world leaders in violence, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, abortion, binge drinking, marijuana use, obesity, and unhappiness,” according to adolescence scholar Larry Steinberg.
At their core, a country’s policies and practices are driven by belief systems. And while other developed countries are taking a supportive attitude toward their future citizens, America seems mired in the ancient, dehumanizing beliefs about children that will continue to hold our kids back, and eventually the country as well.
For most of human history, there was no time of life known as “childhood.” Children simply went from being immature humans to being miniature adults as soon as they could dress, feed, and toilet themselves. They were considered sub-human: depraved, filled with the devil, incapable of feelings like fear, pain, or terror. As a result, child maltreatment was the norm, perfectly legal and widely practiced. Infanticide was widespread, and children were “civilized” with force—regular beatings, physical and emotional violence.
There was a revolutionary shift in the treatment of children during the Age of Enlightenment. Philosopher John Locke argued that a child was a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate upon which the environment etched the form. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said children were inherently good, and if protected and treated with kindness they would naturally flourish.
Reforms in education and parenting followed, and between the 18th and mid-20th centuries, education and parenting shifted in Western countries from subjugation to “socializing”—less conquering of the will, more guiding and teaching. Children were increasingly seen as precious and sacred.
The past century has brought some protections and rights to children in recognition of their vulnerable developing status, including limits on labor, outlawed infanticide, protection from abuse, and mandatory education. But echoes of these earliest beliefs still haunt American policies and practices today.
Take, for example, the American value on the sanctity of the family. America and Somalia are the only countries in the UN that have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an agreement that ensures children’s basic rights, and urges states to place children’s needs at the center of policy-making. Protesting a “nanny state,” American conservatives have blocked ratification, objecting to government intrusion into their family autonomy and fearing that children’s rights might trump those of adults.
A similar objection is raised when it comes to spanking. Recently, Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson made the news for “disciplining” his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, injuring the child’s back, thighs, and a testicle. In spite of research that shows that spanking is ineffective as a disciplinary method and can harm children’s future health and well-being, Peterson is, in fact, among the majority of Americans: At least three-quarters of families still approve of spanking and have spanked their children at least once; and corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states. Other countries, though—43 so far, in Europe, Latin America, and Africa—have stepped up to protect children by banning spanking and corporal punishment. America clings to the sanctity of parents’ right to determine the fate of their own children, including the right to hit them.
Secondly, we seem unfazed by the current level of violence against children. Since 1963, 166,500 children have been killed by guns. That’s more than the number of American soldiers killed in action abroad in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined. American children are 17 times more likely to be killed by a gun than children in 25 other rich countries combined. There have been 74 school shootings since Newtown, when politicians promised never again.
Congress passed a federal law on child protection in 1974, yet a quarter of children are still traumatized in their own home. Research shows that trauma disrupts children’s brain development and impairs their later health and well-being. And America’s bullying rates stubbornly remain in the top third among developed countries. Even our infant mortality rates are among the highest in the developed world—only Slovakia, Latvia, and Romania are worse.
Current research shows that when we engage constructively with children’s feelings, they have better psychological health, better relationships, and higher achievement.
But instead, we drug our kids and teens. According to Steinberg, though ADHD rates are roughly similar around the world, he says, Americans use 75 percent of the all ADHD medication taken on the planet. We are fourth from the bottom in educational attainment among developed countries. Other countries treat the psychosocial context of the child, offering therapy and working with the families. Or we punish or expel children from school—preschoolers are being expelled in record numbers, and zero tolerance programs are reducing children’s educational achievement, increasing their contact with the criminal justice system, and failing to improve schools overall. Almost two-thirds of our high schools have armed security guards.
Research shows that children come into the world with a positive bias—they are prepared to be empathic and show kind behaviors toward others as soon as they are able to—but we are squandering that potential. UNICEF ranks American children 26th out of 29 rich countries on overall measures of well-being, and American kids rate themselves in the bottom quartile on measures of happiness. Our teens are more stressed than adults and feel less supported than teens in other countries. One study found that teens today are five times more likely to meet the cutoff for significant psychopathology than teens were 75 years ago, using the same measure of psychological health. Youth suicide attempts are more frequent here than in most other countries, resulting in about 4,600 deaths a year.
Of course, many American individuals and organizations work hard on behalf of children’s well-being. But it’s not enough. Developmental scientists now believe that child outcome depends upon how well the goals of the larger environment—from families to neighborhoods, to culture and the economy—align to support their development.
Other countries are moving on with progressive attitudes and policies, cultivating the best in their future citizens and economic producers. They provide preventative health services, invest in early childhood education, support parents to stay home with newborns and sick kids, offer free education, and protect children from known risks, to name a few. Meanwhile, American attitudes depress our kids well below our international competitors on many crucial measures.
Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” It’s time for America to take a hard look at its own soul.