HARVARD DIARY
What Do Our Children Need?

January-February 1989By Robert Coles



I kept reading in 1988 that “children’s issues” are newly important politically, that in certain re­spects America has no reason to be proud when the lives of our children are compared to the lives of children who live elsewhere — the infant mortality rate, for instance. We regard ourselves as the world’s richest and strongest nation, yet by the millions our children don’t fare well. Some, born into pov­erty and ignorance, don’t eat well; they live in an unsafe world of rat-infested buildings, neither well heated in the winter nor well ventilated in the sum­mer. Many such children don’t get adequate (or any) medical care, and the schools they attend aren’t comparable to those in well-to-do suburbs. Such boys and girls have a lot going against them, and it is right that some of us who know of their fate speak up loud and clear on their behalf.

Other American children are also in trouble, some of them born to parents who proudly call themselves middle class, even upper-middle class. Many young American children, even infants, see very little of their parents, week after week. They are taken to neighbors or relatives, or they go to day-care centers, a large percentage of which (by the criteria established by local, state, or federal agencies) are inadequate. That is to say, quite young children spend their days in woefully crowd­ed, understaffed programs. I have visited a number of them in various parts of the country, and I can only agree with the words of one mother who de­scribed her daughter’s situation (and her own) this way: “I can’t not work. I’ve got to work. My husband lost his job. He can’t get another one [they live in a Midwestern, so-called “rustbelt” community] and if we’re not to live on welfare, I’ve got to bring in dough, because it’s easier for me than him to find a job. He’s got a temporary job, but he’s working for peanuts. It kills me to take those [two] kids to day-care. [They are one and four years old.] I take one look at the num­bers [of children and staff] and I know the score; I take a look at the room, and the stuff in it, and I know the score double — a loser. I pay them big bucks, and what I get is someone to be there with my kids. I can’t leave them alone, can I! It’s lousy for the kids and for me and their father. We hate it, and the kids do. And we’re supposed to be lucky because we have day-care. My mother had a stroke — or she’d be with my kids. She sits there in bed and curses her illness. She says there’s some­thing wrong in America — that little kids, infants even, aren’t with their families all day, most of the week. She and my dad — their families were dirt-poor during the Depression, but the kids in those families, the babies, they had someone at home to take care of them. It’s different now; it’s no good.”

I bring this woman’s thoughts to this column because I believe she senses in her heart and mind what her own young children, never mind so many others, are distinctly lacking: a daily family life that lasts more than a few minutes here and there. She once told me this: “I’m with my kids a half hour in the morning, and an hour or two at night.” Essentially she gets them up, delivers them to oth­ers and at night picks them up, brings them home, scurries to prepare supper, her husband helping her cook and clean up, and then puts the children (who are, she says, “utterly exhausted when they come home”) to bed. Yet, our current national discourse has us emphasizing the matter of day-care in such a way that the family concerns of mothers and fath­ers like this woman and her husband are not part of the discussion. He, by the way, would gladly not work at all, would stay home with his young chil­dren; but again, they are proud, so-called working-class people who want to “do the best we can,” they tell me — meaning, stay off welfare, at all costs, make as much money as possible, so that life can be as “comfortable” as possible (not especially unusual aims for millions and millions of us Ameri­cans). For trying to do so, these parents feel their children are in some jeopardy, and then I am ask­ed for my opinion.

Often, I hesitate and mumble and try to change the subject, I have to admit. I am getting old, I tell myself, and what I took for granted others simply don’t have to offer their children: a mother who was with my brother and me until we were solidly in school, and who was also at home when we came back from school, and a wife who similarly has been with our children in such a way. Moreover, my dad was constantly moving things around in his life so that he could be with us a lot. I’ve tried to follow suit. My parents divided up all sorts of chores and responsibilities, and they loved not only each other, but their joint obligations as parents. They were lucky, yes; they were not poor, and had some control over their lives, and I guess the same goes for my wife and me. Yet, I have to say that my father did turn down several very important job possibilities because he didn’t want to move and have us leave a world we knew well as growing children, and my mother encouraged those deci­sions. I think their example has very much inform­ed my life and that of my wife.


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