Dr. Elaine Heffner: Children and inequality
Economic inequality has become a hot topic these days. Blame about causes and solutions offered are apportioned in line with the different points of view of those commenting. One voice receiving much attention at the moment is that of Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist. In his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” he discusses the problem through the lens of changes in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, from the 1950s to today.
Putnam makes his point that there is a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids through stories about children and families who were his contemporaries as compared to those who live there now. The message seems to be that there had been greater opportunity in the past for children to move beyond their family’s economic and educational status.
The popular idea of the American Dream is that children could do better than their parents in all areas, an opportunity that is no longer there. Putnam has been criticized for his nostalgia about earlier times which does not give recognition to the kinds of public policy that included discriminatory housing and employment practices. The American Dream was not, in fact, available to all Americans.
Nostalgia for and idealization of earlier times appears to be part of different attempts at solving current problems. But looking at the past through rose-colored glasses sometimes interferes with an ability to see clearly the basis for the problems of the present.
Putnam deplores the loss of a sense of community arguing that Americans used to care about other people’s kids and now they only care about their own kids, and proposes changes in family structure, parenting, school and community.
Parenting always seems to be a handy target in causes to blame for social problems. One could argue that parents have to make their own kids their primary concern given the failures of other institutions, such as schools, and the absence of support systems in the form of child care for today’s working parents.
The importance of parents’ focus on their own children was recently brought home to me. I was asked to observe a child in an after school group because of complaints from her regular school teacher that she doesn’t listen and do what she is told, that she was instructed to put something away and didn’t respond. By chance a baby sitter present reported to the mother what had really happened. The child’s spot had been used by another child and she was unsure whether to solve the problem by using someone else’s spot.
Observing the child in another setting it seemed likely that, while actually bright and responsive, she may have some difficulty with processing and speaking up in the situation. Apparently, there are 24 children in the class with a large group of boys who are difficult to manage. It was the mother’s investigation of the situation and knowledge of her own child that enabled her to pursue the situation further and prevent destructive labeling of her daughter.
This is a small example of how parents can and do make a difference. But in discussing the larger social problem of inequality, larger public policy solutions need to be the focus. In this case, sufficient funds for education to allow for smaller classes and well trained teachers.
Individual parents may have the time and the will to fight for social changes that will improve opportunities for all children. But in the current situation, parents are left to fight for their own children.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.