Each of us as parents must identify the values we have intentionally taught and displayed to our children. But, we must also ask ourselves another question: What values have we as a society taught our children?
While the following is by no means a complete list, it identifies the marketplace messages being conveyed to our children:
1. Happiness is found in having things.
2. Get all you can for yourself.
3. Get it all as quickly as you can.
4. Win at all costs.
5. Violence is entertaining.
6. Always seek pleasure and avoid boredom.
This is what our society is teaching our children. Every morning when we pick up our newspapers we see more and more of the consequences of this "education". We don't need to go over the alarming statistics again. We know that our kids are in deep trouble because of what we as a society have done.
The Search For Scapegoats
As the situation worsens, we should be searching our collective soul for real answers and solutions; instead, we often look for scapegoats to blame, and for quick fixes. One of the most frequently cited scapegoats is the American school system.
Recently I was being interviewed on a national radio show about the plight of our youth. After several minutes of discussion, the host paused, and with great dramatic effect asked me, "Don't you think, Dr. Walsh, that all of these problems are the fault of the schools?" I was dumbfounded when he boiled down the fault for all of the troubling circumstances surrounding our children to one culprit. But looking back, I understand why he did it. In the face of an overwhelming problem, this radio host, like the rest of us, wanted someone to blame. I tried to explain why I disagreed with his assessment, but he would hear none of it. He had it figured out to his satisfaction: the schools were to blame.
Scapegoat #1: Schools & Teachers
Our schools are not the culprits. Schools are dealing with the results of America selling out its children. This is not to say there aren't problems in our schools or that there aren't things we need to change. But to blame our schools for the attitudes and values our children are adopting is akin to blaming physicians for their patients' illnesses. For the most part, schools try to instill positive values in our children. It is when society's values influence their effectiveness (as in the case of Channel One) that their messages become mixed.
The fact is that children are going to school already wounded by a society that undermines positive values. Teachers can't teach as effectively because their hands are full dealing with students' social and emotional problems that hinder learning. I've talked to many talented teachers, some of whom work twelve hours a day. Nearly all of them are discouraged. The needs of the children they try to teach are so overwhelming, and our society doesn't seem to support them. Instead of holding up teachers as role models, we look to entertainers and athletes.
Our schools are affected by the same values of our contemporary culture as we are as individuals. They certainly share in the responsibility to help remedy the situation, but to blame the schools is unfair and unproductive. It is ironic that many parents consider the six or so hours a child spends in school more influential than the other eleven waking hours, much of it taken up with watching TV and playing video games. Some parents seem to be extremely worried about what their kids learn in school while at the same time they are unconcerned about what they learn in front of the TV.
Scapegoat #2: Our Legal System
Another popular scapegoat is our legal system. "If judges would get tough with juvenile criminals," some insist, "these problems with our kids wouldn't be happening." Indeed, judges may need to get tougher with youthful offenders as part of the solution to the rising tide of violence among children; but if we think that simply locking up all those who follow violent patterns of behavior is the answer, we're sadly mistaken. We can't build prisons fast enough to solve the problem that way. Even from a perspective of pure self-interest, how can we afford to incarcerate so many of the very people we will need to count on as productive citizens, workers, and taxpayers? If we don't change what we're teaching our kids we'll have the worst of all worlds: rising crime, more and more money spent on prisons, and fewer taxpayers to foot the bill.
Some speak about the deterrent effect of a very strict "get tough" policy against youthful offenders. However, the effectiveness of this strategy, like that of many others, has been greatly weakened because of all the messages that teach children that now is all that matters. Today's kids have been conditioned not to think about consequences.
Our Future At Stake
A significant event occurred in the fall of 1993. On a Friday evening, the Mayor of Washington, D.C. asked the President of the United States to call out the National Guard because the streets of the nation's capitol were "out of control". President Clinton denied the request, and the Guard was not activated. The event was significant nonetheless, because it was another alarm that should tell us how urgent our society's problems have become.
There was no natural catastrophe that night. There was no specific mass civil disturbance, such as the Los Angeles riot. The crisis that prompted the major's request was that the "normal" level of crime and disorder had reached such proportions that the regular police force was judged to be insufficient to contain it.
Although that news report faded from the front page after a few short days, its meaning is profound for our society and for our children. A free democratic society depends on certain characteristics in its citizens for its very survival. Those characteristics include respect for others, the ability to cooperate, self-discipline, and a sense of justice. As those traits begin to disappear, our ability to carry on as a viable society is jeopardized. When we cannot get along as a society, external forces need to be brought in to maintain law and order, and the freedoms of a democracy become more limited. The request by Mayor Kelley should be a warning bell for all of us.
The rapid escalation in concern over violent crime had caused a strong national reaction by 1994. President Clinton and the Congress passed a "crime control" bill in the summer of that year. The legislation authorized funds for 100,000 additional police officers, and for other law enforcement measures. While those steps may have been necessary, we need to realize they are not the solution. They are another signal that more and more, external force is becoming necessary to control the effects of a problem that is eating away at our nation's soul. Although we may need to apply force as a stop-gap measure, we cannot hope to cure the root of the problem until we address it for what it is: the deterioration of values, particularly among our children.
Promoting Positive Values
When it comes to promoting positive values, American society has been avoiding taking action for decades. One reason may be that since we often think of values as being tied into a set of religious beliefs, we as a society have been reluctant to advance a set of values lest a certain religious agenda be forced on everyone. However, the values that are vital to the health of our society transcend all religions and cultures. We can have an articulated, agreed upon set of values that we can all stand behind as a society no matter how varied our individual backgrounds. Furthermore, we must have one so our social institutions can reinforce the values of our families.
This process of norm setting and norm reinforcement is basic to a well-functioning society. Partly as a result of America's value vacuum, the values of the marketplace have taken over. The powerful voices of American culture have not been reinforcing the values that are necessary for our society to remain strong. Rather, they have been enlisted to promote whatever values increase sales and maximize profits.
What we desperately need to do is identify, teach, and reinforce a set of cultural values that are essential for healthy children and a healthy society. As I've mentioned, these values transcend those of religious denominations. They are the bedrock that we can all subscribe to, regardless of religious affiliation or personal philosophy. As we identify, teach, and reinforce them, these values can be translated into norms that are taught and reinforced by families, communities, and our larger society.
At present, we have individual parents and families teaching a set of values that are undermined by our society. They are contradicted and drowned out by powerful and often technologically advanced voices. When faced with these odds, parents' messages have difficulty competing.
Throughout this book there have been numerous references to conflicting sets of values. On the one hand, we have values that are essential for the survival of a free democratic society. These are often taught and reinforced by parents. On the other hand, we have the values of the marketplace. These are taught by our larger society, through mass media. As we've seen, in too many instances these sets of values are diametrically opposed to one another. Our children are caught in the crossfire, and eventually end up being trained in the values of the marketplace.
I would never presume to prescribe a complete set of values we should all live by. However, there is a list of values with which we can build a broad consensus. The following is a contrast between what our society is teaching our kids and these values:
The Values of the Marketplace
The Values of Healthy Children
and a Healthy Society
While there might be debate about wording or emphasis, I believe that a consensus on healthy values among individuals from all populations already exists. As an example, a July 1993 meeting in Aspen, Colorado of representatives of 30 youth and education organizations agreed on the following "six pillars of character": respect, trustworthiness, caring, justice, civic virtue, and citizenship.
Given that we can agree as individuals on the values we would like to promote in our children, the discrepancy between that and our society's values are all the more alarming. Until we begin to address the education our children are getting from our popular culture, our expenditures on more police and jails will continue to escalate without providing any real solution.
Just as it would be a mistake to say that we can ignore external remedies and just attend to the underlying value issues, it would likewise be a mistake to ignore our cultural messages and try to solve this crisis by simply handing down tougher sentences and hiring more police. The only truly effective solution will be to use both internal and external means. It is important for us to avoid the "either/or" trap and to confront the problem in both ways. And just as we must use two methods to solve this national problem, so must we commit ourselves to reclaiming America's children both in our own homes and as members of our larger society.
This article was excerpted from the book:
Selling Out America's Children: How America Puts Profits before Values and What Parents Can Do, ©, by David Walsh, Ph.D.
About The Author
DAVID WALSH, PH.D., is a psychologist who has worked with families for over twenty-three years. He is one of the leading authorities in North America on family life, parenting, and the impact of media on children. He is also a leading voice in addressing the issues of media's impact on brain development in children and is a national speaker on parenting issues. He is the author of Designer Kids: Consumerism and Competition -- When Is It All Too Much? and the founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family.