Suffer Not the Children

I have two images of Jesus in my mind as I read The War Against Parents, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, and Alex Molnar’s Giving Kids the Business. One is the Jesus that we see in so many pictures-his arms around children, welcoming and loving them with his smile and eyes. The other is Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem with an almost despairing droop to his shoulders. Then the pictures get mixed up, one superimposed over the other: Jesus reaching for the children, wanting to encircle them and protect them, and weeping very real tears as so many of his little ones and their families are slipping away.

What is happening to children and families in our culture? Both of these books have some answers to that question. Both in some respects are difficult to read because they present vivid realities that we would rather overlook.

The War Against Parents is a strong, disturbing statement about what is happening to parents in the United States. The authors draw on their own life experiences as well as their finely developed social analyses to illuminate in a clear and compelling way what exactly is happening to families today. Refreshingly, they do not jump on the "blame parents" bandwagon. Instead, they argue, children need the protective armor provided both by parents and the larger community, which unfortunately has failed miserably in its responsibility.

The authors look at economic policies, pointing out convincingly that economic security has collapsed: "[O]ver a 20-year span, the wildly successful accumulation of wealth by corporate elites has combined with a wage crunch to make the United States the most unequal country in the advanced industrial world." Parents are working longer hours (163 more a year) while their wages are not keeping up. Indeed, over the past two decades, income for parents under 30 has dropped by one-third. With increasing fears associated with downsizing, real cutbacks of social supports for families, the forsaking of labor unions, and the creation of unfriendly tax and housing policies, how are parents supposed to be present physically and emotionally to their children?

The authors look at the popular culture, where increasingly the media portrays parents as inept and unthinking; where pop psychology often falls into parent bashing; where the media pours negative messages onto children, especially in terms of the glorification of violence; and where fatherhood is increasingly under fire. The authors’ treatment of the "disabling of dads" in our society is especially thought-provoking.

WHILE HEWLETT and West don’t deal with the education system in depth, Alex Molnar’s Giving Kids the Business certainly does. He is mainly concerned with the extent to which the commercialism of the market system has invaded our children’s classrooms. His examples are striking.

Molnar, an educator and sharp cultural critic, exposes so-called "teaching supplements" whose real purpose is to sell a product, develop a consumer base among students, and/or salvage an image problem. He is unrelenting in his criticism of Channel One, a seeming windfall video package for schools that demands in its contract that its entire program, including the two minutes of commercials, be shown on 90 percent of school days to at least 85 to 90 percent of the students. He questions the educational validity of students being given a Gushers fruit snack (General Mills), told to pop it in their mouth, and compare it to a geothermal eruption; or of an Exxon video explaining why the Valdez oil spill wasn’t all that bad.

Molnar also sheds a critical light on some new practices being touted as "alternatives in the new millennium":

  • for-profit schools, which he says are built on the false premise that "private sectors expertise will ensure quality and...’competition’ will ensure efficiency and low cost without the need for ‘interference’ from government regulators";
  • private school vouchers, which he fears will lead to the public school system becoming "an intensely segregated, chronically underfunded repository of the most disabled, the poorest, and the most difficult to educate children";
  • charter schools, which lack a common educational vision and are also driven by economics.

Both of these books are extremely important in refining our analysis about what is happening to children and families. That enriched analysis helps us develop more accurate and effective action plans for our schools, churches, community and political organizations, and our social justice groups.

These two books will make you angry, sorrowful, and hopeful at the same time. More important, they will help motivate each of us to stand with Jesus as he weeps over and embraces his people.

KATHY McGINNIS is co-director of the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis and the author of Educating for a Just Society and Celebrating Racial Diversity.

Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialization of America's Schools. Alex Molnar. Westview, 1996.

The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleagured Moms and Dads. Sylvia A. Hewlett and Cornel West. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.

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