Children and the 4th of July

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s still an ideal even for grownups, but what about for children?

Everyone claims to care about children’s happiness and wellbeing now and in the future. But there is a profound disconnect between that ideal and the actuality of the lives of children in the United States. UNICEF’s measures of child wellbeing rank the US lowest among the so-called ‘first world’ nations. From the Children’s Defense Fund report for 2009, we learn that 900,000 children each year are abused or neglected (1 every 36 seconds); each year more than 800,000 children spend time in foster care; on any given night, 200,000 children are homeless; in 2006, 3,184 children and teens were killed by firearms; the US has the sixth lowest high school graduation rate among the top 30 industrialized countries.

The United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have failed to ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of Children. The preamble affirms the primacy of the “best interests of the child,” the phrase used by our teacher Anna Freud in her pioneering books on children in the legal system. The Convention mandates freedom from poverty, protection from exploitation and abuse, and participation in family and community life by children as their development allows. Ensuring that children have strong, healthy bodies is basic to these aims. Having a strong, healthy mind is equally important. The term ‘emotional muscle’ springs from that idea. Parents and children need emotional muscle to best meet the challenges of development.

If we really want children to access their “unalienable rights,” we must protect their lives, with provision of ample food, shelter and protection from abuse. We must protect their liberty by respecting them as valued individuals and paying better attention to their needs and capacities. To ensure their access to the pursuit of happiness all grownups should support the growth of emotional muscles needed to achieve competence and get the authentic pleasure that comes from mastery of real achievements.

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