Part I: Changing Times
In 2010, the documentary Waiting for Superman debuted with a sobering view of America’s public schools. It detailed the plight of the students over the last few decades and the stories behind the high dropout rates and ineffectiveness of many systems in providing youth with an adequate education. It was a sobering look at a system in decline. Prior to 1970, the United States’ educational system was coveted across the world for its ability to produce a consistent, well-educated workforce. But from 1975 to 2005, our country began to lose significant ground in comparison to other developing countries across the world. By 2005, students in the United States ranked 25th in mathematics, 21st in science, and 23rd in overall education; in fact, dismal rankings were noted in all areas except for student confidence in mathematics abilities, where they paradoxically ranked #1. Even more importantly, reading scores showed no improvement or even decline across all ages, except for a very modest increase in 9-year-olds between 1999 to 2005. Math scores were not much better, with no improvement in 17-year-old scores and only modest improvement in younger children.
This flatline wasn’t for a lack of government support. The cost of per-pupil education had more than doubled since 1970 (even when adjusted for inflation). Even though part of the increase in expenses could be accounted for by increased services to disabled children, heightened security, and other infrastructural shifts, this still did not seem to account for the huge growth in expenses. Prior to 1970 when funds had increased for education, rapid gains in test scores had been seen. But not any more. The author of an article published in 2006, A Short History of School Reform, took one optimistic perspective about the flatline: at least these scores had “weathered strongly shifting demographic, political, and social winds since 1975.”
True. But the statement creates an interesting comparison. Few would describe the prior twenty years between 1950 and 1970 as an uneventful era in American history, with the Vietnam War, Korean War, and the Civil Rights Movement taking full force along with other political shifts. What the authors seemed to be saying was that something had fundamentally changed in the way our kids were growing up. Or another possibility was that the flatline actually reflected something else. Perhaps children in poverty over the last few decades were showing even worse outcomes while the middle class was showing the opposite. This could result in a relative “washout in scores.” But this was not the case. Instead of a widening gap between socioeconomic groups, researchers found little change. If anything, the gap had narrowed just slightly. It wasn’t that the poor students were pulling the average down even more. It was that the middle class students weren’t progressing as they should.
A researcher, Martha Farah at the University of Pennsylvania, became one of the first scientists to provide evidence where others had speculated. Her painstaking research discovered a striking trend. Middle class parents of this generation engaged in what she called concerted cultivation. In a simple sense, they taught their children the art of negotiation and how to navigate their way through institutions and with other professionals. Children became like “apprentice adults.” They were exposed to countless opportunities and activities from an early age. In contrast, the working class and the poor parents did things much differently. Their children were given much more freedom to entertain themselves. Their schedules were much less packed, but these parents clearly stressed the importance of respecting their elders. Interestingly, she found that children from poor and working class families generally respected authority more and did better in peer groups. But in a culture that rewarded kids for their ability to negotiate (despite showing signs of entitlement), middle-class children exhibited more confidence in academic and professional settings. They learned to use adults as resources instead of deferring to them as authorities. The times had changed. Dr. Farah among others concluded that middle-class children had changed too, thus giving them the distinct advantage in the workforce, which increasingly offered white-collar positions.
One curious fact remained, but was left unexplained. Dr. Farah and others noted that the middle-class parents studied had grown up just like the poor and working class just decades earlier. As kids, they were all given a ton of freedom to engage in imaginative and unstructured play. They certainly were not cultivated. And yet, as noted in the book, Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough, “…when it came time to raise their own children, they [middle class parents of today] took a different path.”
Once again, more questions than answers seemed to arise. Why did middle class parents suddenly insert themselves into their children’s lives like never before? And how did this even become possible with all the time that it required? The researchers offered no clear answers. But well before this query ever became a legitimate question, one class had always cultivated their children. It was the upper class.
Part II: Cultivating Our Children: A Privileged Life
In 1984, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach, first appeared on network television. It was one of the first shows to really explore the lifestyles of the extremely rich. The glamour and opulence featured on the show quickly became a draw for target audiences. Beyond providing a view of the lavish existence of those previously seen by few, the show often featured geographic locations that were indirectly marketed as vacation destinations. Every episode ended with Leach’s signature line, “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” It was as if he hoped that all Americans could experience a little of the lavish lifestyle.
Beyond the increased exposure to the rich that the media provided, other social changes were taking place that allowed for cultivation. Over the past fifty years, there had been a gradual declining in the U.S. crude birth rate (leading to smaller family size), with certain periods of stabilization. Crude birth rate is defined as the number of live births per 1,000 women. In 1950, the crude birth rate was 24.1; in 2000, it was 14.4. In 2011, it reached a historic low in the U.S., at 12.7. This was almost half of the rate in 1950. This has been made largely possible by a few cultural changes. Birth control saw a consistent increase in usage over the last 40 years. Currently, estimates are that up to 95% or more of couples and/or women use some form of birth control or sterilization. With the legalization of abortion statewide in 1973, parents were provided with another way of controlling family size. These and other changes had continued to slow population growth internally. The changes in birth rate and family size seemingly allowed for greater cultivation. Simply put, try cultivating your kids when there are eight in the home. If the middle class parents of today have complaints about being busy, can you imagine what the parents of yesteryear would be saying if they had attempted to foster their children in the same way? One other factor appears important in mentioning. Although parents have more time to dedicate to their children given there are less of them, the increased rates of dual wage earners means that parents actually have less direct exposure than before. They have fewer kids, but with the changing workforce, they suddenly see their kids less.
So when it came to cultivation, it seems that opportunity and exposure play a role. Although many parents do not feel they can afford to see their children a lot during the day, they do feel it is possible to enroll them in many afterschool and weekend activities at younger ages, whether it be preschool, soccer leagues, or violin lessons. Middle class families are also able to take vacations never dreamed of by their predecessors; they indulge in weekly activities that would have been difficult decades before. The rapidly expanding media has increasingly broadcasted superstars in all genres. Many parents admittedly fall into the lure of developing the next Tiger Woods (pre-scandal, of course) and Justin Bieber. It seems a little too good to believe. But the society supports it. So somewhere along the way, cultivation became the culture, and the seeming ticket to a good life.
But beneath all of this rush to conform, a few concerning trends have begun to ooze outward. Remember the test scores mentioned in Part I – the ones which had largely flat-lined across all classes over the past few decades. Something didn’t make sense. If you asked anyone who should read better, the middle class child of the 1970’s with five brothers and a sister, no computer, building forts in the woods and playing broomstick baseball versus the middle class boy of 2000, with one sister, three laptops in the home, unlimited internet, and regular soccer, piano, and voice lessons, all of us, being honest, would choose the latter. And apparently we would be wrong. And if so, suddenly it seems that we may have a dilemma. A big dilemma.
Don’t forget, the child of the current millennium costs twice as much to educate. He or she also requires financial commitments by parents that far exceed the previous generation. This also creates logistical nightmares for the soccer mom speeding down the road in her minivan just to make the violin lessons on time, frequently running through the drive thru past the recommended bedtime. It starts to make you wonder if more might actually be worse. Something else might concern you. As Dr. Madeline Levine, author of the Price of Privilege notes, “We know that the children of affluent parents have higher rates of depression, anxiety disorder and substance abuse,” states Levine. “The research says that these kids feel particularly pressured to perform.”
The news gets worse. For years, research had been suggesting that our adolescents and young adults are showing increased signs of psychological problems, especially in the areas of anxiety and conduct issues (although mixed results were initially found in other areas). In 2010, a landmark study found what a large body of research has noted since then. The study published in the Clinical Psychology Review was entitled Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007. It was an analysis of many studies that assessed over 75,000 college and high school students over the past 70 years.
The statistical review looked at studies that had used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), one of the oldest measures of psychological problems in adolescents and adults. The findings were nothing short of startling. In all areas of psychopathology, there was a significant increase over the past 75 years. Five times as many young people now scored above common cutoffs that denote a significant problem. Certain areas, such as defiance/conduct issues, paranoia, hypomania, and depression, saw the most dramatic increase, with upwards of eight times more problems reported than previous generations.
The researchers then set about to try to understand if certain variables seemed connected to this trend. One immediate thought was whether current generations were likely to be more honest about their difficulties. Not surprisingly, this seemed to be true. The problem was that even when this was statistically accounted for (using corrections built into the MMPI), it did not change the previous results. Psychopathology still was much worse as the decades got closer to the present. Maybe, the researchers wondered, it was that pathology got worse when the economy struggled, especially during periods of a recession or depression. But findings didn’t support this at all.
Researchers were finally left with one other possibility. Maybe the changes were associated with a larger cultural shift, such as the increased focus on extrinsic goals (e.g., status, wealth, and power) versus intrinsic goals (e.g., affiliation, community involvement, and finding meaning in life). Based on previous generational studies, evidence had already been rather clear that more recent generations increasingly focus on extrinsic goals. They are also rated as more self-absorbed, or narcissistic. So it came as no surprise that the rise in every type of psychological problem was significantly correlated with the increased focus on extrinsic goals. The more status and money was important, the poorer the mental health was for adolescents and young adults. All clinical scales also correlated with one other major social factor: rate of divorce.
If this is all true both in regards to education and psychological health, then it can’t help but leave us really confused. How is it that we can be pouring so much into our kids, only to see our effort undermined by factors that we never intended? There is little doubt that media plays a great influence. But it cannot be the whole story, and we certainly can’t blame all of our consumption on purely subliminal factors. It seems we must ask ourselves a few big questions. One, am I purposefully or inadvertently overemphasizing extrinsic rewards while minimizing or missing opportunities to increase intrinsic motivation? Two, what really matters in providing our youth with the best opportunity to be productive, conscientious citizens? All of us as parents want our kids to be content and successful in whatever they choose. What if the more we try to give them, the less they learn about how to do this as an adult?
Part III: Cultivating Our Future: Where Have All the Good Workers Gone?
In 2007, Jacob Kirkegaard published a book entitled, The Accelerating Decline in America’s High-Skilled Workforce: Implications for Immigration Policy. In a brief summary published through the Peterson Institute for International Economics (www.petersoninstitute.org), he was quoted as saying the following:
Americans rose to economic prominence on the shoulders of the most highly skilled workforce in the world. However, during the last 30 years, skill levels in the US workforce have stagnated. Americans aged 25-34 today do not possess higher skills than do their baby boomer parents. So when American baby boomers retire, they will take as many skills with them as their children will bring into the US workforce. While their parents may have been “the brightest kids on the global trading block” when they entered the workforce, Americans entering the workforce today barely make the global top ten. America is no longer a skills-abundant country compared with an increasing share of the rest of the world. As a result, in the coming decade, America could face broad and substantial skill shortages.
In November 2017, Governor Holcomb addressed the state of Indiana about the 92,000 unfilled jobs. Brief explanations were noted regarding the worker shortage, which largely focused on an eroding manufacturing base and poor training coming out of high school and technical schools. But as noted in the opening paragraph, Indiana is not alone in this problem, and it appears to have little to do with high school graduation rates in the United States, which reached a record high in the 2014-2015 school year at 83 percent. This was the 5th straight record breaking year. Meanwhile, ACT and SAT scores were down, and SAT scores were at a 10 year low. Many reasons were cited, relating to increased test takers, poverty, and language barriers, all of which did not appear to adequately address the question at hand. Similar to the high school graduation rates, a record number of Americans are earning a Bachelor’s degree. In 2012, a third of Americans ages 25-29 earned a Bachelor’s degree; in the early 1970’s, it was less than one-fifth.
Yet despite all of the supposed gains in education, we continue to hear about all of the unfilled skilled jobs in Indiana and throughout the country. Because of this, we are also increasingly relying on foreign labor to keep our economy afloat. Recent studies have indicated that half of science doctoral degrees are completed by students from abroad. In regards to engineering, the United States produces four percent of the degrees, Europe 17 percent, and Asia 56 percent.
Over the past few decades, the United States has increasingly been bringing foreign workers into our country to supply needs unmet by our native workforce. Demands are especially high in the areas of medicine, science, financial advising, and computer engineering. Every year the United States government issues no less than 65,000 H-1B visas. H-1B visas are temporary visas given to foreign workers so that they can be employed in the United States, often in specialty positions. Except when the cap was increased to 195,000 visas between 2001 to 2003, employer requests have always surpassed the number of visas issued per year. It took less than one day in 2007 for employers to claim the entire annual quota. The implication is that there are many more skilled positions available in our country than there are qualified employees to fill them. Although questions have been raised about how those from abroad are paid compared to native workers, one thing is clear: we are increasingly depending on others to provide for our basic economic needs even though our workforce has never been “better educated” than it is today.
It seems this creates a paradox. If our workforce is better educated than ever before, then why are we increasingly outsourcing our jobs? Beyond the simple fact that we just have fewer workers available (given declining birth rate), experts have suggested that the degrees of today are not the degrees of a previous era. Grade inflation has become very prevalent. Many youth and parents regard a C on the report card as an F. Has anyone noticed just how many co-valedictorians graduate from many of our high schools every year with a 4.0 GPA? Are A’s just gradually becoming as diluted as our workforce seems to be? And is the feedback to our students about their performance really based on truth? Or is it increasingly clouded by an attempt to soften criticism so that youth and parents don’t get upset, and potentially take further action? Others question whether the constant focus on meeting targets for standardized testing is teaching our kids how to learn large quantities of information, not problem-solve in a practical way. Many, many questions remain.
But one thing is clear. When it comes to productivity, and moving youth into a previously distinct stage of young adulthood, our country is really struggling. That is where adolescence has started to be called adultescence, what once was a prime period of industriousness between ages 20-35. And it starts with our men. Despite being the most educated men in the history of the United States, Michael Kimmel, one of the foremost experts on male issues, notes a sliding trend. In his book Guyland, he reported that this current generation has been experiencing unemployment and salary decline at rates much higher than their male predecessors. From 1949 to 1973, men’s earnings doubled and the income gap between college and high school educated workers narrowed. But from 1971 to 2002, income for men 20-34 declined by 17%. Many issues appear at play, including economic difficulties, societal shifts, and increased globalization that has lead to outsourcing of jobs and plant relocations to foreign countries. But beneath it all, Kimmel points to insidious internal factors that have led this group to become serial jobogamists. Raised in privilege and taught how “special” they were, they believe that their careers should be deeply satisfying, meaningful experiences. They often expect to make an impact rapidly and have immediately gratifying experiences. When they are faced with having to slowly progress “up the ladder”, often through tedious, difficult labor, they tend to jump to different jobs quickly with hopes of a quick payoff. When this doesn’t happen, they become increasingly disenchanted, often moving back home and depending on their parents for income and other services.
It is also taking longer to finish school. Kimmel points out that in 1972, 15 percent of male high school graduates had finished college four years later. Today it’s close to four percent. Credit card debt for this group doubled between 1992 and 2001. Twenty percent of 25-year-olds still live with their parents. Two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds do too, or at least with relatives. Interestingly, Kimmel notes surveys find that while mothers seem ambiguous about this trend, fathers appear universally disagreeable with the return of their offspring. But regardless of the opinion, Kimmel observes, privilege has much to do with both the cause and the ability to support the full nest syndrome.
All agree that the more our young adults struggle to secure long-term employment, the more our country will depend on the world to supply its needs and wants, which seem to be increasing at exponential rates. The more dependent we become on those from abroad, the more that our nation will be affected by the affairs of those outside our boundaries. It just makes you wonder whether the new generation knows what is at stake.
Part IV: Cultivating Our Future: What Really Matters
Through all of the confusing and contradictory reports and advice, we as parents really just want to know what will make a difference in giving our kids the best chance to develop socially, emotionally, physically, and occupationally. Even though each person will take their own unique road until they pass away some day, all of us want to know where we should invest our time, energy, and money. Even if the search for underlying truths becomes uncomfortable and challenging to our current course, it serves as a reminder that the law only provides us eighteen years to officially do what is needed to prepare our youth for the future. As of 2016, the current U.S. life expectancy was around 78.6 years, which sadly fell for the second straight year. The U.S. ranks 26th out of 35 for the most developed countries in the world. This means that most of us can legally have input into the decisions our offspring make less than a quarter of their lives.
Cultivating interests and seeking out new, exciting experiences is not necessarily a bad thing – but they are detrimental if they get in the way of the values we profess and those factors that research repeatedly has found are important for raising our kids. For example, young sports leagues can aid confidence, social cooperation, and muscle growth. But if they consistently result in poorer sleep/diet, less time devoted to academics, financial strain, identity strain, and increased family anxiety, they are leading us away from the basic goals that are important for our kids. That being said, here are twelve areas, in no particular order, that deserve our attention, our time, our money, and any struggle that takes to improve in each of them. Some are more controllable than others, but all can be influenced to some degree by steps that parents take. All of us have difficulty with certain areas, but the more these factors are a concern, research indicates that the greater the likelihood our children will struggle. Links are included for many areas to provide more information about each topic.
Rearing Style: Over the last fifty years, parents who utilize an authoritative parenting style have consistently been shown to have kids who exhibit better social, emotional, and academic outcomes. As opposed to authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful rearing, authoritative parenting utilizes a nurturing approach, psychological autonomy (promoting a child’s ability to think independently), and moderate, firm control (e.g., setting clear limits/boundaries). http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/parenting-style.htm
Parent Mental Health: The more psychologically healthy you are, the more your child will be, even for children with significant psychological issues. Maternal depression remains one of the most robust findings in regard to this, but paternal addiction, especially with the opioid epidemic, has also shown to be very detrimental to children and the family relationships as well. http://www.nami.org/
Parent Status: Children with divorced parents or single parents show risks across many areas. Conflict either with married parents or parents living separately increases this risk. However, exposing children to many romantic relationships also can be very confusing. http://www.gottman.com/49804/Self-Help-and-Tips.html
Seeking Access to Care: Poor nutrition or use of substances during pregnancy can lead to many negative circumstances, including prematurity and low birth weight. Accessing early intervention (although not always readily available) for developmental delays and seeking out pediatric services early is a key to managing conditions before they cause significant effects on functioning. http://www.nationalperinatal.org/
Socioeconomic Status (SES): Although some may not regard this as a clearly changeable factor, parent’s career status, degree level, and income are significantly associated with youth outcomes. Parents who pursue high school and college degrees, and continue to seek out adult learning opportunities with better paying, stable jobs, generally have children who grow up with better prognoses. http://www.psp.nsw.edu.au/
Attachment: The goodness-of-fit between parenting style and a child’s temperament factors heavily on later adjustment. Establishing an early bond based on trust, consistency, and reliability sets the stage for allowing the child to feel confident regarding future relationships and endeavors. http://parents2parents.ca/node/543
Social Support: Support of friends, extended family, coaches, and teachers has repeatedly shown clear evidence of increasing a child’s resiliency, especially in high-risk situations. In addition to gains in academics and emotional adjustment, decreased risk of suicide and substance use also remains as positive outcomes.
Stability/Exposure to Violence: Children who move frequently and have exposure to violence, high levels of expressed emotion, and crime are at significant risk. Chronic instability often results in emotional dysregulation and impulse control issues. Exposure to violence, including media violence, increases arousal level and aggressive actions and thoughts. http://www.nccev.org/
Sleep: Chronic sleep deprivation and other sleep conditions (e.g., obstructive sleep apnea) have clear impact on attention, mood, and academic progress. Closely tied to parenting practices, research has indicated that most children respond to basic behavioral interventions to improve sleep. http://www.james-schroeder.com .
Self-Control: Many may regard this as a natural outcome of other factors. However, research has indicated that self-control and delaying immediate gratification, including in at-risk populations, can be improved through specific interventions and with authoritative parenting. It remains one of the best early predictors of later relationship, occupational, and emotional outcomes. http://www.james-schroeder.com .
Nutrition: Both prenatal and postnatal nutrition are essential. Although few children in this country suffer from undernourishment, many suffer from malnutrition. Pediatric obesity is associated with a number of negative emotional, social, and academic outcomes, in addition to physical issues. Research has also begun to indicate that processed foods alone are likely related to mood and other issues. http://www.james-schroeder.com .
Faith: Large scale reviews have indicated that faith, and especially a close relationship to a higher power, are positively associated with adjustment, mood, relationships, and resiliency in kids. Youth with religious backgrounds are also less likely to display delinquent behaviors.
To improve any of these areas, a conscious, convicted approach must be taken. Humility and perseverance are necessary. Assistance from others is often needed. Pride remains the biggest deterrent from within. Often gains may seem small, even unnoticed by others. But the prize remains bigger than all. Nothing in this world can give us intense joy like seeing our kids thrive – knowing that we took the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.