What Are We Americans Willing to Do for Our Children, Our Future?

GUEST: David A. Hamburg, M.D.
VTR: 7/15/1992

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

My guest today has written a profoundly disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful book that reminds me ever so much of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous plaint in his “Social Contract” that “man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

For in his “Today’s Children: Creating A Future For A Generation In Crisis”, just published by Times Books, Carnegie Corporation President Dr. David Hamburg writes both that “deep commitment to children is a fundamental attribute of being human” and that “more and more we [Americans] are failing to meet the basic developmental needs of young children.”

Well, we do so at great risk, too, for my guest adds that “we may even be on the verge of an epidemic on inadvertent child neglect that could put the future of our society in jeopardy”.

Indeed, for all the other challenges it and other major American foundations now face at home and abroad, Dr. Hamburg tells us that the Carnegie Corporation devotes roughly half its huge resources to children and youth in the United States because, as he writes, “far too many are experiencing the formidable but preventable burdens of ignorance, illness, suffering, humiliation, and lost opportunities. For instance, the evidence indicates that about one adolescent in four is in really serious trouble, such as pregnancy, drug use, dropping out of school, depression and suicide. We lag well behind the other advanced democracies in preventing infant mortality; during the eighties, twenty nations did better than we did. Measures of educational achievement—in reading, math, science—reveal that our children badly fail to meet the standards of other technically advanced nations. In short, a variety of indices indicate that we are suffering heavy casualties during the years of growth and development, and these casualties are not only tragic for the individuals but also bear heavy costs for American society”.

Well, I’ve noted that Today’s Children is ultimately a hopeful book, for with care and precision it identifies many of the steps we already know to take to save our children…and charts further researches that can flesh out even more “What To Do”. Yet the very simplicity and directness of Dr. Hamburg’s programmatic approach to what he calls “creating a future for a generation in crisis” somewhat depresses me. For it seems that this has become a matter of will, not of ability. By now we do know rather well what to do for our children, and how to do it. What is at question and at stake is whether we are willing to devote the wherewithal in terms of material resources and human effort to do it. And we don’t seem to be!

But Dr. Hamburg is the scientist of human behavior. So let me ask him, hands down, no undue optimism or pessimism, how likely are we to do what he points our we can and really must do to save our kids, our future. Now, that’s a big question, Dr. Hamburg, but, I put it to you.

Hamburg: I think we will respond constructively, I think we’re beginning to now. I say that fundamentally because in the long history of the nation we have had a deep commitment to humane and democratic values. We have cared about our children, and I think we will again. Now, more concretely I think the following’s been happening. Over the past, oh, I’d say about 15 years there has been a steadily growing concern in the relevant professions and the scientific community about these issues and that concern has stimulated a surge of interest in worthwhile research, about medical science, behavioral sciences, and a lot of creative, responsible innovations in communities. So that in turn has lead to an emerging consensus…I’d say in the past five years you could see the shape of an emerging consensus and I try to capture it in this book, at least from conception through adolescence. What can be done? What can be done? And I think we are a, a pragmatic people and you know, to turn the old saying in its head “where there’s a way, there’s a will” in the country. If you see something useful to do, you’re more likely to do, you’re more likely to do it. We suffered for a while, I think, from this malaise that “well, it would be nice to help kids, but there’s really nothing…we don’t know how…especially for poor kids…we just don’t know what to do”. And I think as you pointed out we now have a pretty good idea. Of course it will be a better idea ten years and twenty years and so on, but we have a pretty good idea. So with this emerging consensus on what to do, what would be useful, that has caught the attention of various organizations and national leaders across the country. You’ve seen in the past five years the Governor’s organizations, some of the major business organizations, some Federal leadership, some considerable leadership in the scientific and professional community…I think a coming together at different sectors to say, “Look, this is a very important problem, we can’t sweep it under the run, there are some useful things to be done”, and a number of these reports, for example, from business organizations say quite well what we could do. So taken that…taken those factors together, I believe there is an emerging national consensus, which will soon get to threshold, soon…next few years…certainly next decade for a concerted national effort involving public and private sectors to create a future for our children.

Heffner: Is that a well-thought out strategy that if you made the glass half filled with real research, planning, what you call leadership, that in turn, and to use your notion that where there’s a way, there’ll be a will in this country, was that, was that your device?

Hamburg: Pretty much. When I came to Carnegie about a decade ago…in consulting with out Board and my colleagues on the staff and various experts and leaders around the country, I, I quickly concluded that what we ought to do was to pull together the existing research, to the maximum extent possible and at the same time stimulating new research where there are gaps, or where the frontier was pretty ragged, but, but primarily to pull together existing research in, in the synthesis of major problem areas that would be credible because they were based on careful, systematic work, and that would be intelligible…that sort of translates scientific work in to English to that people could understand it widely. And say, “Here’s the nature and scope of the problem, number one. And here are some useful responses to the problem”. I further thought that we ought to do it in a way that was not just a sort of hypothetical ideal, but rather to try to identify or create working models in communities. If you said, “Well, there’s a better way to do prenatal care that would be two-generation benefit as for the parents of their children”, let’s find where it’s already being done in some American communities, let’s create some or build on the existing ones, so that one can point to three or six or ten places around the country where it’s really happening. Now then we had to take that kind of information, the research synthesis and the working models in communities and make them available to the nation at large because somehow you’ve got to scale it up where you have, let’s say, five communities doing prenatal care the right way now, you probably need 500. And so, the scale up problem is what is being addressed in part in this book, that is getting the nation’s public and leaders across the board to take a greater interest in the subject.

Heffner: Now, you talk about community. Others who may be critical, will say the real problem, that we sort of knew that needed to be done…now you deny this and as I read “Today’s Children” I realize you have been developing what it is that needs to be done. And increasingly you feel that we know and will know further. Let’s go back to this “will”…you’re developing the way, haven’t the past years, the last decade and a half indicated that Americans to a very considerate extent are not that concerned that they will burden themselves with the costs in resources and time and energy to do what you now feels to be done?

Hechinger: Yes. Yes, that’s right. In, in a way this effort we undertook at Carnegie that is reflected in the book is, is contra-cyclical. We began a decade ago in a time when the country was really in a rough patch in many ways. We have…it’s hard to know exactly all that went into that, but we got into a phase of inadvertent neglect of our children across the board, not only in poor communities, but in, in the affluent sectors as well. One part of it, I think, had to do with the immense rapidity of social and technical and economic change. And I try to sketch that out in the early part of the book. We really do live in a time of real transformation. I mean it began with the Industrial Revolution which is just a very short time in history…two centuries ago. But there’s been a big acceleration of changes in this century, there, there’s been more change in most dimensions in the 20th century than all the rest of human history put together. And, and in the post-War period in this country even more so. The technical changes, the social changes, economic changes…I mean, like, for example, the surge of women in the work force…and all of the adaptations requires by that huge social change, enormous benefits, but also powerful family dislocations. So, I think part of what we’re dealing with is that the changes have been occurring so rapidly and to a considerable extent technology-driven, that it’s very hard to adapt. For individuals to adapt, for institutions to adapt…so to say we live in a time when many of our attitudes and customs and institutions evolved earlier to suit earlier circumstances, like the schools, and, and the circumstances today are very different…so the “catch up” is partly, I think, the problem. Another part is that we live in a time of some disillusionments…if you take the past half century…for a decade or two, about two decades after World War II we had a fantastic preeminence in this country…whether you’re talking about it in the standpoint of the military or politically or economically or psychologically…we were preeminent in the world beyond any imagination, and our expectations got to be very, very high. Sometimes when I talk to my colleagues in bio-medical sciences which is where I began my career…it’s a field that has had brilliant success in elucidating molecular and cellular nature of the human organism…I say, “Well, the field has succeeded beyond anything we had dared to hope, except we have failed.” And they say, “What do you mean, we failed?” We failed the American people in the one thing they really wanted from us…immortality. But I, I carry that point to a kind of caricature because I do think we are coming down off a high…tremendously high expectations and now we’re a great country, but one of many great countries in the world, a center of power in many dimensions, but there are lots of others and we’re learning to live in a very highly inter-dependant world. So I think that’s a factor, this phase…this half century disillusionment and the time of disillusionment exacerbated by recession, of course, there’s a tendency to to look for who to blame…who to blame. And sometimes we blame the victims.

Heffner: But you know you, you, you…what you’re just saying now faces me with such an interesting quandary…as you speak I realize that I’ve taken on the damn patina of the television interviewer and I want to ask you the critical question, put the needle to you…and I, I…basically when I sit back and say to myself, “What are you doing?”, I don’t want to do that…I want to take the optimism, the understanding because your optimism is based clearly upon understanding and reality and nurture it…not, not tend to destroy it. But you say…you use the phrase “inadvertent neglect” and I’d love it if you could…

Hamburg: Yes.

Heffner: …help me understand and believe that it was inadvertent…I don’t. And, I…again I Don’t want to be the, the “smart guy” interviewer who twists that around, but why do you say “inadvertent”?

Hamburg: Well, let me, let me respond to that and amplify a bit my response to the previous question because they’re certainly related. It’s quite apparent we’ve had in the last 10, 15 years a, a…an intensity of individualistic attitudes in the country that’s extreme. We always had a strong individualistic streak in our culture and it’s been very beneficial…had a lot to do with out innovation and creativity, but…like anything else you can carry it to such a point that it really is dangerous, a kind of “devil take the hindmost, get what you can while you can” and, and it becomes a kind of selfishness or, or greed in which very little consideration is given to the well-being of others. Now, when it comes to adapting to massive social change of the kind I’ve just sketched and it’s spelled out in book, you have to think to some family…something like that. Because we have major problems we have to address together that nobody can address alone, not even the President of the United States. So I think it’s been very hard for us to do that…I mean human history isn’t like that slowly, now we’re in a big heterogeneous society changing very rapidly with a lot of rough edges and it is very hard to think beyond one’s self, and you it’s essential to do that. Now in terms of your…the immediate thrust of your question…let’s take the more affluent sector…let’s put to one side of the moment, the poorest community with the very heavy economic burdens and all…that’s a terrible set of problems we have to address. But in the more affluent sector this inadvertent neglect issue comes up…my experience is in direct contact and from the research studies and surveys that, you know, most parents in the affluent sectors of society, who are well-educated and all that, you know, most parents in the affluent sectors of society, who are well-educated and all that, do care about their children, but they have a new set of choices, wonderful choices and, and dilemmas. Instead of taking it as a given, as it was…happened a generation or two ago that you’d get married and you have children and that there would be a certain network of family around you to support you in the process of learning how to become a good parent and dealing with your children, now we find a situation in which, for one thing, the tremendous opportunities offer mobility, mobility is wonderful…take advantage of new opportunities, it’s a lot of uprooting, but young people are much more on their own without immediate family supports, or a readily available social support network…they have big decisions to make…”should I get married at all?”, marriage is being delayed…should I get married at all? If I get married, should I have children? How do I put together the elements of work and family? If I’m going to be a responsible parent, which I want to be, but I want to take advantage of opportunities, I want to make a decent living, it take two of us to make a decent living…I want to achieve what I can achieve, fulfill my potential…how do I do all that? Fit together these pieces of, of work and family? Well, if you’re going to do that…let’s say, for example, women come in the work force, one thing that could happen would be that policies haven’t done that yet. I think they will, but it’s been a short time, we haven’t done that yet very much. Maybe the father of young children will compensate by spending more time at home but so far there’s been very little of that. So the mother now has a second shift, she does her work, the woman in the work force is a great economic boon, it’s an immense pool of talent which has been very good for the country economically, socially, but it means big family dislocation. If the mother’s going to be home less and the father’s not home more, what about the grandparents? Well, surveys a couple of years ago showed that American children only see a grandparent regularly…5% of the American children have that benefit, that’s less than ever before. So grandparents aren’t there to compensate. The families are smaller than they used to be so there aren’t other uncles, aunts, cousins around. So the, the net effect is, I think, well meaning parents are worried about what’s happened, they try to find adequate child care arrangements…it means that they’re at the mercy of well meaning strangers out there in child care facilities. But it’s a lot of moving parts, Mr. Heffner, that have to come together in the right way. We have very little experience to go on and so in the midst of this turmoil, you might say, of rapid social changes and family dislocations, parents make a lot of mistakes, they’re not very well prepared to become parents…they’re not very much helped when they become parents and so, that’s what I mean by “inadvertent neglect.” And they expressed the concern in surveys…more than half of, of young American parents say they’re worried that they’re not doing right by their children…two-thirds say they’re less willing to sacrifice for their children than their own parents were for them. So…but in a way that’s a good thing…that ferment of concern, of facing up to the problem may lead to some very constructive changes.

Heffner: You’re a very generous person, and I know from the introduction to your book in which you describe the traditional family structure from which you came in which there were all of these supports…family loving family members, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts…thoroughly supportive, maybe that’s why you’re so much more generous in your estimate of the responsibility of the younger people you’re talking about today. Don’t forget…was the statistic two-thirds said they don’t want to sacrifice more?

Hamburg: They feel they’re less wiling to sacrifice than their parents were.

Heffner: That’s a choice…

Hamburg: It’s a choice, no question…

Heffner: …that’s not inadvertence.”

Hamburg: No, it is, it is a choice. No question. There, there are…there are deliberate decisions that have to be made weighing and balancing…having so many choices, having so many options you may put more chips on one than on another, and there is a tendency to, to do that with the children. I…one aspect of it that happens again in the affluent sector’s is a very sincere effort to compensate for less time by more material benefits. Now, up to a point that’s, that’s useful…kids have lots of creative opportunities with their material benefits, but you can only go so far with that. Ant there is no substitute for a warm, dependable, responsible, caring adult relationship with children.

Heffner: Then where does your optimism come from?

Hamburg: Well, I think there is, there is some national awakening. I can’t guarantee it, I’m not sure of it…there, believe me, there are days that when I am pessimistic about this. But I, I would say this…I compare some of the efforts we made ten years ago when I first started on this path with the foundation, and, and the efforts today…there is far greater responsiveness whether it be from parent groups, or teacher groups, or governmental leadership, or business leaders…far more responsiveness…there is a process of awakening to the problem and asking ourselves how we can give children the experiences they need to grow up in good shape? And that awareness, that concern that’s growing gives me some hope. But it may fail. I think it needs an awful lot of help and, of course, most of all it needs help in the poor communities.

Heffner: You talk about growing up in good shape. Doesn’t that also mean growing up in an older form, in an older shape with older values? And…

Hamburg: Some way or another it means meeting the essential requirements for, for healthy child development. If, if your aim is that kids should grow up healthy and vigorous, inquiring and problem-solving, decent and constructive…if that’s what we want to do, we have to ask what does it take to do that, and, and, you know, the human organism is what it always was…it’s evolved over millions of years in a certain way…the baby, a young child has certain requirements that simply have to be met. They have to be met under very new conditions…they don’t have to be met in the old institutional forms, but they have to be met. What do I mean by that? Well, they…dependable relationships with other human beings and particularly in the early years at the heart of that at least one, at least one dependable, care-taker. Usually it’s been…historically the biological mother…doesn’t have to be. But a dependable care-taker in a network of others who also care and who help when needed, especially under stress. That has been the way in which we evolved, that’s still necessary, it’s got to be constructed one way or another. It also means a stimulation of the natural curiosity of children, so that they…there is a zest for learning that foes through the whole life-span. You know the infant…Piaget described the infant as a, as a scientist, or a proto-scientist…the exploration and discovery…that spirit of exploration and of discovery is immensely valuable and it’s got to be cultivated. Also, there has to be…as children grow up they have to have a sense of earning respect, building self-esteem through earned respect, and they have to have, as they grow up, some sense of being useful to others beyond one’s own self…to one’s family, to one’s community. Now all those are vital components of meeting the essential requirements for healthy child development. And we’ve got to find ways to do that…it does take people, people need people…you can’t do it by machines…

Heffner: Doesn’t…

Hamburg: …you can’t do it by material benefits alone.

Heffner: Doesn’t it mean then that it takes devotion and devotion means willingness to give up something else at a time when we want more and more and more for ourselves by way of material things?

Hamburg: It does. It does. The…when you walk about investment in children…the first investment and the fundamental investment is parental investment. They have the responsibility, they’ve brought the children into the world…it doesn’t mean they have to do all the care-taking themselves, by any matter of means. If they can arrange, and if society can help them arrange to get adequate care-taking to supplement their own, that’s fine…I think that’s a direction we’re all in. But it has to be done one way or another.

Heffner: We have one…a little less than one minute left…let me just ask you whether looking ion the other direction in terms of the material contributions…do you find, do your studies indicate that we as a people will make the material contributions…tax money and the rest…

Hamburg: Yes.

Heffner: …to bring the rest of society up to snuff, not just our own children, if we are affluent?

Hamburg: Not clear. It’s, it’s a close call. There certainly is some movement in that direction, but it’s not clear to me that we’ll get over threshold. There’s a lot of reluctance to do it, but there’s this immensely important point that we overlook, and that we pay…we pay one way or another…the social and economic costs of what we’re now doing are terrific. Look, Governor Richards of Texas said right after the Los Angeles riots something to this effect…not so long ago those hoodlums who burned Los Angeles were our children, and, and we have it within our power either to help kids grow up on a constructive, decent path into the mainstream economy with skills and knowledge, or to let them grow up as hoodlums. If they grow up as hoodlums it costs about $25,000 a year to keep them in prison, it costs about $80,000 a year to build a jail cell, so we pay one way or another…let’s pay for the more constructive outcomes.

Heffner: Obviously we have a lot more to say about this. I hope you’ll join me again, Dr. David Hamburg.

Hamburg: Thank you very much, a pleasure to be here.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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