David Hamburg

America’s Children … And Its Political Leadership

VTR Date: January 29, 1993

Dr. David Hamburg discusses the future facing a generation in crisis.


GUEST: Dr. David Hamburg
VTR: 1/29/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when my guest today joined me here last year I noted that his recent, most profoundly disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful book reminded em 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 Today’s Children: Creating A Future For A Generation in Crisis, published by Times Books, Carnegie Corporation President Dr. David Hamburg wrote both that “Deep commitment to children is a fundamental attribute of being human”, but that “more and more we [Americans] are failing to meet the basic developmental needs of young children”.

Wrote Dr. Hamburg, “We may even be on the verge of an epidemic of inadvertent child neglect that could put the future of our society in jeopardy”.

Well, now with a new administration in power, however, there may be a change in our land. And since so many high new officials in Washington have long been identified with Dr. Hamburg’s Carnegie Corporation and its many child-relat4ed projects, I wonder whether he’s ever more hopeful himself that this nation will turn things around and finally meet the needs of its young children. Optimistic even more so, Dr. Hamburg?

Hamburg: A little more so. There is a kind of intellectual, and perhaps even moral ferment abroad in the land about our children, and that gives me some hope.

Heffner: What do you mean “moral fervor”?

Hamburg: Well a sense of, of the, the requirement to face this rather painful problem. Some interesting observations that have been discussed much more lately than they had been even a year or two ago. The family changes that have an impact on children growing up. If you ask, “What does it take for a child to grow up in pretty good shape…healthy and vigorous, inquiring and problem-solving, decent, constructive…what does it take”? And it does take a lot of protection and attachment and guidance and stimulation, and all that. And, and somebody’s got to do it. Now we have gone through a dramatic set of changes in the past few decades. Not only in the most extreme case of, of persistent poverty with, with isolated young single parents and nobody to help…that’s a very serious problem, but also throughout the society, the more affluent sectors…let me make a caricature of the situation which we’re now addressing. It is that nobody’s home to take care of the children. The mother’s at work, the father’s at work, the father’s not compensating for the time that the mother is away…grandparents are less available than ever…only about 5% of American children regularly see a grandparent. The families are small so there are fewer older siblings to participate in care. So, who is there? The children are growing up alone, they’re growing up on television with all of its drugs and violence, they’re growing up on the street, they’re growing up with immature peers, without responsible caring adults. That’s an exaggeration, but nevertheless, it is true that over the past 30 years that the parents have about half the time with their children that they did three decades ago. And, and, actually a majority of parents say that they are concerned that they are less willing to sacrifice for their kids than their parents were for them. So, we do have a spreading concern which, which is finally, I think, being recognized that something has to be done, and that it takes not only government at different levels, and it takes the business community and, of course, centers on families adapting to the world in transformation.

Heffner: But you know, when I heard you speak about this, and this is what made me realize we had to talk again on The Open Mind about this subject and about your book Today’s Children. You began at the Academy of Sciences talking about the paradox, you talked about the whole situation…America supposedly child-caring, and wealthy, and yet doing so poorly by its children. The moral fervor for doing something about it. Where does it come from? Where has it been? As a psychiatrist, how do you explain that paradox? Is there something that we can identify other than limited resources here. What, what makes for this paradox psychologically speaking?

Hamburg: Well, certainly we’ve indulged in a lot of wishful thinking. Never underestimate the power of wishful thinking. When these issues were brought up over the past decade or two, the tendency was to say “well, it’s growing pains, or it’s some adjustment, but it will sort itself out…basically parents are devoted to their children”. And then also never underestimate the tendency to blame. “It’s not me, it’s not my family, it’s not my kind of people, it’s somebody else…off there in the inner city, wherever it may be”. Blame mothers and, and evade responsibility. And I do think that part is changing…we’re, we’re beginning to overcome the wishful thinking and the blaming, and see it as a problem for the whole society. But it’s hard because it means taking the kind of attitudes that we have traditionally reserved for our own immediate family, or perhaps for a nearby extended family…but our family…and in thinking somehow like that about the nation as a whole…thinking of all of us together as one great big, albeit heterogeneous extended family. If we can’t think in those terms we’ll not be able to solve this problem.

Heffner: Or further to the question…”am I my brother’s keeper”? Am I my child’s father? Am I my child’s mother? Am I a parent? Why…why in terms of the dynamics of contemporary society have we changed in terms of our relationship to our children? Become more careless?

Hamburg: Well, we didn’t see it as caring less for a while. We, we…for example, if you take the more affluent sector…as opportunities have opened up for women to go to work beyond their very rather restricted band…I mean they always worked, they just didn’t get paid for it, but to go to work for pay outside the home…as those opportunities have come along, and they have really merged, there, there’s a lot about that that’s positive. There’s the meeting of an economic need, in which both parents are, are earning. There’s a meeting of psychological needs, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment for, for very talented women. From the standpoint of the national economy, and the, and the society…it’s a great gain to have this immense talent pool now available to solve the problems of the country. So, there was an assumption that as that happened adjustments would be made to look after the kids, the fathers would be around more, but that didn’t happen…so that it became a second shift for the woman. One shift in the office or wherever, and one shift at home looking after the kids, with all the fatigue and stress attendant to that second shift. There was an assumption that grandparents or other family members would be readily available to pitch in, but they have their own lives to live and many of them are in other cities, and are not readily available so that a lot of wishful thinking about how the family, the extended family would adjust to look after the kids has, by and large, not come to pass. Sometimes it does, there are nice stories about, but on the average for the whole population, that, that has no happened. Now, also in the more affluent sector we thought that to some extent we could buy our way to happiness. That is to say, we could shower material benefits on the kids that would make up for the lack of time, or the stress time that the parents were having with their children. But it turns out that can only go so far, that there’s no fundamental substitute for the intimate involvement of responsible, caring adults…if not the parents, then some other relative…if not the relative, then a friend, or if not a friend then some kind of professional service as in the best of modern childcare. But there has to be some responsible caring adult in a sustained contact with children if things are going to turn out well.

Heffner: Can there be, in our kind of society?

Hamburg: Well we’re doing all kinds of interesting experiments on, on that in the society. They’re not all experiments in the sense of careful measurement to see the outcome…some of them are that. But they are exploratory efforts to find out ways to, to make responsible, caring adults available on a dependable basis. I think the best of child care outside the home is very good indeed. There are child care centers throughout the country where they are well trained and well recognized teachers who are very dependable, or there’s not a revolving door in which the child care workers go and come in a very short time. It can be, it can be done, but it’s difficult to do. And even in the affluent sector it’s hard to find…identify god child care that will provide family-equivalent functions. But it can be done. And i…in my book I try to spell out some ways in which those good services can be extended to the whole population.

Heffner: This phrase you use “family-equivalent functions”. Do you mean it?

Hamburg: I do. I, I, I think that one way or another there has to be, in the early years of childhood, and, and even to some degree through the early year s of adolescence…there has to be at least one adult, at least one, who is, who is interested, devoted, dependable…who provides the attachment, guidance, the stimulation, the honest feed-back, help in coping during stressful circumstances, that kind of essentially parental function has got to be there for things to turn out well. It doesn’t have to even be a family member, but it has to be somebody, at least one, and that can be done, but it’s not easy.

Heffner: Let me ask you this question. As a psychiatrist, is that a bit of copping out, a recognition that it isn’t going to be in many, many, many, many instances, a parent…to say “doesn’t have to be a parent”. You would choose…your choice would be that you were referring to…indeed, you’re referring to two parents…

Hamburg: Yes, certainly.

Heffner: …but, at the least one parent.

Hamburg: Certainly. Parents have a unique motivation…whether they be biological or adoptive parents, they do have a unique motivation, in the special, distinctive relationship with this child…it is “our child”, and the meaning of its being “our child” is, is very special indeed, and tends to give an extra incentive to carry through the many difficulties…waking up in the middle of the night when the child is not well and all the difficulties and frustrations and vicissitudes of children growing up. So to the extent it’s possible to have both parents there, or to have one parent there in, in a dependable fashion, it certainly is an advantage. The more one has to make outside arrangements, the more trials and tribulations and uncertainties that exist. And yet we live in a society, and indeed most modern societies are evolving in ways that some outside supplementation of parental functions is necessary.

Heffner: You know, I was reading…I was going to say “the other day”…I mean early this morning…a paper you had written, it was from the 1984 Annual Report of the Carnegie Corporation…so it was almost a decade ago…it was almost at the beginning of your period of command at the, at the Carnegie Corporation…and you had in it such interesting…such an interesting statement of what is required in terms of what we’re talking about now…child related matters, child development related matters, to create a society that can deal with prejudice and ethno-centrism, and violence in an age of high technology. What really happens to us, as a society, as we try to deal with the problems of prejudice and violence, war, etc, when what you describe is a society in which we are not now providing for our children. We are not creating individuals who have that sense of well-being, that they can contribute to the resolution of conflict. What, what do you see as happening to us? If you, if you had to say “are we going into a brave new world”? If you had to describe the 21st century…not from the vantage point of wishful thinking, though, as you said before…wishful thinking certainly has its usefulness. What are we going to be like…here you seem to be saying if we don’t do well enough by our children, we’re not going to be able to do well enough in terms of the resolution of conflict. If we don’t do well enough in terms of the resolution of conflict, we’re going to blow ourselves to smithereens. What’s the next century going to be like…

Hamburg: Well, one of the…one of the interesting, and at least modestly hopeful currents in this country is an effort to educate our children about matters of conflict resolution, and mutual accommodation, learning to live together in a land of diversity. We’re actually probably ahead of much of the world in that respect. The fact is that the world has an awful lot of people…there are…Boutros-Ghali, Secretary General of the UN estimates about 5,000 ethnic groups in the world, there are 180 nation-states…there’s no way that any ethnic group can have its own nation…you’d have to move billions of people, and cause unimaginable hatred and violence. It’s not a feasible proposition. We are, in fact, a vast historical mosaic of peoples living together. Not only in this country, but throughout the world. And in the next century when weaponry will be so widely available, weaponry far exceeding what is commonly available now…we see the process and array…in that kind of a world you could have many, many Yugoslavias written large and much worse than the current experience in Yugoslavia. As a practical matter, not as a nice humanitarian gesture, as a practical matter, we will have to learn together…to learn to live together in the next century, or we’ll destroy each. And that…

Heffner: But that is an option, isn’t it…or destroy each other.

Hamburg: Well, we may. We may. I think the outcome is not, is not clear. But, education by and large the throughout the world has been rotten on this dimension. That is, I think it’s fair to say that most kids in the world today are brought up in ways conducive to the formation of prejudices and ethno-centric orientations. They wax and wane, they’re not always with a deadly animosity, but the pre-disposition to learn who you should dislike, who you should be suspicious about, who you should hate even is built in to the growing up process in most cultures. And it has been for a very long time, and it, it’s getting more dangerous all the time. Now we do see in this country the beginnings, however mushy and uncertain and hesitant…the beginnings of an effort to build systematically education about, about conflict resolution, about mutual accommodation, about overcoming prejudices as a part of the process of growing up in this country. And if we can make that work over the next decade or two, it will be a great achievement.

Heffner: You know, I think it was in 1950 that Harper’s magazine published a two-part series on…I believe the title was “The 400 Year Boom”, and again, I believe that it was the great historian of the West Walter Prescott Webb who, who wrote these pieces saying, “If we were to look at individualistic democratic institutions, we’d have to say they relate to a 400 year period”…they had to do with the expansion of Europe, they had to do with moving outward…and we’re not moving outward any longer, so one can assume that the basic ideas and ideals of our society, of our times will change. They reflected the economic realities of 400 years, and they no long do. If, indeed, the values that you embrace in terms of child rearing and in terms, consequently, of what happens to the conflict resolution in our society…if those things relate to the past, wouldn’t it be better…serve us better to focus our energies on a re-examination of values, possibly saying individualism, as we have known it, doesn’t relate to survival any longer, and focus not on trying to save the past, but to create the future. What you’re doing, it seems to me is saying “we’ve got to make changes if we’re going to preserve ourselves and preserve what we’ve known”. Maybe we have to shrug our shoulders and say “It’s time to move on”.

Hamburg: Well, the…certainly the individualism has served this country well in many respects, and in terms of creativity and innovation and entrepreneurial behavior in many spheres, but there has to be some kind of balancing between individuality and cooperation with others. Carried to an extreme, the, the, the individualism can be so greedy, so devil-take-the-hindmost, that it really becomes destructive and, and counter-productive even for, for the individual…over time. So you’re seeing in schools now the development of, for example, techniques of cooperative learning. It’s a very interesting development, rather well researched in both elementary and middle grade schools, where small groups of children composed deliberately in a heterogeneous way worked together on academic tasks. And they do well. For example, in mathematics they do very well. And in that…in the various cooperative learning techniques there are good academic results and good results in terms of human relations as the kids learn not only that you can solve problems effectively by pooling their intellectual and technical strengths in addressing a task, but you also find out that diversity pays, that everybody can contribute in every…in some way, everybody’s good at something, you can have some division of labor that you sort out, and, and that by pooling your strengths you can do a better job than you can do alone. Now that has a lot of relevance to the contemporary work-place, the modern economy where teamwork is extremely important…individuality is important, too, but teamwork is important in many circumstances. And, and it’s important in a human relations standpoint that you, you break through the barriers of just being with people from your own social background. So that would be an example, I think, of, of some balancing of individuality with cooperation of a kind that is constructive both in terms of intellectual and social development.

Heffner: Let me go back, in the few minutes that we remaining, to the question I raised at the beginning. A change…change in the air…a new Administration, presumably new things happening. What are the things that are child-related, child-rearing related and therefore in your larger view of the thing, conflict resolution related, that you anticipate will, will develop over the next couple of years.

Hamburg: Well, there is some, there is a growing interest in the first few years of life. It was embedded in the goal, the National Education Goals. The first goal is called the “School Readiness Goal”, that every child will be ready to learn upon entering school at some traditional age, more or less about age five, but that clearly suggest that the years before school entry are crucial and both President Bush and now President Clinton were very active in the formulation of those goals and very supportive of Goal One. And now we’ve, we’ve had, at Carnegie, a task-force in the past year, year and a half, chaired by Governor Reilly, who’s now become the Secretary of Education, a task-force on what we call Zero to Three…meeting the needs of very young children…from conception through age three. To see, to look at what it takes to get off to a really good start, or at least a decent start in life, looking at some opportunities, and experiences that kids have to have and how they can be provided partly through the family, partly by strengthening parental confidence, partly through parent education, partly through professional services…pre-natal care with a strong educational component in pre-natal care and, and social supports as, as necessary. For example, Governor Reilly pioneered in South Carolina something called Resource Mothers…these were mothers living in poor communities, who raised their own children and who were brought into contact with young…with adolescent mothers who needed some social support in a way what…in a more traditional society…her grandmother might have provided. So, so the extension of pre-natal care. And similarly large vision of early primary health care for the infant and for the family. And then the question of, of how the parents can be better teacher so their own children in the first few years, helping them to do that, and the question of child-care outside the home when that’s necessary, how that can be child care of quality, so it’s, it’s putting together a number of elements in, in the first few years that actually bear very strongly on the readiness to learn at the point of school entry. And some of that is what you referred to before as family-equivalent functions…if the family is not able to do all that needs doing, to think of ways in which some services can be provided for that purpose…so that will be, I think, of the next few years with, with Secretary Reilly’s interest and both President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton have been very much interested in pre-school education, and early opportunities…I think in some way you’re likely to see a federal initiative…but not federal government alone, it would be some kind of stimulus by the federal government of partnerships with state governments and with business enterprises and with community organizations to make a serious sustained effort on the first few years of life a reality.

Heffner: Dr. Hamburg for a society made up of individuals who aren’t, in your estimation, and in that of many other experts in the area, paying enough attention to their own children, do you think that we will pay enough attention to other people’s children?

Hamburg: Well, it will take a kind of re-awakening to the issues of child development. We may be on the threshold of such a re-awakening. I must say I think that Presidential leadership could be helpful. The President of the United States has such unique access to the media. That a President who cares and knows about these issues could do a lot to heighten our sensitivity and, and our resolve to address these vital issues.

Heffner: As you know, to the degree that you know what public opinion is, do you have any real indication, and I hope so, certainly, that this approach…Tom Evans at this table was talking about “mentoring”, talking about the participation of plain citizens like myself…elder people who can…the way we can participate in this action as surrogates…is there any indication that this works in…to a sufficient extent…not “sufficient”, to a considerable extent?

Hamburg: There, there are some encouraging signs…and there, there are two kinds. One is, one is what people say in opinion surveys and the other is voting with their feet. Both are at least modestly encouraging. Opinion surveys…there are more and more positive responses to what we can do for our children, and for example, even, even in a number of surveys people say they would be willing to pay more taxes for education or for child health. Now when they actually vote on taxes…it’s a chancy proposition, but at least there’s a shift toward sentiment that say, “Yes, I would pay more taxes to make children’s lives better”. The other is what you said, the inter-generational links, where people are voting with their feet…a lot of older people are offering their time in a committed way to work with children.

Heffner: I’m going to end our program now and urge everyone watching us to vote with their feet. Dr. David Hamburg, thanks so much for joining me today.

Hamburg: Thank you.

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

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation;the Edyth and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.