The Voorhes for Reader's Digest When we were raised, there were plenty of adults—family members as well as neighbors—who took a hand in setting standards for children. Their consistent message—“Mind your manners” and “Mind who you are”—was a call for young people to treat themselves and others with dignity. Families and children flourish with these connections, whether they’re personal or based in institutions such as quality day care and schools, sports teams, religious youth groups, extracurricular activities, libraries, and youth development organizations.
But over the years, we have seen the bonds that support young people buckle under the pressures of modern life. In too many places, children are caught in a sticky web of troubles that would be difficult for any of us to escape. Some children do heroically transcend these problems through hard work, character, and idealism. But it should not require heroism to be a child; we need to give our children standards. (This is how you can raise an emotionally intelligent child.)
Our children deserve better. They deserve a life that rewards their dreams, a life of opportunity—after all, equal opportunity is the defining promise of our country. It is a commitment that should unite right and left, rural and urban, rich and poor.
The America to which we aspire rises to challenges and sacrifices for the good of the next generation. If you are a parent worried about the intellectual and moral formation of your children, this is your cause. If you are a teacher struggling against influences outside the classroom that leave young people unprepared for learning, this is your cause. If you are an employer who has trouble finding skilled workers in an increasingly skills-based economy, this is your cause. This is our cause.
We are not child-development experts, but we have learned some lessons about success over the years, occasionally through hard experience. Advances in knowledge haven’t changed the basic needs of young people. Influencing them depends on some very basic practices that allow adults to enter and impact their lives:
When you’re trying to serve young people, it is necessary to really listen. Shaking the hand of a young man or woman, looking him or her in the eyes, taking the time to engage—all these things signal concern and respect. Especially if children feel betrayed, a connection may take time. But this is what children need most—sustained, sympathetic interaction with adults who care enough to help them thrive. This always begins with a willingness to listen. (These are the habits of parents who raised successful children.)
Influence with young people requires consistency. Much hostility and suspicion toward the adult world comes from broken promises of attention and care, especially when family arrangements are unstable. Many children are effectively asking adults: Will you be back tomorrow? And the day after? Will you have my back over time? Children are not reached by a one-time flash of engagement; they are influenced by the long-term glow of commitment.
If the success of young people depends on overlapping factors, so does their failure. They can experience concurrent problems—neglect, economic crisis, bad peer influences, trauma—that reach a tipping point. All their hopes and plans can shrink down to the needs and wants of the moment; they may numb their pain with drugs, leave school, join a gang. Whatever the latest policy trend may be—and we have seen many—no single response will be enough. It is necessary to surround a child with love, support, and encouragement on every side, in every endeavor.
Reaching young people requires the conviction that they are capable of success. Children have a way of knowing when adults have given up on them. They test our faith in them in a variety of ways. And discouragement can come early. Educators have told us that most children arrive in kindergarten smiling and hungry for learning. But many lack basic skills and feel dismissed and discounted. By the third grade, one educator told us, “the light can go out of their eyes.” It is only a sense of possibility that can rekindle the flame. Children will not believe in themselves if we don’t believe in them. And it is unacceptable to watch any of them abandon faith in the future before their lives have really begun.
While these challenges are daunting, we have seen that progress is possible. We have seen communities across the country making serious, rapid progress in places from the Harlem Children’s Zone to East Lake in Atlanta to Parramore Kidz Zone in Orlando, from the 55,000 Degrees campaign in Louisville to Say Yes to Education in Buffalo.
In the face of considerable skepticism, great movements of conscience have been brought to scale. Graduation rates in America have reached the highest level in our nation’s history. Efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been dramatically successful. Teen drug and alcohol abuse, by and large, have been on a steady, long-term decline. More students are attending college. And we have seen the expansion of high-quality early childhood programs and health coverage. We know that broad progress in the lives of young people is possible. We have witnessed it.
The good news: You don’t have to be a hero to be part of the solution. Here are ideas in everyday life:
- The most direct, personal, and influential kind of role? Become a mentor. This type of consistent, unconditional commitment can change the whole world of a child.
- Churches, synagogues, and mosques can establish long-term ties in troubled places, showing the patience that is required for progress.
- Businesses can reach out and identify talented young people, and then give them the training they need. Whenever we hear complaints about the lack of skilled labor, our response is: Grow your own.
- Young people themselves can be part of the equation. Devoting a year after high school or college to serve their community lets them join with others in works of healing.
This cause of helping children become healthy, moral, skilled adults is the cause that will determine the future of our nation. Raising children prepared for lives of accomplishment, self-respect, and contribution is our core responsibility. We can make a difference, one caring adult and one child at a time.