American parents are forever bombarded with information about how we are doing it wrong. Our helicopter-rescuing, “a trophy for every child because every child is a winner” cosseting ways are going to result in a generation of future adults unable to handle disappointment, or meet life’s many challenges. Smartphones and social media are resulting in a generation of teens so anxiety-ridden, they are more prone than ever to depression and suicide.
The response of the Parkland, Florida, student survivors to the mass shooting that took the lives of 17 of their classmates and teachers, and left many of them traumatised, makes it clear while these may indeed be issues for some, the children are doing a lot better than we thought.
The evidence of this comes courtesy of the most recent issue of New York magazine, where Lisa Miller has a longform article on how the student survivors of the high school mass shooting in Parkland built up what has turned into the most vital gun control movement in the United States for decades.
“Parkland, with its palm trees and man-made waterways, is an unlikely home base for a teen revolution, but that’s what it’s become, drawing like-minded rebels from across the county and the state to demand an accounting,” Miller writes, adding that the leaders of the movement, as it turns out, are the high school “misfits”, the sort of “kids who like to perform, who have scrutinised the President’s use of Twitter, who voraciously consume media of all kinds”.
When presented with a set of circumstances more horrific than anything the vast majority of us will ever experience, it was the children — the ones who spent too much time on social media, the ones not raised like French or German or Chinese children — who stepped up and assumed leadership. They let us know the adults had been failing them for a long time.
And they are right. We are failing them. But we are not failing them in the sense that we’ve brought them up badly. We are failing them in ways that go far beyond our failure to protect their schools from gun violence. We have failed to provide our children with a society that values their lives or wellbeing. And that is what they are really telling us.
It starts from birth, where the United States is the only First World country to not guarantee paid leave for new mothers. Childcare remains impossibly expensive, with the costs so high that almost one third of parents needing to pay for it say it has caused financial hardship. This leaves children vulnerable, sometimes placed in subpar care situations that are all anyone can find or afford so their mothers can return to work.
Education is so little valued that our public schoolteachers earn 60 per cent less than other professionals with similar educational attainment, according to a report released in 2017 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In West Virginia, where a statewide strike is now entering its second week, teachers earn on average about $45,000. In Oklahoma, where teachers are now also reported to be discussing striking over their pay and working conditions, school budgets have been so decimated that many districts have implemented a four-day school week.
Higher education has hardly been spared. A combination of falling state supports, soaring tuitions and less than adequate patrolling of predatory for-profit institutions offering less than adequate educations has sent student debt loads soaring. A majority of all college graduates now owe money on student loans, with almost half needing to pay back $20,000 or more.
And then there is gun control. Death by gunshot is the third-leading cause of death for children in the United States, where there have been an estimated 188 shootings at schools and universities since 2000 and there are so many accidental shootings involving guns and children, The Washington Post actually ran a headline in 2017 that read: “American toddlers are still shooting people on a weekly basis this year.” (This, in a country so crazed about individual child safety that parents are urged to buy bumpers for coffee tables to prevent injuries to children learning to walk.)
The response of the many on the right to children — OK, teenagers — speaking up about guns and how we fail to value their lives has been to turn on them. Conspiracy theories abounded that the teens were so articulate, they must be crisis actors. Florida senator Marco Rubio excoriated both sides in the debate for viciously attacking each other, including, presumably, the Parkland protesters — and blamed the parents for it on Twitter:
“The debate after #Parkland reminds us We The People don’t really like each other very much. We smear those who refuse to agree with us. We claim a Judea-Christian heritage but celebrate arrogance & boasting. & worst of all we have infected the next generation with the same disease.”
But, as student Sarah Chadwick tweeted at Rubio, people like him are, indeed, letting the younger generation down:
“We should change the names of AR-15s to ‘Marco Rubio’ because they are so easy to buy.”
Maybe the critics were right, at least in one sense. We did raise a generation of entitled children. In turn, those children grew up to believe they deserve better than what society has handed them. It turns out we taught them the right values after all.
• Helaine Olen is a contributor to the Plum Line blog and the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, The New York Times, The Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project