Think of the Children

One of the hard parts of doing effective social justice work is the balance between freedom and fairness.  This is most easily seen in the treatment of children.  In my last post, I alluded to different viewpoints of causes and blame for inequality.  But no one can blame infants for making poor choices.  Instead, what makes children poor is simply poor parents.  To remedy this, we would have to balance out wealth levels of the entire family, which brings us back to the question of fairness.  As a specific example, let’s say that a teenage girl makes an unwise choice and gets pregnant.  On one hand, you don’t want to reward her for that choice by making her better off.  On the other hand, you don’t want to penalize the child because he is not to blame.  The extreme-freedom solution is to do nothing and let them both live tough lives as a result of her choice.  The extreme-fairness solution is to take her child away and raise him in a boarding school with all children to make sure every child gets an equal opportunity.  As a logical extension, my child and your children must also be taken away from us to attend this boarding school, lest they be given any unfair advantages of living in a richer household.

The TV show Mad Men provides some more examples of the trade-off between freedom and fairness, with regards to children.  In one show you see a kid punished by being slapped in the face at a party.  No calls to Child Protective Services.  In another episode you notice kids crawling around the inside of a moving car.  Some readers might be old enough to remember that only a few decades ago, there were no car seat laws, and as a kid you could happily sleep stretched across the back seat.  Nowadays that’s illegal, and they continue to increase the age and height requirements.  Quoting from, “Currently, there is a major push to enact laws that require children to be in a booster seat until the age of 8 or 80 lbs.”  As a late grower, I’m pretty sure I was less than 80 lbs *in high school*…

So if taking children away from their parents reeks too much of government dystopia, and letting them suffer in poor homes seems heartless, what can we do?  I can think of two broad categories of help:

  • Child-based When kids are apart from their parents, there is an opportunity to help them directly.  Schools are the obvious venue, but there are also camps and organizations for tutoring and mentoring.  Christina recently profiled Tools for the Mind which aims at helping poor pre-schoolers catch up by learning emotional skills.
  • Family-based I know of organizations that help teenage moms, and ones that provide homeless families with temporary housing.  But I don’t have any direct experience with them, and I’m not sure what to do about recipient dignity and power dynamics.  Does anyone have more experience or thoughts with helping families, or do you recommend focusing on helping kids directly?

12 thoughts on “Think of the Children

  1. Thanks for this post Ed. It’s a nice coincidence that you posted this… today I decided today to donate my Giving Challenge money towards the Safe Families program (, a nonprofit started by a Christian child psychologist that matches children in homes temporarily affected by domestic abuse, alcohol abuse, homelessness, unemployment, etc. to host families for a short period of time while the parent(s) sort out their affairs. Safe Families matched a lot of vulnerable children during this current recession when many parents were unemployed for long periods of time and unable to care for their children adequately. It does not transfer any legal rights over the children (i.e. not an adoption agency.) Parents still retain custody of their children, but temporarily give the children up to certified families. It was started to provide a better alternative to referring children to the overburdened foster care system and very short-term “babysitting” solutions. The organization started in Chicago I think but has expanded to other cities.

    You can choose which city/neighborhood to contribute to. specifically to a partner organization that works in my neighborhood, the South Side of Chicago (mostly African American). There are many ways to give– 1) go through the process to become a certified host family for temporarily vulnerable children (the greatest form of giving I think!) 2) to give money directly to the organization or 3) to become a “Resource Friend” by providing money/resources to host families taking care of vulnerable children.

    I’ve decided to become a Resource Friend.

    I’m still doing my “due diligence” on this organization (meeting up with one representative next week) and am happy to report more information. Overall, I really like the idea of this organization.

    • That’s great, Christina! I’ll have to check them out too. I know that Gary’s wife Jodi works on a program to promote and enable church families to do foster care. I’ve heard that it’s better option than traditional orphanages, though I don’t know the research and reasoning behind it. As for Safe Families, I’m most curious how they deal with the issue of donor/recipient power dynamics. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with them after you’ve worked with them.

      June likes the idea of working more internationally, but of course the distance makes it harder to have direct impact and see the people you’re working with.

  2. Thanks Ed and Christina for your thoughts and comments.

    Ed – in response to your comment re families being a better option than traditional orphanages, the reasoning and research behind that comes primarily from attachment theory. It’s the idea that children (especially ages 0-3) need the experience of attaching to a safe and consistent caretaker who responds physically and emotionally to their needs. You and June are doing this all the time now! Without a nurturing caretaker during those early years, many children grow up to be emotionally disadvantaged, so to speak. Traditional orphanages generally are unable to provide this level of care due to the high ratio of children to staff. There are numerous longitudinal studies as well showing that children growing up in institutional care are more likely to suffer cognitive, social and emotional disadvantages which not only affect their relationships but also their earning power.

    Interesting question re child-focused vs. family-focused solutions. I would say both are helpful but would tend to lean towards family-focused interventions. I think many of us have worked with children (through school programs, mentoring, sports, etc.) who come from abusive and neglectful homes. It’s heartbreaking to see positive changes in our time with them, knowing that they will go back to the same dysfunctional environment. What would really help that child most would be to come alongside the mother and/or father and support them in their roles as parents. Safe Families is a nice alternative because it allows families to reach out for help voluntary … which means they’re more likely to change.

    I’ve also seen some children, however, whose lives at home don’t change … but they have a significant other adult in their life (mentor, extended family member, teacher, coach) who makes all the difference for them. So I would not want to underestimate the power of child-focused strategies and would choose this if the parent(s) seemed unable or uninterested in working towards the best interests of their child.

    Any other thoughts out there?

    • Thanks, Jodi — that makes sense about attachment theory.

      I imagine that social workers who deal with children struggle with these issues also, specifically in where to draw the line between working with the parents vs. taking the children out of an abusive situation.

  3. in my experiences with vulnerable children and youth, just like in any other issues, i am often disheartened and discouraged by the power of the systems. my experience is limited to the US – government budgets cutting health and human services, lack of healthcare, healthcare driven by insurance companies, education systems driven by test scores, criminal systems based on punishment versus rehabilitation. this is all to say, when working with the child, work with the child, family and the environment/system are all important.

    I believe research agrees that in childcare, education, and social service programs that child’s success is related involvement of parent/family, therefore best practices is to work with families. Again, if we see the family as a system, important to work on changing that system the child is a part of. Defn through the power of God and power of child/youth resiliency, an individual child can succeed and become healthy but I think the greatest possibility for success is in changing the system.

    I feel there is a struggle sometimes with removing individuals from a “bad” community so they can succeed versus working on changing the community so that all can succeed. Sometimes I feel resources are spent on the first and we see success in those individuals. However we need to spend resources on the latter as well if not more – but that work takes years, long-term commitment, is harder to quantify, requires policy change etc. . . .

    • Thanks, Joann. I agree that it takes a lot more work to change a system than to change a child. Especially since adults have more rights and freedom — I’m ok with making a child do homework, but less so forcing an adult to quit smoking, even if it raises health risks and drains his family of much-needed income.

    • Ed: the UT/UVA study seems to indicate that people are able to achieve their full potential once their minimum needs are met: additional resources don’t enhance their prospects. It’s results like these which pull me strongly towards “minimum baseline” views on economic justice. These views say: there’s no overarching moral obligation to eliminate inequalities between the rich and the non-rich, as long as everyone is provided some minimum baseline of basic goods.

      In other words, our moral obligation to the poor is to provide for their basic needs; once that is accomplished, there is no further obligation to equalize their resources. It’s ok to spend like a billionaire as long as nobody’s starving….

      But I want to know: what is this baseline? It’s too bad the article didn’t specify the level of poverty at which environment begins to stifle one’s ability to achieve one’s genetic potential. I’m sure food, shelter, clothing are part of one’s needs. What about high speed internet access? 🙂

      By the way, the article is also further evidence for Judith Harris’s view, outlined in THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION, that your parenting won’t make much difference in how your kids turn out, so long as you don’t abuse them (e.g., as long as you meet their basic needs), and you’re careful about who their friends are. It is welcome news to me, as a parent, to learn that it will be *really hard* to mess up my kids. What a relief!

      • Hi Ang,

        I also think it’s ok to spend like a billionaire as long as nobody’s starving. But that could be a zero-probability case — even if everyone had enough to eat, some people will be sick with rare and life-threatening diseases for example.

        Defining a baseline is an entire field in itself. I think the “living wage” is a decent starting point.

        I’m also relieved that I can’t do too much to mess up my child’s intellect. But there’s a big difference between not messing up general intellect and developing specific skills like math, piano, and golf. So I believe without specific targeted training, I’ll raise a smart child without notable skills. Ah, the tiger mom temptations…

  4. Ed,

    Your rare disease point is seems just to be a question about where to set the baseline. It seems you’re saying that it’s not enough to give everyone some minimum of medical care. You seem to be saying that the only acceptable baseline is the elimination of all life-threatening disease. In other words, nobody can spend on luxuries until we’ve cured all life-threatening disease: the rich must divert all their money to curing currently incurable diseases. Is this your position? It is an interesting, though fairly extreme, position to take. I’m not sure why we should set the health baseline so high.

    As for the tiger mom temptations: the WSJ study only looked at intellect, but Harris looked at a wide range of measures for how kids turn out. Her (radical) thesis is that pretty much *everything* goes the way intellect goes: it’s pretty much *all* genetics and peer pressure.

    Harris might say that the propensity to develop specific skills is, itself, more linked to genetics than to parenting style. Note that the Tiger Mom is herself a Yale Law School professor. Harris would deny that her tiger mom parenting style caused her kids’ achievements. Instead, she’d say the two have a common cause: her genes explain *both* her adoption of a tiger mom parenting style *and* her kids’ achievements.

    • Ang, you’re right about the baseline — I haven’t really thought about what is reasonable. I do think that the amount you can spend with good conscience is inversely proportional to the amount of injustice and need in the world. I just don’t know a good conversion rate.

      As for Harris’ argument, I’d like to see more into the effects of parenting decisions independent of genes. For example, if Amy Chua had a twin sister who did not push her kids, how well would those kids have turned out? Genes can’t explain everything; free will must play a part.

  5. Ed: Harris’s point isn’t that genes explain everything. Her point is that parenting explains very little. Her thesis is that the main influences on kids are genes and the environment outside the home.

    Another example: universally, kids of first-generation don’t speak with the accent of their parents. They speak with the accent of the culture.

    Harris’s claim is that parental contribution to how kids turn out is primarily genetic. Her evidence includes loads of studies just like the one reported in the WSJ article you cited, but which study a range of other things.

    Harris’s arguments don’t turn on how free will turns out. But for what it’s worth, I think it could very well turn out that free will is an illusion. Many think that our best philosophical, scientific, and and even theological theories all agree on this. I’m actually inclined to agree….

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