Problematic National Trends-5

Lon Woodbury MA. IECA. CEP


Everything you hear is opinion, everything you see is perspective.

Attributed to Marcus Aurelius – 2nd Century AD Roman Emperor

National Trends That Were Problematic

The previous examples are just early samples of some of the problem behaviors that parents brought to RMA for help.   Later, after interviewing and talking with hundreds of teens and parents of teens with behavioral/emotional problems, I saw some patterns in how society was raising our children that were disturbing.  In some cases, it seemed our country’s best efforts at helping struggling teens back then sometimes seemed to be part of the problem. The following issues appeared to be some of the serious problems with raising children in the 1980s through unintended consequences, and through still existing today (2018), have been partially addressed.

Mass Production Mentality

The basic philosophy of managing schools and other adolescent programs rapidly changed in the early 20th century.  Assembly line factories and the new management techniques that made the country’s incredible material progress possible were considered modern miracles that were copied by other industries including schools and mental health programs.  By the 1980s, a mass production mentality seemed to be the norm throughout the culture.  Insurance companies emphasized rating groups more than individuals; schools tended to consider students and teachers interchangeable for management convenience; hospitals became factories of healing; mental health classifications tended to encourage therapists to see patients as labels and it even extended to politics where identity politics became increasingly important.  The pattern was to evaluate groups and plug the individual into the appropriate group for any intervention.  To a large extent, society had become a great sorting process.  What the students I met in the admission process really needed was someone who not only cared about them, but who were wise in understanding human nature and really understood the children as unique individuals.   At root, what most children needed was positive personal adult relationships to help them come through their emotional struggles in trying to successfully grow up.  Unfortunately, it seemed few with serious emotional/behavioral problems were finding that badly needed individual touch.

The Rise of the Expert

Another part of this sorting process was the rise in importance of credentials.  Credentials in part had become a shorthand for deciding whose opinion and ability we should respect.  Credentials gave the holder authority, respect and preferment–the more respected the credential, the more respect for the holder of a credential status and their decisions.  In other words, credentials were the mark of an expert.  As a tool, for example, it was much easier to check credentials in hiring than a full evaluation of the competency of any single individual. Decisions in mental health programs (especially when something had gone wrong) were easier to justify legally when made by someone with the proper credentials.   In mental health, acquiring the proper credentials qualified you as an expert which opened doors to employment, increased responsibilities and professional respect.  Overall, in mental health, the development of credentials solved many problems through the ability to weed out those unsuited for that profession or a specific specialty.  The development and acceptance of credentials was an important factor in the development of professionalism and better treatment of mental health patients and students.  However, in the 1980s, problems (though not necessarily the rule) in this system still existed.

  1. Some credentials didn’t relate well to competency even though sometimes widely accepted.
  2. Once credentials were earned, the status remained almost despite what damage from mistakes the person may have done.
  3. Some credentials were obtained by fraud.
  4. Some credential holders just did not have what is commonly called common sense. The “art” of counseling was beyond them, and their treatment tended to become rote application of some pre-developed solution.
  5. Parents (and the public) tend to take the word of a credential holder as evidence of competency, even if the credential has little to do with the specific activity at hand. The more respected the credential, the more that person holding it was considered as competent.
  6. I interviewed many students who came with a cocktail of medications and/or a long list of diagnoses from a series of therapists. It turned out that “experts” were very reluctant to reverse previous diagnoses or medications by previous “experts” even when the combinations no longer made sense.  And for legal reasons, any changes had to be approached with great caution.
  7. The importance of credentials tended toward each expert seeing one part of the child, which resulted in slicing and dicing the child. In working with struggling teens, it seemed to be uncommon for there to be someone involved who could adequately bring all the insights together to understand the real person underneath.
  8. In general, the public (and professionals) tended to read more into the existence of credentials than that credential-holder might have deserved. Forgotten was the truth that professionals are usually more human than heroes.
  9. Perhaps worse of all, parents were losing faith in their own parenting instincts, having more trust in someone who had known their child only a short time in a narrow sense, because they were the expert.

Parenting Attitude Changes

Parenting in the US radically changed through the 20th century.  The changes in goals, philosophy and priorities of raising and educating children reflected vast changes in the culture and a totally different attitude by parents toward their responsibility for their children’s transition to adulthood.

In the early 20th century, the generally accepted ideal was to only prepare a child for adult life. The child then became responsible for launching themselves.  In preparing a child for independence, character was considered a very important part of that preparation.  Hard work, reticence and humility was part of this ideal as well as getting a good academic education.

To a large extent, children in the past were often considered financial assets and as productive members of the family through work on the farm or in the family business.  One positive result was the common development of a work ethic and sense of responsibility in the child. The generally accepted job of parent was to only provide the basics through childhood and prepare the child to make their own way in the world as functioning adults.  For example, if a child wanted to attend college, or make any other plans for their future, it was mostly up to them to find the way and figure out how to pay for it, perhaps with some support and help from his/her parents.   For example, it was uncommon for parents to consider paying totally for their child’s college or post-secondary education.  A common story of college students was the pride the students had from working at paid employment to pay for their own college education.  This is largely what was expected.  In general, in this system each young person would find the level they felt best on their own that suited them and their circumstances.

By the 1980s, parents were having fewer children and taking on more personal responsibility for their children’s future.  The downside of that is we were then on the road to helicopter parenting, parents assuming they needed to pay for all their child’s further education, the reality of extended adolescence and eventually the demand at colleges for “safe spaces,” ones where they were safe from exposure to challenging viewpoints.  The pressure to insist that children become independent upon reaching legal age was significantly eased.  I saw a lot of the negative results of these trends while I was at RMA and later while working as an Independent Educational Consultant.

At the same time, while parents were taking on more responsibility for their child’s future, they were losing faith in their own instincts and the shared wisdom of their family.  Parents were instead seeking answers from “experts” or self-help books on parenting.  Many times, when I asked a parent something about how their child was doing, the answer was “I don’t know, I’m not a teacher (therapist….) as if only those professionals had the ability to understand children.

The increasing existence of broken families also tended to undercut parent’s sense of confidence in their parenting. Part of this was the reduced stability children desperately needed.

The expansion of governmental regulations

As issues over the care of children became topics of public debate, legislation and resulting regulations had increased steadily through the 20th century, in some cases piling on top of each other requiring the advice of an attorney to figure out what the law really required.  One result was that local youth program management decisions were increasingly made with an eye of conforming to regulations than to the immediate or long term needs of the children.  For example, one rural residential program I was aware of had the practice of heating their buildings with wood heat, the students preparing the wood to be burned for heat.  One result was that this helped the students learn responsibility, a work ethic and to experience the satisfaction of contributing something important to the community.  This was eventually prohibited by the Idaho state regulators as being contrary to the state’s child labor laws which they determined required paying minimum wage to the students.  In this situation the students lost one opportunity to learn some of the basics of character because of the government trying to protect them from occasional program abuses.

Comments and discussion welcomed

Continued in Part 6 (The CEDU-RMA solution)

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