The Challenges Faced by American Youth and Children

Many of our images of happiness in America are connected to youth and yet adolescence is not a particularly happy time for various kids. Children and youth have more opportunities, worldly knowledge, and exposure to broad ideas and experiences than any other generation but along with these blessings come many difficulties.

There are some general challenges to kids such as the presence of drugs, peer pressure, the need to belong, and inappropriate sexuality that have relative influence based on their exposure, family and school environment, and other psycho/social propensities. There are also difficulties unique to certain groups of children such as racism, homelessness, poverty, violence, and abuse. I will identify some of the trials kids face in the following pages.

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High on Life?

National data from a report called Monitoring the Future (National Institute for Drug Use, 2004) suggests that some favorable trends are emerging in some of the general challenges facing children in relationship to the incidence of drug and alcohol use by youth. The 2003 survey used sample sizes of 17,000, 16,300, and15, 200 in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades, with about 48,500 students in 392 schools participating (NIDU, 2004: 3). “Quite a number of illicit drugs showed broad declines this year-most notably marijuana and ecstasy” (NIDU, 2004:4).

Cigarette and alcohol use have also shown a decline. The decline in both of these potential hazards to children and youth can be attributed in some measure to the widespread public information, negative messages, and educational campaigns over several years on these issues. Children and youth are very susceptible to media messages and these have been fairly consistent and accessible on the dangers of illicit drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Maybe more kids will start getting high on life.

Not the Bully Pulpit

We have actively begun to respond to the issue of bullying and violence in the school, but there are still mixed, contradictory or negative messages about harassment and sexuality. Because of the trend in schools and the media to address violence as a threat to children and youth there is beginning to be a decline in incidences of violence in schools. Although not a scientific survey of the three children that I interviewed two mentioned bullying as a problem in their school lives. Mitch, a ten year old African American student, when asked what he didn’t like about school said, “This boy kept hitting on me.”

When I asked him what he did after that happened he said, “I told the teacher and she told him he couldn’t go outside for recess; she made him say sorry, too” (Mitch, 2004). I was encouraged that Mitch felt he could take his problem to the teacher. I praised him for doing so. While “Marian”, a fifteen year old African American female didn’t feel comfortable informing her teachers that she was being teased and “hassled” by others. Instead, she told me she skipped school some days and other days; “I try not to get caught up… I keep to myself” (Marian, 2004).

Furs in his article Student-on-Student Assault: What You Need to Know About Peer Violence makes the argument that a child who does not feel safe at school finds concentration and performance in school difficult. “On the individual level, personal safety is of primary importance” (Furs, 1996:32). For students who must anticipate the possibility of violence in school or on the way to or from school anxiety and stress are daily factors which also create intellectual challenges.

Other Challenges Children and Youth Face

May I Have Some More?

One of the most poignant moments in the film, Oliver, was when the thin and starving Oliver with outstretched bowl asks the question, “Sir, may I have some more please?” Oliver was denied more and punished for making the request. Hunger is linked to poverty in America because the children most challenged with the lack of nutritional sustenance are children of lower socio-economic families, but increasingly problems normally associated with such children are crossing economic and social boundaries. Some children have a lack of food and others have a lack of good nutrition. I see both as a challenge to student success.

My Body, Myself

The messages girls get about their bodies today are appalling and damaging. Teenage boys are also a marketer’s dream according to Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, she says that “beauty oriented campaigns are directed at girls. But a lot of new stuff is aimed at boys and their body image” (Holstein, 2003). Mr. Holstein says that Ms. Quart’s message is that “…companies rush to create emotional relationships with them centered on idealized notions of how their bodies should look and what they should buy” (Holstein, 2003). Research reveals this focus on bodies for young people result in girls overestimating their body sizes promoting insecurity, dieting, anorexic, and bulimic behavior . It also creates insecurity for boys and results in them feeling dissatisfied with their overall musculature and size. Grogan in her book Body Image: Understanding body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children defines body dissatisfaction as “A person’s negative thoughts and feelings about his or her body” (Grogan, 1997:2).

While many kids because of the media and pop culture influences feel this body dissatisfaction within themselves overweight kids also experience external criticism. School can be lonely place for overweight children. “Children prefer not to play with their overweight peers…”(Grogan, 1997:7). I don’t know whether there is research that connects these various messages about the body to the phenomenon of sexual activity starting at earlier and earlier ages in America, but I believe there is a relationship. The need to belong, to be loved and accepted are overwhelming drives for most people. If kids aren’t getting these needs met through healthy relationships with caring family members or other appropriate adults they will attempt to meet these needs with behaviors that can result in teen pregnancy, inappropriate intimate relationships, rape, and other predatory sexual behavior.

Love Shouldn’t Hurt

Issues of physical and psychological abusive by care takers or family members are a national tragedy and disgrace. Some children are most at risk of harm in their own homes. Statistics on national child morbidity reveal that “…for calendar year 2002, an estimated 1,800,000 referrals alleging child abuse or neglect were accepted by State and local child protective services (CPS) agencies for investigation or assessment. The referrals included more than 3 million children, and of those, approximately 896,000 children were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect by the CPS agencies” (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2004).

Although usually not as overt educator and administrators also hurt kids. The goal exercise that Dr. Lopez conducted with students at a local high school had the significant result of having most of the students identify one teacher who they perceived as a barrier to the achievement of their goals. The power of one individual to influence the future of so many youth is profound. In the article we read, On Point… On the Nexus of Race, Disability, and Overrepresentation: What Do We Know? Where Do We Go? the overrepresentation of children of color identifies “a host of factors outside the learner that may contribute significantly to the perpetuation of disproportionality” (National Institute for Urban Schools Improvement, 2001: 2).

Significantly one of the key elements is the “…individual and collective use of a stereotypes and assumptions about marginalized groups” (Steele in National Institute for Urban Schools Improvement, 2001: 5). Decisions about referral to special education start with one individual; the teacher and that person’s ability to damage a child’s future if they do not work on their own sensitivity, cultural competence, and awareness is frightening.

Conclusion

The article, Schools That Work says that “90 percent of the nation’s school age kids spend more than a third of their waking lives in public school buildings” (Weissbourd, ). How can an impaired educational system help all students realize their full potential? “Comer believes that teaching children effectively means addressing all the elements that children need to grow, rather than focusing on education in the narrow sense” (Weissbourd, ). Educational reform is a familiar battle cry. A number of successful model schools were introduced in this class; “combining aspects of these various model schools” could result in some very positive outcomes (Weissboud, ). Let us hope that the reform battle cry morphs into the application of dynamic and on-going educational transformation because student needs keep changing and thus, so must our response.