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What Americans Say About Children

Study: A survey that includes 2,000 adults shows that most blame parents for kids' wild behavior.


Solidifying growing pessimism about today's youth, a new public opinion study reports that most people have negative feelings about children--even 5-to-12-year-olds--and they blame parents for a perceived increase in wild, rude and frightening behavior. If there is any hope for improving children's values, it is in schools and volunteer groups, said those surveyed.

Only 37% of respondents said they believe today's children, once grown, will make the country a better place, according to a national survey by Public Agenda, a New York-based opinion research firm.

The study, released today in Chicago, "Kids These Days: What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation," was based on national telephone surveys of 2,000 randomly selected adults, 600 young people, and six focus groups, and funded by Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Advertising Council. Funders said they wanted to understand what keeps the public from interceding on behalf of children in the face of obviously deteriorating conditions and why youth charities haven't made more progress.

Ruth Wooden, president of the New York-based Advertising Council, said: " This may be a hard message to hear, but what the public was telling us is that they see these kids having a really poor character development, and their perception is driving the barriers for making change."

Participants said parents tend to have children before they're ready, give them presents instead of guidance and attention, and fail to discipline them. Only 1 in 5 said it is very common for parents to be good role models or teach them right from wrong. Half believe in tougher punishment for those children who commit crimes, and 53% favor nighttime curfews, which some courts have been striking down.

More than government programs, most agreed that schools, community centers and volunteer organizations can help solve the problems by reinforcing values that parents should teach: integrity, ethical behavior, concern for others, respect, civility, compassion and responsibility.

However, only 34% said they regularly volunteer, even though most said they could find the extra time. The main obstacle to volunteering was discomfort over intruding into someone else's life. "Reserve and hesitancy have overwhelmed old-fashioned 'neighborliness,' " said the report.

As a result of the survey, Ken Barun, president of Ronald McDonald House Charities, said his organization would target its giving to mentoring programs for adults, parenting programs and particularly a major after-school project in Chicago.

Some youth advocates said such perceptions may be misinformed, largely because many adults shape their opinions from sensational news coverage and studies that focus on problems, rather than actual contact with young people.

"It's not possible for it to be that bad because one societal institution has blown it. If it's really that bad, we've all blown it. It's important to have that sense of shared responsibility," said Peter Scales, senior fellow for the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, a private research firm focusing on youth.

Richard M. Lerner, director of the Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships at Boston College, agreed that values and parent responsibility are a key issue around the country. But, he said, "If parents are saying parents are failing and then say, 'We need to fix the schools,' they're missing the point. That very statement is the problem that's causing the issue in the first place. We as a group are the other people."

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