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Ventura County Perspective

Parents Need to Say More Than 'No'

Conversations with kids are the do-right alternative to more don'ts.

July 18, 1999|SARAH ASPLIN | Sarah Asplin, a 16-year-old senior at Santa Susana High School, is a member of the Simi Valley Youth Council and chairs its teen crisis education committee

Have you ever wondered why you need a license to drive a car, to get a dog or to become a doctor, but you do not need one to become a parent? If children are, as they say, "the future," why don't we consider parenting a more important--if not the most important--part of our society?

Since the 1950s and '60s, American culture has shifted from the ideal two-parent household toward a single-parent or stepparent reality. In most homes, even if two parents are present, both are out of the house for at least an eight-hour workday, when the primary caregiver is a teacher or a baby-sitter (or the television).

American children are growing up in unstable homes without effective and accessible role models. And yet, they are expected to grow up as stable, productive members of our communities.

In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, politicians and other lawmakers have been quick to point fingers at what they believe are the sources of teen angst, including violent movies and TV shows, certain musicians, video games and the lack of prayer in public schools. What they cannot see is that the sources are in every family and every home in America.

According to Jody Miller, a professor of human development at Moorpark College, we develop most of our vital characteristics before the age of 17. Children develop their senses of trust or mistrust and self-esteem along with walking, talking, motor skills, verbal and written language, socialization, morals and other necessary human traits. These stages are described in Erik Erikson's theory, "The Eight Stages of Man."

All or most of these characteristics are first developed in our families, when children are encouraged by their parents to explore these areas. Given a healthy learning environment, most youth can develop these characteristics. Conversely, if stifled, ignored or constantly put down by adults, a child can develop a sense of failure that brands him or her for years.

Following violent situations such as the Columbine High shootings, some people have become so busy blaming everyone else that they fail to recognize their own responsibility in times of crisis. Instead, lawmakers impose harsh new restrictions on the millions of other young people in this country, including a new wave of curfews, stronger school dress codes and limits on body piercing. These laws treat young people as criminals instead of praising them for making better choices than the two accused gunmen. If every parent took the time to tell their children, "I love you," we would be in a much safer and happier world than we will be by following the backlash from these laws. By taking away civil liberties we encourage rebellion. By seeing young people as resources instead of as statistics, we teach them to cherish their own lives and discourage destruction.

Ideally, helping mothers and fathers to improve their parenting skills would improve the quality of life for many youth. However, it is unrealistic to reach all parents. Instead, society needs to see that these responsibilities are not restricted to parents alone but are shared by any adult who makes a difference in the life of a child. As the proverb goes, "It takes a village to raise a child."

All adults have the potential to show children that they are valuable. When youth feel valuable they are likely to value themselves and those around them, channeling their energy toward activities and causes that promote strong character and positive values.

To really help children, adults need to stop pointing fingers and start listening to the voices that cry out to them. Adults would be surprised by how much the youth in their communities would tell them if the youth felt they were being listened to and could speak freely without fear of consequences. If youth were trusted with responsibilities and given fair opportunities to explore their potential, they would be likely to show not only ability, but also passion and perseverance. And youth who make positive impacts on their communities deserve to be recognized.

There will always be youth who choose the wrong path. There will always be rebels and underachievers--and no laws will change that. Students with violent intentions will not think about the consequences of their actions until it is too late. Instead, these laws violate the civil rights of millions of productive young people who deserve the right to prove their own ability to judge right from wrong.

By continuing to restrict youth, we categorize them as criminals and make them feel isolated to a world where their judgment is considered unworthy and unappreciated.

Instead, every adult should take an hour each night and spend it with a child. Take a child to a movie, out to dinner or to the park. Ask your child, "How was your day?" or "What do you want to do tonight?" or maybe just say, "You are special, and I love you."

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