We know that children raised in a home with loving parents who are able to respond to the child’s needs both physically and — perhaps most importantly — emotionally, have the best chance to become happy and healthy adults. Unfortunately, as beloved pediatrician C. Henry Kemp observed decades ago, there are families who “love their children very much but not very well.”
What does it take for a child to grow up safe and protected from harm? This is something pediatricians think about constantly. They believe all children should grow up in an environment that lets them learn, grow, and create on their journey to becoming a happy and successful adult. We are fortunate to live in a caring community, and I believe we do a lot of this work in our everyday lives by being a loving, mindful parent (if you have children), and by paying attention to the families and children around us.
How can we help families in our community who are struggling while trying to raise children? Perhaps there is someone in your family, your church, or your neighborhood who is struggling with emotional problems, substance abuse, or violence in their home. My advice is to find a private and loving way to ask them if you can help. They may be ready to ask for help and you have provided the opportunity to start the process. I am not suggesting that you will be able to fix the problem, but being willing to hold their hand for those first few steps can make a big difference. There are many other ways to help families who are struggling — offering to help with transportation, bringing a meal on hectic days, offering or trading child care, or being the understanding co-worker when they need to miss work to attend to a sick child — are all kind gestures that can go a long way.
In some cases, we may become concerned that a child is being abused or neglected. When this happens, we have a legal responsibility to report this concern to Child Protective Services. This will bring in professionals who will investigate and work with families to make sure children are protected and guide them to the appropriate services.
As a child abuse pediatrician, I unfortunately see the consequences each and every day that unsupportive and unsafe environments have on children. As a result, I often find myself playing the game of “what ifs” — dreaming of a world that becomes the best place to raise children. Imagine with me how different our world could be for children if:
Our society would finally acknowledge that those caring for and teaching our children, our parents and teachers, have the most important jobs in the world.
A parent who puts aside a career and chooses to stay home to care for a child would be given a tax benefit that recognizes the need and value of this contribution to a healthy society.
Employers embrace parents and would have policies that allow flexible work schedules. A parent would be able to take care of a sick child or go to school to stand up and cheer at an awards assembly (this also means that we as co-workers would step up when our colleagues need to be out, and, as consumers, we would be willing to accept that staffing flexibility may mean we may pay more or have to wait longer for services).
All teachers would be required to have the highest levels of education and be among the highest paid in our society (during my visits to elementary school to help with projects for an energetic class, though I didn’t know what my child’s teacher was being paid, I immediately realized that it could not possibly be enough). Well-funded research would allow our teachers to develop the most effective educational methods on the planet. Every child would have an IEP (individual education plan). We would figure out how to keep children in school, drastically reduce our dropout rates, and help our children discover their passions and apply them to find meaningful careers.
Our schools would have sufficient resources to grow the programs that recognize early on when students are struggling, not just academically, but socially and emotionally. Thoughtful, evidence-based interventions would be provided to children being bullied and, perhaps more particularly, for those who have become bullies. Because we would address these behavioral issues quickly and effectively, these children would learn how to have healthy, successful relationships.
Parents struggling with mental illness or substance abuse would have readily accessible, affordable, evidence-based treatments that help them get back on track. These conditions would be recognized as medical problems without the stigma that might keep someone from reaching out and asking for help.
While we are far from achieving my dream world, I know there are people in our community working in many of the areas on this wish list. To them, I say a resounding THANK YOU. For the rest of us, let’s continue to be nurturing parents, helpful family members, thoughtful neighbors, coworkers, or employers. By making a conscious effort to support and strengthen families in our community, we can all play a role in keeping children safe and helping them reach their full potential.