### The Disdain America Holds for Its Youth

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During the previous summer, my children and I enjoyed a month in Greece, where their grandfather resides. Throughout our stay, I couldn’t help but notice a stark contrast in the public attitude towards children compared to what I typically experience in America: unwavering support.

On the buses in Athens, elderly women often voluntarily offered their seats to my 5- and 8-year-old daughters. I vividly recall a particular incident where a kind lady lifted my younger child onto her lap, securing her with a gentle hand under her elbow to shield her from the abrupt stops of the bus. She maintained this protective gesture for the entire journey.

In the United States, we tend to raise our children to perceive strangers not as potential helpers but as potential dangers. Concerned parents frequently monitor platforms like Nextdoor for suspicious individuals, and neighbors are quick to involve law enforcement when children venture outdoors. Even when kids are not being perceived as vulnerable, they are sometimes seen as bothersome. How many discussions have revolved around whether children should be permitted on flights, at weddings, or in dining establishments?

Every nation has its share of individuals who pose risks to children. However, the disparity in how American society treats its youth extends beyond the mere notion of “it takes a village” mentality prevalent in countries like Greece. Nearly every other developed nation allocates more government assistance for their children compared to the United States. Among the 38 countries within the primary Western trade alliance, the US ranks a lowly No. 32 in early childhood expenditure. For instance, in Sweden, single parents are entitled to an impressive 480 days of paid parental leave, and preschool expenses do not exceed 3% of a family’s total income. Conversely, America lacks mandated paid parental leave and universal childcare. Merely a third of American families can afford childcare, which typically consumes 27% of their earnings. The financial burden of childcare has driven many parents to depart major urban centers due to the unmanageable costs, while those in rural areas often struggle to secure adequate childcare services.

The issue of neglect towards children in America transcends the deficiency in daycare facilities. Infants in the US face a higher risk of mortality during childbirth compared to infants in other affluent nations, and American newborns are more likely to grow up in impoverished conditions. Many children attend public schools that are in dire need of repair. Children subjected to neglect—often associated with poverty—are placed in a foster care system notorious for its tendency to inflict harm on vulnerable children. The scarcity of foster families is so severe that numerous children end up being temporarily accommodated in unconventional settings such as casinos, office buildings, and juvenile detention centers. Notably, the US stands as the sole member of the United Nations that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty encompassing the right to protection from violence and exploitation. In states like Oregon, children as young as 9 are permitted to engage in agricultural labor, and several states are contemplating loosening already feeble child labor regulations to compel teenagers to work extended hours. Tragically, gun violence stands as the leading cause of death among American children and adolescents.

All these circumstances beg the question: Why does America exhibit such disregard for its youth?

Superficially, America has always professed a deep affection for its children and those who nurture them. Women are indoctrinated from a young age with the belief that motherhood represents “the most important job in the world” and that “children are our future.” George Washington purportedly declared, “All I am I owe to my mother.” Annually, during Mother’s Day, we are inundated with sentimental advertisements extolling the family as the fundamental unit of American society.

America has always professed a deep affection for its children and caregivers.

Jesse Zhang for Business Insider

However, in practice, the glorification of motherhood has not functioned as a mechanism to support children but rather as a tool to confine women to domestic roles—simultaneously thwarting efforts to establish a more comprehensive and supportive childcare system. Despite women’s significant contributions to the American workforce, the resistance to expanding childcare provisions has endured steadfastly. In 2021, Idaho State Representative Charlie Shepherd explicitly linked his vote against state funding for early childhood education to his belief in the superiority of mothers’ caregiving within the home. He stated, “I don’t think anybody does a better job than mothers in the home. And any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.” (Although he later issued an apology following public backlash, his initial sentiments were unmistakably clear.)

America has frequently cited the Red Scare as a pretext for neglecting its children. In 1971, the nation stood on the brink of implementing universal childcare. A bill had successfully navigated through both the House and Senate, poised to establish federally funded childcare centers nationwide.

Nevertheless, a group of Republican figures persuaded President Richard Nixon to veto the legislation, citing concerns about communism undermining the traditional American family structure. Nixon articulated his opposition to endorsing “communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach” by deploying the vast moral authority of the federal government. According to Nixon, children should be raised exclusively by their mothers, without any external state assistance.

The sole instance in which America briefly embraced a form of universal childcare was during World War II, a period marked by the absence of men who were fulfilling crucial manufacturing roles. The Lanham Act facilitated the creation of a patchwork childcare system administered by churches, community centers, and major corporations. Regrettably, once the war concluded and men returned to the workforce, the program was swiftly terminated, despite fervent protests by numerous women advocating for its continuation.


The predicament worsens for marginalized communities; racism is deeply ingrained in the fabric of family life in America. Initially, caregiving duties in white households were shouldered by enslaved Black women. When President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, he specifically excluded domestic workers—predominantly women of color—from receiving Social Security benefits and labor safeguards. Consequently, women engaged in caring for other families’ children were stripped of the economic empowerment necessary to support their own children or afford adequate caregiving services. Consequently, childcare remains one of the most underpaid professions in America, despite the escalating costs associated with delivering this essential service. The prevailing system leaves the majority of American families incapable of remunerating caregivers adequately, while many childcare providers struggle to subsist on their meager earnings. Alarmingly, nearly one-third of childcare workers have encountered food insecurity, and over 100,000 have sought alternative employment since the onset of the pandemic, driven by the urgent need for better compensation.

The pandemic briefly illuminated America’s stark deficiencies in child welfare. Educators, hesitant to return to classrooms prior to the availability of vaccines, condemned the deplorable conditions to which children were subjected in schools: malfunctioning or contaminated water sources, widespread mold infestations, and inadequately ventilated spaces with sealed windows. Meanwhile, school administrators and policymakers unabashedly underscored the necessity of school attendance due to the guaranteed provision of regular meals for many children. In 2021, as childcare expenses surged by over 40%, Congress allocated substantial financial aid to states for stabilizing childcare services and extended monetary assistance and additional tax refunds to parents to support their children. Consequently, child poverty plummeted by 40% seemingly overnight.

Schools represented a vital source of consistent meals for many children.

Jesse Zhang for Business Insider

Regrettably, these vital interventions were short-lived. Following the expiration of emergency federal subsidies last autumn—a juncture identified by policy experts as the “childcare cliff”—an estimated 3 million children were abruptly left without adequate childcare. Despite the undeniable success of the expanded child tax credit and fervent advocacy by policy organizations, religious leaders, and parents, Congress opted to terminate the program. Consequently, child poverty surged from 5% in 2021 to over 12% in 2022.

The decision to discontinue these crucial initiatives reflects a profound neglect for children. Senator Joe Manchin, who advocated for the cessation of the child tax credit, callously expressed no remorse, asserting, “The federal government can’t run everything.”

In Athens, my children and I would stroll in the evenings to a bustling square teeming with children engaged in soccer games, relishing ice cream, and playfully bantering with each other as their parents observed from nearby eateries or adjacent residences. Within that small expanse of pavement, it felt like a realm tailored for children, where adults served as accommodating guests.

During that same summer, while Greek children reveled in the public square, a 9-year-old girl named Serabi Medina was tragically shot in the head at a serene Chicago park where she had been cycling and savoring ice cream with her father. The perpetrator was a neighbor who had voiced grievances about the noise generated by children in his building. He legally acquired a firearm and callously deployed it to fatally wound Serabi for merely existing in his vicinity.

Her untimely demise is not an isolated incident. American children account for a staggering 97% of child fatalities resulting from gun violence among the 38 prominent Western nations. Each bullet fired is accompanied by a harrowing narrative: a 1-year-old inadvertently killed by their 3-year-old sibling with an unattended firearm, a 7-year-old struck by a stray bullet during a dispute over watercraft, a 4-year-old sustaining a gunshot wound to the chest during a misguided lesson on “gun safety.” The situation is even direr for children of color, with Black children being five times more susceptible to gun-related fatalities than their white counterparts, often falling victim in neighborhoods scarred by historical redlining and prolonged neglect by federal and state authorities.

The same politicians who attribute gun violence to mental illness evade enhancing mental health services, adequately funding educational institutions, or fortifying social safety nets

Mass shootings further exacerbate the crisis. In the tragic episodes of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Uvalde, Texas, the perpetrators were barely beyond adolescence themselves, abandoned by a society and family members whom they also harmed or killed. Over 95% of American schools conduct active-shooter drills, and companies market bulletproof backpacks and secure enclosures for classrooms.

Lawmakers frequently allude to the “mental health crisis,” especially concerning gun violence, as a tactic to circumvent any revisions to gun legislation. Undeniably, a genuine crisis exists: even prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a mounting trend of despondency and despair among young individuals over the past decade. Disturbingly, the racial disparity is stark. Between 1991 and 2019, suicide attempts among Black adolescents surged by 80%.

Nonetheless, the very politicians who attribute gun violence to mental health issues exhibit a reluctance to enhance mental health services, adequately fund educational institutions, or fortify social safety nets, let alone outlaw the instruments of mass destruction utilized to perpetrate violence against America’s children. Caregivers of children grappling with mental health crises often find themselves at overwhelmed emergency departments, enduring prolonged waits for admission to treatment facilities. Some distressed caretakers, facing financial ruin, have contemplated relinquishing children requiring acute care to state custody, merely to secure a minimum standard of assistance.

The pervasive absence of care—whether in the form of childcare, healthcare, or a sense of communal camaraderie—imposes a heavy burden on American parents. Many individuals, compelled to work extended hours, are left with no alternative but to entrust their children to their own devices, neighbors, or bring them to their workplaces. In 2019, a tragic incident saw a 3-year-old boy drown in a grease trap at the grocery store where his mother was employed. Bereft of childcare options that day and reliant on the hours to sustain their living arrangements, the mother faced an unimaginable loss.

Our children are not only devoid of adequate care but are also deprived of the opportunity to cultivate self-sufficiency.

Jesse Zhang for Business Insider

Parents across all income brackets have become hyper-vigilant, fostering elaborate forms of parenting that pit children against each other in a relentless pursuit of limited educational and enrichment resources—a phenomenon aptly termed “intensive parenting” or “a style of child-rearing tailored for an era of inequality.” Witnessing parents compete for swimming lessons in locales like my city, where affordable options are scarce, epitomizes this phenomenon. Within a landscape shaped by scarcity and competition, parents are increasingly hesitant to allow their children the freedom to explore their unique interests, fearing potential reports to Child Protective Services. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics identified a primary factor contributing to the surge in mental health disorders as “a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.” Consequently, our children not only lack adequate care but are also denied the opportunity to acquire essential self-care skills.

Americans, particularly those marginalized by federal and societal policies, have persistently resisted the nation’s insular approach to structuring family life. Black women spearheaded early childhood education efforts for children excluded from racially exclusive or non-existent kindergartens. Post-World War II, women mobilized to preserve the Lanham Act nurseries and advocated for the establishment of similar programs in their respective states. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers initiated a groundbreaking free breakfast program for schoolchildren long before the federal government embraced the cause. Presently, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, led by women of color, spearheads initiatives to establish comprehensive childcare policies. Informal mutual aid groups across the nation have united to serve homeless communities, many of which comprise families with children.

Emerging from the upheaval of the pandemic, calls for America to prioritize the welfare of its children have grown more resounding. Teenagers are actively engaging with congressional representatives to advocate for gun law reforms. Educators are staging strikes nationwide to demand better compensation, enhanced support for students, and improved classroom conditions. In 2020, the county encompassing Portland, Oregon, overwhelmingly passed a community-driven measure to implement universal preschool funded by a tax on the highest earners. In 2022, New Mexico became the inaugural state to offer nearly universal free childcare. Subsequent to the discontinuation of the expanded child tax credit last year, six states introduced new child tax credits, while five others expanded existing credits.

The act of raising a family was never intended to be an isolated endeavor.

Jesse Zhang for Business Insider

Nonetheless, effecting substantial change in America’s entrenched culture of child neglect necessitates more than fragmented public policies. Fundamentally, we must dismantle the enduring fallacy of rugged individualism—the distorted American mythos that champions self-sufficiency at any cost. To rear children with the care and compassion they deserve, we must cultivate a collective consciousness, recognizing ourselves as part of a broader community. In essence, we must foster a vision of communal solidarity that counters the divisive policies perpetuated by America.

Recalling the compassionate gesture of the woman on the bus in Athens, safeguarding my daughter’s well-being, I am reminded that the journey of parenthood was never meant to be solitary. As parents, we have been thrust into a competitive environment by the national ethos, each family striving to shield their children and secure the best opportunities available. However, we are not alone. For the betterment of our children, we must ensure that they are not left isolated either.

Lydia Kiesling is a renowned author, celebrated for her novels The Golden State and Mobility. Her insightful essays and nonfiction pieces have graced prestigious publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker online, and The Cut._

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