Our state of NH is first in the nation in the horrendous heroin epidemic. Our Governor has appointed a “senior director for substance misuse and behavioral health” who is focusing on prevention by proposing “curriculum infusion” in our schools from kindergarten on up. I applaud this efforts highlighting prevention, which is intended to raise children’s awareness of how their bodies work—and don’t work.
However, when I see the word prevention connected to any program dealing with children’s well-being, I am no longer surprised by the blatant neglect of addressing the root of prevention—the family. Whether we are talking about bullying, resilience, school success, drugs and alcohol, high risk behaviors, you name it—the preventative factors begin at home in the parent-child relationship.
I’m sure that many teachers and administrators will agree with me that we over-stress schools with the work that should be done at home. While it most definitely needs to continue in schools, if the true work of prevention is not handled at home, schools cannot be accountable for filling the child’s need for connection.
And that of course leads to the neglect of our society placing high value on the most difficult job in the world—parenting.
Why are we not talking about parent education and support when we talk about prevention? Are we afraid to touch the home environment; are we afraid that it will look like we are pointing fingers at parents? Are we even aware that we continually refuse to support the source, the foundation of prevention, self-confidence, self-esteem, and resilience? All of which stem from strong, connected relationships the child can count on to be heard, understood, and 100% unconditionally accepted.
Blame should never be placed on the parent when we truly understand the dearth of support and education that parents should expect for the toughest job on the planet. I blame our culture for leaving our families in the lurch, for creating an economy that forces most parents into the work force and leaving children in less than excellent un-subsidized day care programs; the culture that has taught us for eons that we must reward and punish our children for their behavior; the culture that does not understand the needs of our struggling families much less the needs of children.
In my experience, most parents are hungry to learn new ways of raising their children because most parents are left with the only training we each have: Years and years of the parenting they experienced. The 21st century requires children to be raised knowing how to take responsibility for themselves and to resolve problems with effective communication and problem-solving skills. Few of us were raised with anything but 19th century parenting. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need new ways of relating to 21st century children.
Most parents do not seek the help that already may be available to them because that help is not valued, talked about as critically important, given media coverage, or funded by a government that understands the dire need. Many parents don’t know how to break the cycles of abuse, stress or addiction from their past. Although the desire is there, the learning is not, so they stick with the old standbys—and the patterns remain. Our culture says that we should all know how to parent, that it should come naturally. Our culture does not say we need to learn new ways to support and connect with children in today’s world, and it does not recognize our families as the source for preventing so many of society’s ills.
The need crosses all socio-economic, educational and cultural divides. I have worked with parents around the world and the needs are the same. Why do prevention experts and the agencies for whom they work not underline the need for parent education programs, for ways to support our exhausted parents and to fund these programs so more and more are available?
A child’s connection to parents and family is seen again and again in prevention research as the number one factor for a child’s ability to maintain healthy choices and relationships, even in heroin addiction and recovery. Of course there are many factors other than families at work, but at the core is the child’s connection to family. At the core is whether or not a child is parent-focused or peer-focused, which determines whose values take priority in the child’s mind when faced with risk-taking decisions.
We barely understand that drug and alcohol addiction is a mental health concern rather than a bad choice requiring criminal law enforcement. How can we expect parents to know that continuing methods of blame and shame that most grew up with just lead their own children down those paths they so desperately want them to avoid?