It is time for adults of every race and income group to break our silence about the pervasive breakdown of moral, family, and community values, to place our children first in our lives, and to struggle to model the behavior we want our children to learn. School children don’t need one more “Officer Slam” as some students referred to the White South Carolina school resource officer who this week shamed the nation with his violent ejection of a 16-year-old Black female student from her classroomfor a nonviolent offense.
A very welcome counter narrative took place when a White female police officer in Washington, D.C. after diffusing a potentially volatile conflict between two groups of Black teens, then charmed with a “dance off” a defiant teen-age girl who had refused to leave.
Any parent who has gone through the challenges of adolescence could only admire the quick thinking and agile footwork of the D.C. police officer. The last thing children need is violent assaults in schools which ought to be safe havens, and a suspension, expulsion and arrest to blot their school records and push them closer to the prison pipeline. And the very last thing children need is out-of-control adults using violence as a way of resolving differences.
I am often asked what’s wrong with our children and I almost always answer, adults are what’s wrong. We tell our children to control themselves while slapping and spanking and treating them violently in our homes, child care centers, schools, detention facilities and prisons. Adults tell children to be honest while lying and cheating and not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence.
I urge every parent, adult, educator, faith and public leader to conduct a personal audit to determine whether we are contributing to the crisis our children face or to the solutions they urgently need. And if we are not a part of the solution, we are a part of the problem and need to do better.
Our children don't need or expect us to be perfect. They do need and expect us to be honest, to admit and correct our mistakes, and to share our struggles about the meanings and responsibilities of faith, parenthood, citizenship, and life. Before we can pull up the moral weeds of violence, materialism, and greed in our society that are strangling so many of our young, we must pull up the moral weeds in our own backyards and educational institutions. So many children are confused about what is right and wrong because so many adults talk right and do wrong in our personal, professional, and public lives.
If we are not supporting a child we brought into the world as a father or mother with attention, time, love, discipline, and the teaching of values, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to the family breakdown today that is leaving so many children at risk.
If we are abusing tobacco, alcohol or other drugs while telling our children not to, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution in our overly addicted society.
If we have unlocked and loaded guns in our home and cars, and rely on them to feel safe and powerful, and don't stand up to those who market guns to our children and to those who kill our children with guns, or glamorize violence as fun, entertaining, and normal, then we are part of the problem rather than the solution to the escalating war of American against American, family member against family member, and children against adults and adults against children that is tearing us apart.
If we profess to be people of faith and send rather than take our children to worship and religious education services, and believe that the Sermon on the Mount, Ten Commandments, the Koran, or whatever religious beliefs we hold, pertain only to one-day worship but not to Monday through Sunday home, professional, and political life, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to the spiritual famine and hypocrisy plaguing America today.
If we tell, snicker, or wink at racial, gender, religious, or ethnic jokes or engage in or acquiesce in any practices intended to diminish rather than enhance other human beings, then we are contributing to the proliferating voices of racial and ethnic division and intolerance staining our land again. Let's not fight the civil war or repeat the worst lessons of our past. Let's prepare for the future in an irreversibly interconnected world that is majority non-White and poor.
If we think being American is about how much we can get rather than about how much we can give and share to help all our children get a healthy, fair, and safe start in life, and sucessful transition to college and productive work in our boastfully wealthy nation and are unable and unwilling to support a concept of enough for the poor among us then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution.
If we or our organizations are spending more money on alcohol and entertainment than on scholarships, books, tutoring, rites of passage, and mentoring programs for youths, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to ensuring positive alternatives to the streets and drug dealers for children.
If we'd rather talk the talk than walk the walk to the voting booths, school board meetings, political forums, PTA, congregation and community meetings to organize community and political support on all sides of the aisle for our children, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution.
If we are not voting and holding political leaders at every level and in every party accountable for investing relative pennies in quality early childhood opportunities, education, housing for homeless children and jobs – jobs with dignity and decent wages – and billions in the military budget, and for cutting investments for poor mothers and children while protecting massive government welfare for rich farmers and over-paid corporate executives, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to the undemocratic injustice and growing gap between rich and poor.
And if we think we have ours and don't owe any time or money or effort to lend a hand to voteless, voiceless, hungry, homeless, miseducated, neglected and abused children, then we are a part of the problem rather than the solution to the fraying social fabric and violence and uncertainty that threatens all Americans.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.