“Meatless Mondays” and the Rise of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

One of our favorite family poems is Shel Silverstein’s “Point Of View.” It’s witty without being preachy yet prompts the listener to more thoughtfully consider the act of meat-eating: “Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless/ Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. /When you stop and try to see it/ From the turkey’s point of view.”

Reading this poem reinforces the idea that eating meat or not eating meat is a personal choice, a lifestyle decision that may be rooted in one’s own sense of right and wrong. There are many social, cultural, and individual reasons why someone might be a carnivore or a vegetarian. It’s a private decision of the home and family.

Private Choice or Public Policy?

Except when it isn’t. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that all New York City public schools would enact “Meatless Mondays,” avoiding any meat offerings during Monday school breakfasts and lunches beginning this fall. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The mayor acknowledges that vegetarianism is a personal choice. At a press conference announcing his new vegetarian agenda, he stated: “So, for me, this is very personal, because – and I will say up front, I eat meat and I eat vegetarian dishes and I try and strike a balance between the two. But I have two vegetarians in my home and they feel very strongly about this.”

Mayor de Blasio’s family members apparently feel very strongly about their personal choice to be vegetarians. Good for them. The issue is when someone’s personal preferences become public policy. The mayor explains in his speech that sometimes we need those philosopher-kings to guide the masses: “Sometimes it’s our elected officials who are the trailblazers and the visionaries.”

How about letting individuals and families make their own choices about what to eat? Should government officials really have the power to decide what you put into your own body?

There are, thankfully, ways around the Meatless Monday mandate. New York City parents can pack their own child’s meals, with meat if they choose. As I’ve written previously, these homemade lunches are a much healthier option for children than the USDA-issued variety. Parents can also opt-out of public schooling altogether, something more parents are doing in New York City and elsewhere to regain control over their children’s education.

Government Mandating Subjective Decisions

The Meatless Monday plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government dictates on right and wrong, often using compulsory government schools to influence young people. Comprehensive sex education curriculum mandates in public schools continue to spark controversy, challenging various belief systems and family preferences. And the push to introduce “character education” into schools as a way to boost students’ moral compasses begs the question of whose moral compass will be used.

In a pluralistic society, state mandates on morality are inevitably contentious. A new report by Boston’s Pioneer Institute examines the growing impact of SEL, or the widespread emphasis on “social-emotional learning” in schools over academic content. Through various curricula and teaching methods, SEL initiatives can mold students’ perceptions of themselves and their world in a potentially narrow way.

Jane Robbins co-authored the study, called “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” She explains,

It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children, but having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.

Individuals and families should be the ones to determine their own values and moral worldviews, not government agents—often working through public schools—dictating good and bad.

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What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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Arresting Homebirth Midwives Just Reduces Women’s Birth Choices

After being arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license last fall, a midwife in upstate New York is wondering whether or not she will go to jail for the work she has done for decades.

Elizabeth Catlin is a beloved certified professional midwife (CPM) who has caught hundreds of babies in the tight-knit community of mostly-Mennonite women near her home. According to a recent in-depth article on her ordeal, the state is cracking down on her actions, which they say are illegal.

Another Tale of Occupational Licensing

New York is one of 19 states that does not recognize the national CPM certification, a private, standards-based, intensive training and certification program for midwives across the country. Instead, New York requires midwives to have state-approved midwifery licenses through a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) designation, requiring a nursing degree, specific training, and state registration, or a Certified Midwife (CM) certification that requires a master’s degree and other stipulations.

These state licensing requirements have little to do with safety and a lot to do with bureaucratic special interests and job protectionism. Not only do they threaten the freedom and livelihood of women like Catlin, but these regulations also severely limit women’s birth choices by creating midwife shortages and driving up costs. They also make safe birth choices, like a planned homebirth attended by a trained midwife, much less safe as women choose less qualified providers or opt for an unattended homebirth.

Women choose homebirths and other out-of-hospital births (like those at a birth center) for a wide assortment of reasons. Some want more control over the delivery process, a less rushed or sterile atmosphere, and fewer restrictions while in labor. Some find homebirth fees to be lower than what they would need to pay out-of-pocket for a hospital birth. Others choose homebirth for religious or cultural reasons. Like some women, I chose homebirths for my last two children after negative hospital experiences with my first two.

Homebirth Is Fine for Most Women

Most pregnancies are uncomplicated, and many labors and deliveries, when allowed to progress without intervention, proceed as normal life events and not medical procedures. Recognizing this, Britain’s national health service recommended in 2014 that low-risk women give birth at home or in a birth center rather than in a hospital.

As The New York Times reported,

For these low-risk mothers-to-be, giving birth in a traditional maternity ward increased the chances of surgical intervention and therefore infection, the [British] regulator said.

But midwives remain heavily regulated by, and mostly funded through, the British government’s National Health Service (NHS), creating a severe shortage of available midwives and preventing many women who want a homebirth from having one. Moreover, the few midwives operating independently of the NHS face increasing regulatory pressures that threaten their ability to practice.

Hospitals Are Dangerous

In the US, demand for non-hospital births is increasing, prompted in large part by dismal maternal health outcomes. A sweeping 2018 USA Today investigative report found that the “U.S. is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world,” with more than 50,000 women “severely injured” during childbirth each year, and approximately 700 annual maternal deaths.

Many of these adverse outcomes can be linked to the rising rate of C-section deliveries that increase maternal risks associated with surgery and infection. In the US, the C-section rate climbed from 23 percent of births in 2000 to 32 percent of births in 2015. By comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that a reasonable C-section rate is about 10-15 percent of all births.

If these adverse maternal health outcomes persist, it’s likely that more women will seek alternatives like out-of-hospital births. That is, as long as state regulators, politicians, and special interest groups don’t continue to take steps like those in New York to criminalize independent midwives and actively limit women’s birth choices.

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Childhood Play and Independence Are Disappearing; Let Grow Seeks to Change That

Many of us are old enough to remember how childhood used to be. Our afternoons were spent outside playing with the neighborhood kids—no adults or cell phones in sight. Sometimes we got hurt, with occasional scraped knees or hurt egos, but we worked it out. We always knew we could go home. We had paper routes, mowed lawns, ran errands, and babysat at ages much earlier than we allow our own kids. What happened to childhood in just a generation that now prompts neighbors to call the police when they see an eight-year-old walking her dog?

The answer rests on a host of cultural changes over the last few decades. As Lenore Skenazy writes in her book, Free-Range Kids, the combination of 24-hour news media that often sensationalizes rare events like child abductions, as well as the introduction of true crime dramas, often make it seem like the world is less safe today than it used to be—despite crime statistics showing otherwise. As more mothers entered the workforce, demand for full-day kindergarten and after-school care surged, limiting opportunities for afternoon free play. Now, many parents don’t seem to value free play and childhood independence, preferring instead to focus their children’s time on structured, adult-led activities and organized extracurriculars. We have a generation of children today under constant surveillance.

I’m guilty of this, too—hovering over my kids more than I’d like to admit. I’m nervous when my older ones walk to the store or the library despite knowing that I walked much further at their age. I tell them to let me know when they arrive somewhere, although my mother said recently that it never occurred to her to ask the same of me when I was young. Despite a much safer childhood today, we worry more about children and subsequently limit their freedom and independence.

Let Grow

Some parents and educators are pushing back on this troubling trend. Skenazy is now president of Let Grow, a non-profit organization that she co-founded to help families and communities recapture childhood independence and play. One of their most successful initiatives involves teaming up with interested school districts across the country to assign Let Grow Projects to elementary and middle school students. Teachers tell their students to go home and do something independently that they haven’t done before—with their parents’ permission. Some of these projects might be to make themselves a sandwich or ride their bike to the store. As Skenazy told me in a recent interview: “This is so simple but so transformative. We are trying to renormalize letting go.”

Skenazy described one town in Connecticut that has implemented the Let Grow Project community-wide. She explained how an elementary school-age child rode his bike to a local market. At first, the shopkeepers were concerned. Where was the boy’s parent? Why was he alone? When he explained he was doing a Let Grow Project for school and his task was to go to the market by himself, the shopkeepers relaxed. As more children visited, the shopkeepers and customers became accustomed to welcoming children into the store. It became less unusual, less alarming—more like it used to be. All of the resources and suggestions for Let Grow Projects are available for free on the organization’s website and can be implemented by any interested family or group. “The reason we go through schools,” says Skenazy, “is so we can transform whole communities.” It’s not just the parents who are fearful of granting children more freedom and independence; it’s the community as a whole that is unaccustomed to seeing free and independent children.

That said, much of the change is focused on parents. The Let Grow Project encourages parents to give their children more autonomy, to allow kids to take age-appropriate risks and build resilience and confidence. When parents know that they are not the only ones in their community who are providing this freedom, they are more willing to try it. Once they do, they feel great joy in seeing their children successfully take on these solo challenges. Skenazy explains: “The reward for parenting is to let go so you can see what a great job you’ve done, what a great kid you’re raising. The joy is what rewires the parents.”

Bringing Back Play

While offering children more freedom and independence is a central goal of Let Grow, reclaiming childhood play is also a priority. With mounting research showing a link between the decline in play and the rise in childhood mental health disorders, Skenazy and her colleagues feel a sense of urgency in finding ways to bring back free play. The Let Grow Play Club is an initiative to get more schools to open up their playgrounds and gymnasiums for after-school free play. Adults are present to ensure safety, but the goal is for them to stay on the sidelines and allow children of mixed ages to make up their own games, work out their own conflicts, and build important life skills, like collaboration and compromise, through self-directed play. Unlike the Let Grow Project, the Play Clubs have been slower to catch-on. Skenazy thinks this is due in part to the additional, small expense of adult play supervisors, but it’s mostly related to a lack of demand for free play. “We need parents to recognize that these are the skills kids are going to need—resilience, organization, empathy, creativity, negotiation—rather than structured extracurriculars.”

It’s unfortunate, of course, that we need projects and play clubs to grant our children a taste of the freedom and fun we enjoyed as kids. But at a time when children have virtually disappeared from our neighborhood sidewalks and public spaces, efforts to reintroduce children into our communities and let them play should be widely embraced. Those of us who remember the value of an independent and play-filled childhood can be the ones to reintroduce this gift to today’s children.

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Canada’s Universal Child Care Program Suggests Elizabeth Warren’s Plan Would Be Disastrous for Children

The state does such a stellar job of nurturing and educating children from preschool through high school, we should expand its role from birth onward. That’s the new proposition unveiled this week by US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate outlined a vast federal program of free and subsidized child care for children from birth until school-entry, including creating a network of government child care centers modeled after the federal Head Start early childhood program. Warren states: “Child care is one of those things we’ve got to do for working parents and we’ve got to do for our children.”

The popular idea that the state should do things for parents, rather than allowing parents to do things for themselves and their own children, illustrates the pervasiveness of the welfare state mentality. What is framed as helping families instead strips them of their individual power and autonomy, making them more reliant on, and influenced by, government programs.

Defying Economic Laws Has Consequences

Warren’s program is to be financed through a “wealth tax” on the most asset-rich American households and reportedly assures that all child care workers will earn wages that are on par with those of local public school teachers. Like other attempts at government price-setting, however, the economic impact of such a program would inevitably be to drive up prices, reduce variety and competition, and lead to more widespread shortages.

The intentions of universal, government-funded child care may be good. Supporting children and families is a worthy ambition. But as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman warned: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” We should reject Warren’s proposal both on principle and on consequence.

The results of similar universal, government child care programs are dismal. In 2005, economists with the National Bureau of Economic Research, including Michael Baker of the University of Toronto, Jonathan Gruber of MIT, and Kevin Milligan of the University of British Columbia, analyzed the effects of Canada’s government-subsidized, universal child care program. Similar to Warren’s proposed child care plan, the Canadian program is available to all families—not just those who are disadvantaged. The researchers discovered that demand for child care increased significantly under the government plan, as more parents abandoned informal child care arrangements with family and friends in favor of regulated child care programs.

While demand increased, the researchers found that children’s emotional and physical health outcomes declined dramatically with the introduction of government-subsidized, universal child care. Children in the Quebec program experienced increased rates of anxiety and decreased social and motor skills compared to children elsewhere in Canada where this program was not offered. The researchers write:

We uncover striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.

Last fall, these economists published updated findings on their analysis of Canada’s universal child care program. Their recent research revealed similarly alarming results of government-funded child care, including a long-term negative impact of the program. They assert: “We find that the negative effects on non cognitive outcomes persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child care access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” This early institutionalization of children may have enduring, undesirable consequences.

While it’s not clear exactly what is causing the negative outcomes of Canada’s universal, government child care program, the research hints at some possibilities. A primary explanation is that the program funneled more children into government-regulated, center-based child care facilities and away from more informal child care arrangements. There was also a drop in parental care, as the opportunity cost of stay-at-home parenthood rose.

Centralizing Child Care Is Not the Solution

Proponents of universal, government child care programs often tout the expansion of allegedly “high-quality” child care options, suggesting that parental care or other unregulated child care arrangements are subpar. But who determines quality? If Canada’s program is any indication, the government’s definition of “high-quality” child care may, in fact, be harming children.

In his recent article on the economic causes of current child care shortages and correspondingly high prices, Jeffrey Tucker explains that the key to affordable, accessible daycare for all is to reduce government regulation of child care programs and providers and allow parents to choose the child care setting that best suits them and their child. Let parent preferences drive the market for child care options, not government interventions that squeeze supply, devalue informal caretaking arrangements, and unnecessarily raise the cost of stay-at-home parenthood.

We should all heed Tucker’s conclusion: “Daycare for all is a great idea. A new government program is the worst possible way to get there.”

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