How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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Education Needs Separation From State

Once again we approach that saddest time of the year: when the majority of parents send their kids back to school; back into the local government concentration day-camps.

If you’re someone who mistakes schooling for education you probably believe this is good.

School is a socialist babysitting system funded by your neighbors. If you’re OK with forcing others to fund things you want, then go ahead and support the government schools. I can’t support socialism.

Schooling is also a system where organized bullying is cheered while the freelance competition, provided by the victims’ peers, is officially frowned upon. I oppose all bullying.

I’m not saying education doesn’t happen in schools, but when it does it’s in spite of the schooling, not because of it. Kids are automatic learning machines and it’s almost impossible to short-circuit their hunger to learn. They’ll usually manage to learn everything they need to know, and more, even under the worst conditions.

The fact that many people still believe schools educate — because kids come out knowing more than they knew when they went in — is evidence of this.

The real goal of schooling is to train kids to be useful, and not too dangerous, to politicians. Don’t question too much, and only within approved boundaries. Sit down, be quiet, obey the bells, and be force-fed authoritarian propaganda.

This style of training — called the Prussian Model, after the country America copied — creates adults who are unlikely to break free from this early indoctrination and will largely comply with arbitrary orders from politicians and their attack dogs. This is useful to governments and is why governments everywhere want to control schooling.

They use the unsupportable claim “it’s for the children;” if they can also fool the adult population into believing it’s about education it works even better.

This isn’t to say the teachers are bad. Most have good intentions, they are just saddled with a toxic system. A system that shouldn’t exist. The teachers are victims almost as much as the under-aged inmates, but at least they get paid.

There are good teachers, but there are no good schools. If this claim angers you, congratulations — you are showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives (and former captives) begin to relate to their captors, even taking their side, defending them from criticism. Stockholm Syndrome makes people loyal to “their” school.

My appreciation for education explains my opposition to schooling. It is essential to separate education from the state before the damage is irreversible.

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The Practice of Listening to Find Purpose

Very often, our lives are so filled with busyness and distraction that we have no space to actually listen to what life is calling us to do.

Think about your day so far, and your day yesterday: how much of it was spent in busywork and distraction? Messaging, social media, videos and news, reading favorite websites, answering emails and doing errands, replying and reacting.

In the middle of this craziness, do we ever have space for silence? For creation, contemplation, reflection? And for a practice that I think we do too little of much of the time: listening.

The practice of listening is about creating a little space for silence, and then listening to what you need to do right now:

  • What have you committed to doing that you’re not doing?
  • Why is what you’re doing now important?
  • What do you need?
  • What do the people you care about need?
  • What are you being called on to do?
  • What would be the most impactful or meaningful thing you could do right now?
  • How do you want to spend the next month of your life?
  • What do you care most deeply about? Are you willing to commit yourself to it?

These are the kinds of questions to ask in this purposeful listening practice. But more important than the questions is how you listen:

  1. Create some space by taking a break from devices and busyness. Stop and get somewhere where you can have stillness — a walk in nature, dropping into sitting meditation, dropping into child’s pose on the floor, having a cup of tea, sitting out on your porch, finding a bench in a park.
  2. Now just find silence and stillness and ask a question. You can ask any of the questions above, or whatever feels important for you right now. One of my favorites is, “What am I being called to do right now?”
  3. Keep yourself in that stillness and silence, and listen for the answer. Breathe deeply. Feel how your body feels right now. And then listen to the answer that comes up for you. Your gut has an answer. Maybe it’s not the perfect answer, but it’s something to start with. Listen until you have clarity.

It’s that simple. Pause in a moment of stillness and silence. Ask a question. Listen for the answer.

This can be used in all areas of your life: your relationships, your health, your finances, your work, your meaningful contribution to the world.

How can you practice this throughout the day?

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Understand What You Ridicule

I’m beginning to wonder if the person more dangerous than the overt anti-liberty bigot is the person who doesn’t even understand what liberty or natural human rights are to begin with. Ignorance may be even more dangerous than openly advocating evil. Of course, ignorance can lead one to openly advocate evil, too.

I saw a lot of ignorance after the evil losers’ recent shootings.

Scott Adams is a prime example.

He advocated (while denying he was advocating anything) a lot of anti-liberty ideas founded on his utter lack of understanding of liberty and rights, and of guns and human nature (which surprised me*)– and on his rejection of the concept of ethical principles. Of course, he claimed anyone who stood firm for human rights is “dumb” and hinted they are not part of “the adult conversation”– his go-to for shutting down people who disagree on principle because they actually have principles. (Although many of his listeners seem to be as unprincipled and ignorant as he is, judging by the comments he mentions.)

He’s dead wrong again.

He’s not the only one.

If you don’t understand brain surgery, should you be making fun of the opinions about brain surgery held by those who do understand it? Only if you are arrogant and foolish.

Well, if you don’t understand what liberty is and why it matters you have no business preaching at others against it. If you don’t understand guns or the natural human right to own and to carry them, your opinions on the topic are invalid. Of course, this probably won’t matter to you if you laugh at the notion of ethical principles, and only want to have things your way.

Principles are scary to those without them. Principles take some options off the table. You can’t excuse slavery and democide without ignoring principles or making up fake “principles” which leave room for such things. They don’t even know how to talk about things and events without relying on utilitarianism and pragmatism. So they try to trivialize or ridicule principles.

Adults have principles.

The childish person just excuses whatever they feel like doing by finding ways to justify it after they’ve decided to do it. If you can’t grasp the fundamentals of the topic of conversation– be it brain surgery, liberty, or guns– this is even easier for you to do.


*He suggested that in a hypothetical world where all AR15s are pink, losers wouldn’t feel “cool” using them to murder people. He’s wrong about that. In a world where all AR15s are pink, pink guns are “cool”. Just like black guns are “cool” in our world. It’s not the color which makes the gun “cool”, it’s the gun that makes the color “cool”. I’m almost shocked someone who claims to understand human nature so well could miss that so badly.

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Reverse Birth Control: A Thought Experiment

Some prominent sociologists argue that teen pregnancy, when it occurs, is functional.  Teen pregnancy is a foolish life choice for middle-class teens, because they’re sacrificing bright futures.  Lower-class teens, in contrast, don’t have bright futures to sacrifice, so why wait to become a parent?  I’m skeptical of the underlying counter-factuals, but never mind that.  Frank Furstenberg’s “Teenage Childbearing and Cultural Rationality” (Family Relations, 1992) rebuts the functionalists with a thought experiment that is as powerful as it is concise:

[I]f they had to take a pill for a month in order to become pregnant, relatively few teenagers, especially those of school age, would become parents. And, if they had to obtain permission from their parents to take that pregnancy pill, very few parents would give their consent.

In other words, the main source of teen pregnancy is just impulsiveness.  If youths act on their immediate feelings, pregnancy swiftly follows whether they want to get pregnant or not.

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Don’t Let Mass Shooters and the New York Times Destroy Freedom of Speech

“Online communities like 4chan and 8chan have become hotbeds of white nationalist activity,” wrote the editors of the New York Times  on August 4 in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Then: “Law enforcement currently offers few answers as to how to contain these communities.”

Wait, what? Is the Times really implying what it looks like they’re implying? Yes.

“Technology companies have a responsibility to de-platform white nationalist propaganda and communities as they did ISIS propaganda,” the editorial continues. “And if the technology companies refuse to step up, law enforcement has a duty to vigilantly monitor and end the anonymity, via search warrants, of those who openly plot attacks in murky forums.”

Translation: The New York Times has announced its flight from the battlefield of ideas. Instead of countering bad ideas with good ideas, they want Big Tech and Big Government to forcibly suppress the ideas they disagree with.

Not so long ago, the Times‘s editors endorsed a very different view:

“One of the Internet’s great strengths is that a single blogger or a small political group can inexpensively create a Web page that is just as accessible to the world as Microsoft’s home page. But this democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like.”

Now the Times says providers have a “responsibility” to block access to sites the Times doesn’t like. That’s quite a change. And an ugly one.

There are plenty of good reasons, both moral and practical, to oppose the suppression of white nationalist and other “extremist” web platforms.

Free speech is a core moral value for any society that aspires to freedom of any kind and to any degree. We must — MUST — have the right to form our own opinions, and to express those opinions, no matter how ugly others may find those opinions. Without that freedom, no other freedoms can survive.

As a practical matter, “extremists,” like everyone else, will choose to state, promote, and argue for their beliefs. If they can do so in public, those beliefs can be engaged and argued against. If they can’t do so in public, they’ll do so in private, without anyone to convince them (and those they quietly bring into their circles over time) of the error of their ways. The rest of us won’t have a clue what might be in the offing — until the guns come out, that is.

It’s appalling to see the New York Times endorsing an end to the freedom that undergirds its very existence and the prerogatives of every other newspaper and soapbox speaker in America. The only substantive difference between the editors’ position and that of the El Paso shooter, allegedly one Patrick Crusius, is that the shooter did his own dirty work.

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