Backlash against public role in childhood illuminates challenges

A firestorm ignited last month over a video promoting Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend show on MSNBC. In the video, Harris-Perry argues that, as Americans, we should “invest” more in public education because we all have a responsibility to the next generation.public role in childhood

But her choice of words provided ample kindling, so to speak, for anti-government pundits eager to argue that any public involvement in the lives of children and families is a harmful intrusion into a private space. Two phrases from Harris-Perry’s video seem to stand out in this regard. She says that, “We haven’t had a very collective notion of ‘These are our children,’” and that “…kids belong to whole communities.”

The reason Harris-Perry’s words prompted heated responses is grounded in the conflicted American mindset when it comes to the role of government in family life. There is a deeply held cultural idea that all things to do with children are private family matters, and that any role for government or the “collective” is inherently an intrusion, rather than an aide or support, to the “sacred” family unit. The FrameWorks Institute and others have described this as the “family bubble”:

…the default mode of thinking in which events within the family (including child rearing and child maltreatment) take place in a sphere that is separate and different from the public sphere. This default understanding is stronger than a mere belief that families should be autonomous. It means that even thinking about the interaction between child rearing and public policy is difficult for people, and that communications based on reinforcing the “Village,” while appealing, can lead to conflictedness rather than change.

Hillary Clinton sparked a similar controversy in 1996 when she published her best-selling book, It Takes a Village. Perhaps the most high-profile critique of her ideas came during the Republic National Convention, when Bob Dole, in accepting his party’s presidential nomination, said, “With all due respect, I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.” Nine years later, in 2005, Senator Rick Santorum published an entire book in response, dubbing it, It Takes a Family.

The family bubble phenomenon combined with distrust of government regularly influences child & family policy debates. One current example is the critiques of New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s attempts to expand the reach of city government to provide more assistance to families. In making his case, DeBlasio cited the example of Dasani, a girl struggling to thrive in a difficult family situation whose life was featured in this lengthy NY Times piece. But critics charged that the city’s efforts to help the girl were futile:

There’s a lesson in Dasani’s story, and I’m certain it’s lost on New York’s new mayor. “The village” from the “It-takes-a-village” metaphor is spending incredible amounts of money and is providing wide and deep resources for this impoverished family. They do nothing to help themselves. These parents are failures by any and every yardstick. And until a child has effective adults in their life, their situation is hopeless and unchangeable.

The Harris-Perry, Clinton and DeBlasio controversies illustrate what we already know – that central to improving perceptions of government as additive, not harmful, to family life is the constant need to reinforce our fundamental interdependence and shared fate. Moreover, we must help people see that government can and should be our shared tool for addressing any number of social and community challenges.

Harris-Perry’s choice of “ownership” language is unlikely to create the public understanding that we’re looking for. Rather, we need to permeate the culture with examples of how the lives of children are improved and supported by the broader community and how public programs and systems actually work with parents and caregivers and other agencies and institutions to help make healthy families and children possible. Similar to our challenge of illustrating the essential role of government in a good economy, we need to show how public investments and public structures form an essential foundation underneath family and community stability and success.

Some outside of the child advocacy community might think building support for specific programs and policies that benefit children is easier than working on other issues. After all, polling regularly tells us people “care” about kids or view them as “priority.” But the reality is that making the case for a public role in ensuring that all children have what they need to succeed in life is fraught with its own unique challenges. Reframing this national conversation will require persistent and powerful new ways of communicating about our shared responsibilities and the public role in supporting the lives of children and families.

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