Why teens drop out — and come back

Abusive or absent parents, unsafe schools, gangs, homelessness and teen pregnancy make school a low priority for some high school students, concludes a GradNation report, Don’t Call Them Dropouts. Many of the “interrupted-enrollment students” interviewed in 16 cities said “nobody cared” if they stayed in school.

A “caring connection” with an adult who can help with problem solving could keep many of these teens on track, the report said. It also recommended “fewer exit ramps” from school and easier re-entry.

Mommy and Daddy are tired

Modern middle-class parenting is All Joy and No Fun writes Jennifer Senior. Deeply invested in their children’s happiness and success, parents invest less energy in their marriages.

The book is No Ode to Joy, notes Abby W. Schachter in Commentary Magazine.

I am not a great believer in our style of parenting,” Jerry Seinfeld said recently. “What I mean is our generation…I just think we’re too into it…The bedtime routine for my kids is like this royal coronation, jubilee centennial of rinsing and plaque and dental appliances and a stuffed animal semi-circle of emotional support.”

Senior offers portraits of mothers and fathers trying to figure out what skills, sports, classes, and aptitudes would be best for future success, even as they acknowledge the economy is so complex and confusing that it is nearly impossible to have a guaranteed path. They are exhausted by all the effort, the driving and the scheduling, but not one seems willing to push their kids out the front door and let them figure it out for themselves.

“Almost all middle-class parents” believe  that “whatever they are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone,” Senior writes. “Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”

These “exhausted parents” are raising ” children who are less independent, less resilient, and more disrespectful,” Schachter writes. And they’re putting their own marriages at risk — if they’re married at all.

OK, I’ve checked my privilege

“Check your privilege”is used to silence white male college students, writes Tal Fortgang in the Princeton Tory.

“Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

The phrase judges people based on their skin color and attributes their success “to some invisible patron saint of white maleness,” writes Fortgang, a first-year student who plans to major in history or political science.

As it happens, Fortgang’s grandfather and brother fled the Nazi invasion of Poland and spent World War II laboring in a Siberian camp.  Their mother and five younger were shot and dumped into an open grave.

His grandmother survived — barely — a death march to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

They came to America.

It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

His grandfather started a wicker business and prospered. They educated their children and taught them their values.

I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents’ education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad. It’s been made clear to me that education begins in the home, and the importance of parents’ involvement with their kids’ education—from mathematics to morality—cannot be overstated.

The values we pass on perpetuate privilege, Fortgang writes. And it’s not something we need to apologize for.

Critics say he doesn’t understand white privilege.

In the Columbia Spectator students Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani wrote that Fortgang shouldn’t take “check your privilege” personally. “Recognizing the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments,” they write. “It’s meant to remind us that white men don’t have an inherent predilection for success — the odds have just been stacked in their favor.”

I think those two sentences contradict each other.  If the odds were stacked in his favor that diminishes his accomplishments.

And it ignores the real privileges he enjoyed: He was born in the U.S., healthy and intelligent, and raised by loving and supportive parents. That’s a huge advantage in life, but not one reserved for white males.

Why dads matter

Dad isn’t dispensable, write Lois M. Collins and Marjorie Cortez in The Atlantic. A third of American children are growing up without their biological father. It’s not just a benign “alternative family.” It’s bad for kids.

More than half of babies of mothers under 30 are born to unmarried parents, they write. Forty percent of married couples divorce.

Father-absent families are four times more likely to be poor, the Census reports.

When couples split, Dad usually moves out. Often a new man comes in. And then leaves. Children in such homes experience an average of more than five “partnership transitions,” one study found.

Most children deal with “family churn” and end up OK, said Andrew J. Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round and director of John Hopkins’ Population Center. But the more transitions a child endures, the worse off he or she typically is, Cherlin said.

“Dad also helps with impulse control and memory and enhances a child’s ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations, for boys and girls,” said Warren Farrell, author of Father and Child Reunion. Children who are close to their fathers tend to achieve more academically, while kids with absent fathers are more likely to drop out. Fathers are the biggest factor in preventing drug use, Farrell said.

The time a father spends with his child predicts how empathetic a child will become, according to a proposal for a White House Council on Boys and Men.

Children who lack contact with fathers are more likely to be treated for emotional or behavioral problems. Girls with absent or indifferent fathers are more prone to hyperactivity.

When fathers are involved, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teens and boys are less likely to become teen fathers.

Simply improving the job market for young adults, especially men, would do wonders to stabilize families—particularly those just starting out, Cherlin said. Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. He said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound. Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships, he added.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” President Obama said as he announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help young black males. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

Parenting aid is popular — and ineffective

 Close to a billion dollars have been spent to provide relationship counseling to low-income parents writes Tom Bartlett in The Great Mom & Dad Experiment in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The hope is that “better partners make better parents.” 

Couples with babies in tow arrive for dinner one evening at a red brick office building in downtown Oklahoma City.  . . . Seated at one table is a touchingly earnest couple, still in high school, who didn’t plan to have a baby but now want to be the best possible parents. Nearby is a 23-year-old in a baseball cap, pulled low over his eyes, who admits he was dragged here by his girlfriend. There are older couples, too, including a forty-something dad who laughs and says he wants to get fatherhood right this time around. The group is racially mixed: black, white, Asian. Some are married, some not. . . .  They’ve come for the first session of a 13-week program that promises to teach them skills that will strengthen their relationships so that they can provide more stable homes for those babies.

However, it doesn’t work, according to a three-year study of eight programs in different states.

 The programs, the study concluded, did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. They did not increase the amount of time fathers spent with children. The parents were not more financially stable. Their children were not more emotionally secure.

Family Expectations, which grew out of welfare reform, enjoys broad bipartisan support, writes Bartlett. “Plus it just feels right. Spend time with these couples—the teenage mother with a newborn on her shoulder, the middle-aged dad dangling his keys just beyond his infant’s reach—and you can’t help but root for them and for relationship education.”

Family instability is terrible for kids. But this doesn’t seem to work.

 

Boy trouble

School shooters usually are sons of divorced — or absent — parents, writes W. Bradford Wilcox. Boys raised by a single mother are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father,” he writes.

“Fathers . . . are important for maintaining authority and discipline,” writes sociologist David Popenoe. “And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.”

Family breakdown is tougher on boys than girls, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal. When parents divorce, girls tend to “internalize” their unhappiness, become depressed, while boys act out, becoming more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Girls get better after a few years. Boys don’t.

Boys are slower to mature, writes Hymowitz. They need more “civilizing.”

Lone parents tend to have a tougher time providing the predictability and order that help boys become capable students and workers. Poverty undoubtedly worsens the problem: in general, low-income children have poorer “executive function,” such as self-control and cognitive flexibility, than do middle-income children, according to a 2011 study by a group of Berkeley neuropsychologists. But poor children in single-parent families still came out worse in the study than kids with poor married parents. This is probably because unmarried parents tend to break up more frequently, go on to new relationships, sometimes serially, and bring stepparents and half- and step-siblings into their children’s lives.

Low-income single mothers often live in neighborhoods where “gangs have replaced fathers, the threat of violence looms, and schools are filled with apathetic or hostile males.” Economic mobility tracks marriage, concludes a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project:  “Areas with high proportions of single-parent families have less mobility—including for kids whose parents are married. . . .  areas with a high proportion of married-couple families improve the lot of all children, including those from single-parent homes.”

Schools can provide structure, time for boys to play rough-and-tumble games and better literacy programs, writes Hymowitz. But it’s not clear what will work for boys growing up without fathers — in places where “fathers — and men more generally — appear superfluous.”

Transition

Today, my sister and I are moving our mother into assisted living. She flew up a few days ago to stay with me while we waited for her things to be moved from southern California. My brother and his three kids are visiting from Oregon (not staying with me).

When I told my mother that I’d cleared out my garage to make room to store her extra things, she said, “Oh, I’ve got to clean out my garage. I’ve got so many boxes in there.”

We sold her house. An estate agent is selling what was left behind. There was very little in the garage. Twelve years ago, she cleared out the boxes. I got a stack of my high school newspapers.

In packing her things, I found a notebook she kept for a master’s thesis on children’s literature.

As a first grader, I read The Cat in the Hat and moved on to Buffalo Boy, Sandy and the Balloons, The Little Mermaid Who Could Not Sing, “true” books about pioneers, oceans, animal babies, deserts, cowboys, and freedom and a lot more. The only one I remember is Cat in the Hat — and possibly Buffalo Boy.

My sister, a second grader, read Bambi, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Jungle Book, Black Beauty, Stuart Little, The Rachel Field Story Book and more. I remember all those vividly.

Our mother read us Black Beauty when we were too young to read to ourselves. We loved it. She thought it was sentimental slop. When she finished, we begged her to read it again. She did. Years later, I reread Black Beauty. It is sentimental slop.

Bad memories, good stories

Raised by a bipolar, alcoholic father and a (probably) bipolar hoarder mother, Jeannette Walls learned to spin good stories out of bad memories, writes the New York Times in a profile. The Glass Castle, a very powerful book, became an “instant classic.” Walls now lives with her husband on a farm in Virginia. Her mother lives in a cottage on the grounds.

Walls’s childhood was peripatetic, to say the least — her parents had 27 addresses in the first five years of their marriage. They were not only running out on the rent, but her father was convinced that the F.B.I. was after them. They finally landed in Rex’s Appalachian hometown, Welch, W.Va., in a three-room house without plumbing or heat, infested with snakes and rats. Walls says she still has nightmares about the yellow bucket the six of them used each night as a toilet.

“The Glass Castle,” beautifully written in deceptively simple prose, gets its name from the dream house Rex promised to build his family. He drew up the blueprints; he just needed to discover gold so he could pay for it.

Here’s how the book begins: At 3, Walls is on a chair in front of the stove in the family’s trailer, boiling hot dogs, because her mother is painting and can’t be bothered to cook. Walls’s pink-tutu dress catches fire, and her stomach, ribs and chest are badly burned. She is hospitalized for six weeks, until her father, irritated with the uppity doctors, breaks her out and takes her home. When she returns to the chair to cook more hot dogs, her mother says to her approvingly: “Good for you. You’ve got to get right back in the saddle.” Then she continues painting.

Her father died in 1994 at 59. Though he stole her savings to buy liquor — and once tried to pimp her out to a stranger in a bar — Walls thinks he “gave her the confidence to succeed.”

Rose Mary is more of an opaque figure; laser-sharp one day, maddeningly obtuse the next. Not to mention stunningly selfish. Once, when her children went hungry, as they often did, she saved a Hershey bar for herself.

Walls has accepted that her mother couldn’t care for herself, much less for her children. But she thinks there’s a reason that she and her sister never had children.

We all have our baggage, and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive it.” She met my eye. “So, O.K., Mom kept the chocolate bar. But she gave me a lot of good material.”

Walls went on to write Half-Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” about her grandmother. Her new book is her first work of fiction, The Silver Star. Even then, it deals with familiar themes: Two girls, 12 and 15, are abandoned by their mother and move to their parents’ hometown in Virginia.

The Polish orphans of Pahiatua

Children from Eastern Poland who’d been deported by the Soviets, starved and orphaned were sent to a New Zealand refugee camp called Pahiatua in 1944, writes Anne Applebaum in Slate. Despite their childhood suffering and the loss of their families, the children of Pahiatua made good lives in their new country.

On Oct. 31, 1944, their ship pulled into Wellington harbor. More than 750 orphans, from toddlers to young teenagers, and 100 adult caretakers, teachers, and doctors disembarked. . . .  they stayed together, studied together, organized Polish scouting troops, and waited for the war to end so they could go home.

When the war was over, few had anyone to return to. Their former home, Eastern Poland, had been annexed by the Soviet Union. They made new homes in New Zealand. They started new families.

. . .  they had witnessed the deaths of parents and siblings, experienced terrible deprivation, and lost years of education before finding themselves in an alien country on the far side of the world. And yet they learned the language, they assimilated, they became doctors, lawyers, farmers, factory workers, teachers, and businessmen.

We believe children need “excellent schools, carefully organized leisure and . . .  high-concentration, high-focus parenting,” writes Applebaum. The Pahiatua orphans made do with a lot less.

Making motherhood a career

Girls outperform boys in school; women are more likely to go to college and earn a degree. Men have been hit much harder by the recession and the changing economy. But a growing number of career women are choosing to make child-raising and home-making into a career, according to Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity,

Disillusioned workers are “opting into a slower, more sustainable, and more self-sufficient lifestyle,”  writes Ann Friedman in a New Republic review.

The woman who leaves the public workplace is “the Brooklyn hipster who quit her PR job to sell hand-knitted scarves at craft fairs,” Matchar writes. “She’s the dreadlocked ‘radical homemaker’ who raises her own chickens to reduce her carbon footprint. She’s the thirty-one-year-old new mom who starts an artisan cupcake company from her home kitchen rather than return to her law firm. He’s the hard-driven Ivy Leaguer fleeing corporate life for a Vermont farm.”

Thanks to technology, the new homemaker can sell her crafts online and chronicle her quilting, baking and homeschooling projects online.

 “This lifestyle wouldn’t work if women were raising their perfect, happy, locavore children in the middle of the woods with no internet connection,” one professor tells Matchar.

From my point of view, the new homemakers are making their jobs a lot harder than they need to be. They grow their own vegetables, raise chickens and goats  (and slaughter their own meat!), weave, knit, quilt and sew and practice attachment parenting. Letting babies go diaperless is the latest fad. “Elimination communication” requires a a hyper-alert caregiver.

It’s hard to balance child-raising with a career in the U.S. But, women work less, earn less and are less likely to hold managerial and professional jobs in countries with family-friendly policies, writes Christina Hoff Sommers.

Sweden offers 16 months of paid parental leave, special protections for part-time workers, and state-subsidized preschools. Gender equality is government policy.

In a 2012 report, the World Economic Forum found that when it comes to closing the gender gap in “economic participation and opportunity,” the United States is ahead of not only Sweden but also Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. . . .  Though the United States has fewer women in the workforce (68 percent compared to Sweden’s 77 percent), American women who choose to be employed are far more likely to work full-time and to hold high-level jobs as managers or professionals. They also own more businesses, launch more start start-ups, and more often work in traditionally male fields. As for breaking the glass ceiling in business, American women are well in the lead . . .

Mothers are much more likely than fathers to take long parental leaves and work part-time, according to a study by Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn.

. . . most seem to enjoy the flex-time arrangement (once known as the “mommy track”) and never find their way back to full-time or high-level employment.

Employers prefer to hire man, knowing they are less likely to take a long leave and then work part-time, add Blau and Kahn.