A 2013 American Psychological Association survey noted that American teenagers are now experiencing stress levels equal to those of adults and for the first time during the school year, American youth experienced more daily stress than adults. These levels of stress are very unhealthy for children. More studies are also revealing the transgenerational effects of stress and their correlation with illness. Even more troubling for children growing up in economic adversity is that when poverty is coupled with stress, there can be significant impact on the brain as well.
We must make sure that our children are growing up in safe and healthy environments:
• Consider the cruelty of two Utah elementary school cafeteria workers who recently snatched away the lunch trays from 40 children whose parents were behind on making meal payments. The school workers then threw the students' meals in the trash, humiliating them in front of their peers and leaving them hungry.
• Shootings in schools: On average, there was a school shooting every two weeks in 2013. However, in some areas, many shootings occur off school grounds and don't figure into these statistics. In 2010, nearly 700 Chicago school children were shot, 66 fatally, often in multiple shootings, as when 10 were murdered and 37 wounded by firearms in a single three-day period. Nationally, in 2008-2009 (a 2-year period), 5,740 Americans younger than 18 were killed and 34,387 were injured by firearms, a higher casualty rate than American soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Bullying: While statistics are difficult to verify, the U.S. Justice Department estimates that one-fourth of adolescents will be bullied, while other studies estimate that as many as three-fourths will be bullied at least once.
• Social media pressures: Students are often pressured to engage in risky behavior and abuse alcohol and drugs. For example, a National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study found that in a simulated driving experiment, students were more than twice as likely to engage in risky driving when their friends observed them than when they were alone.
It's hard to be a kid today. Bracketing the extreme cases, schoolwork has often gotten more challenging and demanding. While extracurricular activities have always played a significant role in children's' lives, social media now consumes two hours or more of time daily, which can further add to the stress of a full school day.
Another factor to be considered is that a whopping 30 percent of American families today are led by a single parent (85 percent of those homes are led by single mothers). In homes with two parents, when fathers provide just basic childcare, children are found to have higher levels of educational and economic achievement and lower rates of delinquency. These children are also found to be more empathetic and socially competent. Growing up with one parent is not only extremely challenging for that parent, but can take a serious toll upon that child.
Some theological and psychological teachings have stressed the malevolent nature of children. However, Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, saw children differently: "Gather together all the children of the universe; you will see in them nothing but innocence, gentleness, and fear; had they been born evil, malevolent, cruel, they would give some sign of it...." This approach should be embraced where we view children as delicate and innocent (albeit not fully in control yet) who need to be deeply nurtured. Let us make our children the priority and work to ensure that they are growing up in healthy, nurturing and safe environments.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the The Valley Beit Midrash, Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."