Supporting Parents in a Socially Toxic Environment

James Garbarino, Ph.D
Co-Director, Family Life Development Center
Professor, Human Development, Cornell University


I. Introduction

The quality and character of parenting results in part from the social context in which families operate. One important feature of this social context is public policy. This presentation examines several public policy issues that affect parenting, and does so within an ecological framework highlighting the role of "social toxicity" in challenging parental competence in late 20th century America. The issues discussed include policies regarding, state responsibility for children, economic conditions affecting families, the role of neighborhoods in family support, and the allocation of resources to prevention, intervention, support, and empowerment programs.

Parents face different opportunities and risks in rearing their children because of their mental and physical make-up and because of the social environment they inhabit. Moreover, social environments affect parenting through their impact on the very physical make-up of the child (and the parent). We can call these influences "social biology." In contrast to sociobiology which emphasizes a genetic origin for social behavior, social biology concentrates on the social origins of biological phenomena, including the impact of economic conditions and social policy on brain growth and physical development (e.g. the case of environmental lead poisoning of children that leads to mental retardation and/or behavioral problems, problems that increase the challenges faced by parents).

These social biological effects are often negative (e.g., the impact of poverty and famine on mental retardation, or the mutagenic influence of industrial carcinogens). But they may be positive as well (e.g., intrauterine surgery or nutritional therapy for a fetus with a genetic disorder). When these positive and negative social influences operate in psychological or sociological terms we refer to them as sociocultural opportunities and risks, and they constitute an important force in shaping the parenting agenda.

Thus, when we refer to "opportunities for development" that affect parenting, we mean relationships in which parents find material, emotional, and social encouragement compatible with their needs and capacities as they exist at a specific point in their parenting "career." For each parent (as for each child), the best fit must be worked out through experience, within some very broad guidelines of basic human needs, and then renegotiated as development proceeds and situations change.

This complex and important phenomenon has profound implications for understanding issues of social policy as they affect parenting. We can start from recent findings regarding the "accumulation of risk." For example, Sameroff and his colleagues (1987) report that the average IQ scores of 4 year old children are related to the number of psychological and social risk factors present in their lives. These risk factors are manifest in or mediated by parenting: e.g., a rigid and punitive childrearing style, parental substance abuse, low parental educational attainment, father absence, poverty, etc.

But this research reveals that the relationship is not simply additive. Average IQ for children with 0, 1 or 2 of the factors is above 113. With the addition of a third and fourth risk factor the average IQ scores drop precipitously to nearly 93, with relatively little further decrement as there is further accumulation of the fifth through eighth risk factors (average IQ scores at 85). And, as Dunst and Trivette's recent work reveals (1992), understanding developmental opportunities helps to explain the variance in outcomes left unaccounted for in models that simply address "risk." An ecological perspective on parenting makes good sense, empirically, theoretically, and programmatically.

"Windows of opportunity" for intervention on behalf of parents appear repeatedly across the life course, and what may be a critical threat at one point may be benign or even developmentally enhancing at another. For example, Elder's classic analyses (1974) of the impact of the economic crisis of the 1930s in the United States was mediated by parents: children whose families were unaffected by unemployment and significant income loss showed no effects. But when parents of young children were hit hard, children's development suffered. Some adolescents (particularly daughters) benefited from the fact that paternal unemployment often meant special "opportunities" for enhanced responsibility and status in the family for females.

Analyzing research by Rutter and others, Bronfenbrenner (1986) confirmed that the stress of urban life associated with "family adversity" (Rutter's term), is most negative and potent for the development of young children (while it even stimulates some adolescents who have had a positive childhood). One important theme in current and future research seeking to illuminate the impact of public policy on parenting is to improve our understanding of the circumstances and conditions that constitute challenges and adversity that are "growth-inducing," in contrast to those that are debilitating. A second important theme is the recognition that the "interests" of parents and children are not necessarily synonymous.

Risks to parenting can come both from direct threats and from the absence of normal, expectable opportunities. The experience of homelessness is one example of a sociocultural risk factor that has profound implications for parenting. "Home" implies permanence. You have a home when you have a place to go, no matter what. You have a home when there is a place with which you are connected permanently, that endures and represents you. Or, as a young homeless child wrote, "A home is where you can grow flowers if you want." (Daly, 1990)

We might note here that it is only a small step from this concept of "home" to the analogous political concept of "homeland" as a sense that one is part of a nation, that one belongs somewhere in the political sense. This essentially ideological phenomenon (of having a political home) may serve as a powerful force in parenting. For example, Punamaki (1987) reports that it sustains parenting under extremely stressful circumstances such as are found among Palestinians living in refugee camps in the midst of chronic political violence.

We need to study the hypothesis that both home and homeland may be important resources in identity formation, and a childhood lack of either or both may lead to mental health problems associated with alienation, conduct disorders, rootlessness, violence and depression in adolescence, problems that become intergenerational when they extend into adulthood. J. Gilligan (1991) has explored just such an analysis in his study of the relationship between shame (linked to negative personal and social identity) and violence.

Understanding the experience of "home" may help sort out the divergent psychological impact and character of experiences that appear similar on the surface -- e.g., being an "immigrant" and a "refugee," or having "moved" and being "displaced." With millions of families worldwide experiencing "homelessness," this is a crucial issue for further study (c.f. Garbarino, Kostelny, and Dubrow, 1991), one that illuminates the importance of adapting an ecological approach to human systems. This system approach examines the environment at four levels beyond the individual organism -- from the "micro" to the "macro." (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986; Garbarino et al., 1992).

The ecological perspective forces us to consider the concept of risk beyond the narrow confines of individual personality and family dynamics. In the ecological approach, both are "causes" of parenting patterns and "reflections" of broader sociocultural forces. Mark Twain wrote: "If the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to treat every problem as if it were a nail." Inflexible loyalty to a specific focus (e.g., parent "education") is often a stumbling block to effective intervention. However, the obverse must also be considered: "If you define every problem as a nail, the only tool you will seek is a hammer."

Viewing parents only in terms of organismic and interpersonal dynamics precludes an understanding of the many other avenues of influence that might be open to policy or program interventions, or that might be topics of study for us as scientists. This message provides a crucial guide to research on intervention and program evaluation, and reflects the operation of macrosystems of culture and ideology.

Social policy operates through macrosystems, the context within which micro-, meso-, and exosystems are set, the broad ideological, demographic, and institutional patterns of a particular culture or subculture. These macrosystems serve as the master "blueprints" for the ecology of human development. These blueprints reflect a people's shared assumptions about how things should be done, as well as the institutions that represent those assumptions. Macrosystems are ideology incarnate.

Thus, we contrast societal blueprints that rest upon fundamental institutional expressions, such as a "collective versus individual orientation." Religion provides a classic example of the macrosystem concept because it involves both a definition of the world and a set of institutions reflecting that definition -- both a theology and a set of roles, rules, buildings, and programs. Macrosystem refers to the general organization of the world as it is and as it might be. Historical change demonstrates that the "might be" is quite real, and occurs through either evolution (many individual actions guided by a common reality) or through revolution (dramatic change introduced by a small cadre of decision makers).

An ecological perspective has much to contribute to the process of understanding social policy issues affecting parenting. It gives us a social map for navigating a path through the complexities of research. It aids us in seeing the full range of alternative conceptualizations of problems affecting children and points us in the direction of multiple strategies for intervention. It does this by asking us always to consider the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro-system dimensions of developmental phenomena and interventions. It constantly suggests the possibility that context is shaping causal relationships. It always tells us "it depends," and stimulates an attempt to find out "on what." One of the important "on whats" is social policy.

Consider the case of child abuse. We need to look to the community that establishes laws and policies about child abuse, as well as to the families that offer a powerful definition of reality for the next generation. And, we also should look to the culture that defines physical force as an appropriate form of discipline in early childhood.

But we must also look within the individual, as a psychological system affected by conscious and changing roles, unconscious needs, and motives, to know why and how each adjusts in ways that generate conflict. In addition, we must also look "across" to see how the several systems involved (family, social services, social network, and economy) adjust to new conditions. There are some constant themes in how these issues are played out in American efforts to formulate social policy for parenthood.

II. An Historical Perspective on Social Policy and Parenting

In a 1996, early draft of correspondence concerning a collection of papers on "Family Policy" (published in the Journal of Social Issues in 1997), the editors inadvertently asked me to prepare an essay on, "A Vision of Family Policy for the 20th Century," rather than their consciously intended focus on the 21st century. This "mistake" was a good place to start a discussion of social policy and parenting in American society. First, there is the recognition that a focus on the too distant future is hardly the stuff of which politics-- and thus policy-- is made. In American politics, four years is an eternity. Second, in thinking about parenting policy for a vision for the 20th century we can find an opportunity in wondering how we might approach the issues of family policy if this were 1898, and we really were approaching the 20th rather than the 21st century.

To prepare myself for this assignment I sat in a public park that had been in operation for 100 years, and I consulted a sample of newspapers from that era. The exercise was illuminating. The policy issues relevant to parenting that I found before me as I imagined sitting there in 1893 were these, among others:

  1. The problem of substance abuse and addiction was recognized as an insidious and powerful destructive force in family life.
  2. There was evidence of a widening gap between rich and poor, and already many voices called for action to improve the conditions of the poor, particularly the "worthy" poor.
  3. Traditional American values and institutions were being challenged by the influx of immigrants who did not speak English and who were perceived to make disproportionate demands on the human service systems, suppressing wages by accepting low pay, long hours, and inferior working conditions.
  4. The legacy of slavery and the reality of racism lurked behind the public facade of democracy, and broke out in dramatic incidents from time to time.
  5. To their contemporaries, growing numbers of girls and women appeared to be in moral jeopardy due to the frequency of premarital sex and pregnancy, and the sex industry, in fact, flourished.
  6. Child abuse was entering the public consciousness and there was a sense that juvenile crime was escalating.
  7. Significant numbers of families were not "intact," as mothers frequently died in childbirth and fathers often abandoned families.

Does this sound familiar?

Plus ça change, plus c'est pareil? The more things change, the more they remain the same? Does anything ever really change? Or is it just the characters and not the plot? Reading contemporary analyses of parenting issues in the 1990's, we see that there have been changes in the past 100 years: divorce and unmarried teen births have replaced maternal death and paternal separation in the dynamic of "incomplete" families; overtly homosexual adults now assert claims on parental roles publicly; efforts intended to integrate employment and maternity have become common; and, a structural analysis of child abuse as a social problem has arisen. These are real changes, of course, and they demand policy adjustments and innovations at all levels of public life.

But in our efforts to understand the current policy agenda let us not forget that some of the essential elements of that policy agenda have deep roots in the special historical American experience. After all, it was as we approached the 20th century that some of the major on-going themes of the American national policy agenda were laid down: the costs and benefits of industrialization and a global economy; multiculturalism; "big government," a human rights perspective on racism; militarism and empire; the emergence of "mass" media; and a search for the American family.

In 1896, the United States was being transformed by the seemingly unstoppable social logic of industrialism, and the country was fast becoming a major player in the global economy. One can read The Education of Henry Adams (1914) for a vision of this transformation. This industrial transformation had massive implications for families: new economic relationships emerged between husbands and wives; young girls became independent economic entities as they entered the cash economy. Throughout this transformation, the look of America changed dramatically as we started full scale the process of moving activities from the "non-monetarized" to the "monetarized" economies (Garbarino, 1992; 1995), and from an agrarian to an urban social model of society.

It was then, 100 years ago, that the progressive elements in American society began to believe that "big government" was required as a counter force to "big business" if the best of America's commitment to human rights was to be preserved. As private industrial and financial entities grew in size and scope they began to absorb and to radiate a political power that was outside the scope envisioned by the "founding fathers." This development provided the foundation for a constitutional crisis that would pit an ideology of small government and a narrow interpretation of the Constitution against an interpretation that stressed the elasticity of the Constitution and the need to grow the federal to preserve the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness amidst the complexities of a modern industrial society. This conflict came to a head during the 1930's and the New Deal, when the Roosevelt Administration sought to throw the weight of the national government behind efforts to end the Great Depression, and it has continued to this very day (e.g. in the national debate over the 1994 Republican "Contract With America").

The 1890's saw the initial creation of Imperial America-- the America of the military-industrial complex which projected power globally, and which imposed a market focus upon foreign policy. At the same time, America was challenged to refine the meaning of its core identity as an Anglo culture. De facto bi-lingualism in schools and neighborhoods contested with a strong "nativist" streak (an ironic term given the fact that truly Native-Americans were completely excluded from this culture). All this was taking place in the context of "the closing of the American frontier" (as Frederick Jackson Turner defined it conclusively in 1897). This "closing" symbolically (and increasingly in fact) shut off the pressure valve of open lands that had allowed the disaffected to move rather than deal with conflict. It thus began the process of confronting social issues (rather than simply displacing them) that continues today.

Finally, the rise of a "mass" media created a mechanism for a truly national consciousness and perhaps a collective unconscious formed by the implicit images that permeate the shared experience of those who read, listen to, and watch the same material. Current analyses of television and movies and homogenizing cultural forces find their parallels a century ago as American families could be part of a national experience of fashion, issue-definition, and event sharing in close to "real time." This transformation offered the models for today's "national culture," namely the role of the mass media is shaping the imagery of American culture in which television families have become realer than real (Garbarino, 1995). And, it contributed to the rise of parent advice books that culminated in Benjamin Spock., T. Berry Brazelton, and others who have become parenthood icons of the 20th Century.

There is much more that could be said about the late 19th century and its relevance to understanding our approach to the 21st, but this sketch will have to suffice here. Moving on to several core American issues that characterize current and future efforts to wrestle with parenthood policy, the central or organizing theme is the ongoing struggle between individualist and collective conceptualization of the family's role and responsibilities.

At the heart of many parenthood policy issues is the matter of how and when families are private and how and when they are public. This issue arises in the context of child maltreatment as "the price of privacy" (Garbarino et al., 1980), as well as any other situation in which children are either to be understood as citizens with a primary relationship with the state or as fundamentally private members of families with no direct link to the state under ordinary circumstances or as the private property of parents. Some societies define parents as child rearing agents of the state, as did the former USSR. Others see families as the primary unit of society, with the state having authority only as a "last resort."

This collective vision characterizes conceiving a child as tantamount to entering into a contract with the community. The social contract model provides a strong moral imperative for public efforts to ensure the safety and "quality" of the resulting child, for a contract implies mutual obligations and rights. The opposing vision validates a voluntarist or fee-for-service model of the relationship between families and the state. Contemporary policy debates reflect this fundamental issue when they focus on topics that include child welfare (is it an entitlement? a privilege? a tool for social control?), teen pregnancy (who has authority over a girl who gets pregnant?), divorce and child support (is financial responsibility for a child purely a private contract issue between divorced adults, or a public responsibility?), and other issues addressed in this volume.

These issues cluster around the meaning of a social support system, and its meaning in the ideology underlying parenthood policy. Gerald Caplan developed the concept of a social support system in the context of community mental health as combining feedback and nurturance, i.e. expecting the same relationship to observe and evaluate individual behavior on behalf of society and to offer psychological resources to the individual as a matter of an individual's human rights. A social support system is not simply the unconditional provision of resources. It is the provision of resources in the context of monitoring, standard setting, and other dimensions of social control. In this rendition a social support system is not the financial safety net and formal social services of governmental "Big Brother," but perhaps "Big Sister," in the sense that it is not aggressively authoritarian but rather insistently caring. Perhaps this is one reason why the most effective family support program is the home health visitor program (best illuminated by the work of David Olds and his colleagues). Home health visitors exemplify the Big Sister features of being a social support system: they offer resources and they represent the interests and the standards of the community vis a viz the parent.

But is social support a public matter? This is the essential question that pervades much of the current policy debate about parenthood (as it did 100 years ago and probably will in the coming decades). On one side of this debate are those who argue that families are essentially private and the role of government in their care and feeding must be minimal, limited perhaps to the very most basic matters of child protection. This is certainly the moving spirit behind the "Contract with America" offered by the Republicans in the 1994 elections (echoing the Bush administration's concept of "1000 points of light" and other formulations the focus on the privatization of human services and economic affairs). Is this the American foundation for parenthood policy? Does the government stand outside the family as essentially a bystander, perhaps intervening in extremis when there is no other last resort in the "private sector?" Is there an alternative yet authentically American answer to this question? There is and it lies with the original Contract With America.

The Declaration of Independence is the original Contract With America, the touchstone for American public policy debate. In this document is found the essential (and for the time in which it was written, innovative) premise of American political ideology. And what is this premise? It is not simply the assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This assertion of human rights (at the time limiting "men" to mean white men) was wonderful, but not unique for its time.

The most important ideological innovation of the Declaration was contained in the words that follow the statement of inherent, unalienable human rights when it asserted that: "That to secure these rights governments are instituted..." Here is the fundamental contract with America, the truly revolutionary principle that governments exist to secure basic human rights. The best of American history has been the refinement and the application of this contract--- including efforts to rectify the original omissions in the language of the Founders of the female and of the non-white, to translate this basic commitment in light of changing social conditions and technology.

This revolutionary conception of government as the guarantor of human rights is the appropriate starting point for our discussions of parenthood policy, the American idea that government exists not to protect the rich or any other elite, nor to make the world safe for big business, nor to facilitate greed or self-interest, nor to promote a religious group's narrow agenda. Rather, the founders of the nation envisioned that the basic purpose of government is to secure basic human rights, unalienable rights. This is the appeal for those who would insist that public policy support the parental aspirations of homosexuals, that ways be found to protect and nurture the children of teenage mothers, that dangerous neighborhoods be restored to safety so children can escape trauma and abuse, and that as economic structures change the needs of children remain paramount.

Today we wrestle with the complexities of translating the primal contract with America into the realm of contemporary parenthood policy. It is not easy. We face an often bewildering patchwork of evidence (sometimes with contradictory findings). We must conduct their policy analysis in a time of great public skepticism: whereas in 1975 35% of American youth agreed with the statement that "Most people can be trusted," but by 1992 that figure had dropped to 19%. By the same token, adults have become more politically cynical. In the early 1960's surveys revealed that most American adults believed in the government-- 77% in one poll agreed with the statement "You can count on the government to do the right thing most of the time." Today most Americans discount government intentions (and 22% indicated their belief that "you can count on the government to do the right thing most of the time"). What is more, we are dealing with a policy environment with a plethora of well financed, ideologically driven and often self-interested groups advocating for privatization and "small government."

The state plays an important role in setting the parameters for parental responsibility, and thus for the realms in which variations in parenting skill will affect child development. For example, most governments in the United States accept responsibility for providing basic services such as potable water and waste disposal. Borrowing a term commonly used in injury control, this is "passive prevention" in the sense that it requires no action on the part of parents to protect their children. In contrast, immunization programs require more active efforts of parents-- to bring the young child to a facility that provides the immunization (or at least permit the child to be immunized as part of the program at a school or day care center).

Passive prevention efforts in the form of community water and sewage systems absolve individual parents of the responsibility to provide clean water and to dispose of sewage. Thus, variations in child health due to cholera and other water or sewage born agents are absent. Requiring immunization as an entrance requirement for mandatory school enrollment reduces the role of parental initiative. Of course the fact that less than 100% of young children are immunized is evidence of the "costs" of anything less than fully passive prevention. And, the deregulation of television programming aimed at children is a prime example of how public policy can affect the individual responsibility of parents (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1990). Deregulating television programming aimed at children has increased the individual responsibility of parents to monitor and regulate the television viewing of their children.

Where government does not assume responsibility for passive prevention measures we find significant variations linked to a series of predictable family variables -- education of parents, social class, personal history of parents, and family system functioning. Thus, if government did not assume responsibility for providing potable water and for sewage treatment, we would expect to find substantial variation in child health due to differences in parental skill, motivation, and resources, as we do in the areas of childhood television viewing-- and to a lesser degree immunization against childhood illnesses.

Variations in state responsibility for children penetrate into many aspects of parenting. For example, in an effort to prevent the international "kidnapping" of children by non-custodial parents, a number of governments now require written consent of both parents prior to issuing a visa for a minor (e.g. Australia and Mexico).

Perhaps the conceptual issues involved emerge from the following personal account. When I moved to the State of Illinois in 1985 I brought with me a three year old child and a three year old automobile. The State of Illinois sent clear messages regarding its conception of responsibility. The state required that the car be registered, that it be inspected on a regular basis, that I have liability insurance, and that I be licensed to operate it. The message was clear: cars are a public matter. With respect to my daughter, however, I received no messages of public interest. She was invisible to the state. The foundation for social policy in support of parenting is the basic understanding that children are public matters, and that there are qualitative issues involved in approaching the social environment. Can we find a conceptual framework for understanding these qualitative issues in parenting policy that is harmonious with our human rights legacy and contemporary understanding of the human ecology of childhood? I think we can find the needed synthesis in the concept of "social toxicity." (Garbarino, 1995).

III. The Concept of Social Toxicity

Fordham University's Institute for Social Policy produces an Index of Social Health for the United States, based upon 16 measures including infant mortality, teenage suicide, drop out rates, drug abuse, homicide, food stamp use, unemployment, traffic deaths, and poverty among the elderly. The Index ranges between 0 and 100 (with 100 being defined as the most socially healthy). From 1970 to 1992 the Index reported a decline from 74 to 41 and it remains at this level (Miringoff, 1996). This means that the overall well-being of our society has decreased significantly. Of course, the Fordham index addresses American society as a whole, ignoring the issue of some groups faring better than others.

Gross as the Social Health Index is, it does tell an important story, one that is validated by other measures (c.f. Bronfenbrenner et al., 1996). Kids today are in trouble. Evidence of this is found in research using the Child Behavior Checklist to assess the emotional and behavioral problems among American children. This instrument is widely used in research in the United States and in other countries. Parents (or other adults who know the child well) indicate the presence (or absence) and intensity of each of 118 specific behaviors or feelings in words such as "can't sit still, restless, or hyperactive," "lying or cheating," "feels worthless or inferior," "cruelty, bullying or meanness to others," and "nervous, high-strung, or tense."

Since 1974, 45 of the 118 problems have become significantly worse for American kids in general (Achenbach and Howell, 1993). Negative feelings such as apathy, sadness and various forms of distress have increased. Moreover, children report disliking school more. To some extent, this difference may result from greater awareness on the part of parents and teachers (the ones likely to fill out the survey). But it's more than just that.

In 1976, 3% of the children studied (a representative sample of American kids) were seeing therapists. By 1989, that percentage had grown to 8%. Greater awareness of problems may play a partial role in this, too, but there is more to it. In 1976, 10% of all children studied were judged to be doing so poorly that they could be candidates for therapy (even though only a third of these kids actually received such therapy). By 1989, more than 18% of the children were doing badly enough in their behavior and development to warrant needing therapy (and about half were getting it).

Achenbach's data certainly conform to the observations of teachers and other professionals who work with children. On many instances in the last few years, I have had the opportunity to ask those who have worked with children professionally for 30 years or more what they have observed. They overwhelmingly see what Achenbach has documented in his data: more and more children are in greater and greater trouble.

As ever larger numbers of our children display signs of experiencing serious problems we have to ask, "Why?" My own answer to this question is that children are most vulnerable to the negative influence of an increasingly socially toxic environment, and that unless we do something about it now, the situation for children will only continue to deteriorate (Garbarino, 1995).

What I mean by the term socially toxic environment is that the social world of children, the social context in which they grow up, has become poisonous to their development. I offer this term as a parallel to the environmental movement's analysis regarding physical toxicity as a threat to human well being and survival. The nature of physical toxicity is now well known and is a matter for public policy and private concern. For example, we know that air quality is a major problem in many places, so much so that in some cities, just breathing "normally" is a threat to your health and cancer rates reflect that physical toxicity.

In the last ten years, some communities have improved the quality of their physical environment as enhanced public and professional awareness has led to changes. In the matter of recognizing, understanding, and reversing social toxicity, however, we lag far behind. There is no direct social equivalent to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's landmark analysis of physical toxicity. Her book, first published in 1953, called attention to the problem and stimulated reforms which led to public action to ban DDT and counter many of the physical environment's most severe manifestations of physical toxicity.

But what are the social equivalents to lead and smoke in the air, PCB's in the water, and pesticides in the food chain? I think some social equivalents include violence, poverty and other economic pressures on parents and their children. They include disruption of family relationships and other trauma, despair, depression, paranoia, nastiness and alienation - all contaminants which demoralize families and communities. These are the forces in the land that contaminate the environment of children and youth. These are the elements of social toxicity. They affect all children and youth, but vulnerability evolves along with development. Thus, for example, research on early brain development reveals that the elements of social toxicity most dangerous to the fetus and infant are those that lead to parental neglect and abuse, and those that subject the very young child to other forms of trauma and deprivation. All these threats are related to the degree to which the social environment is supportive and benign as opposed to hostile and toxic.

Social life is more risky now than it was just 40 years ago; the level of social and cultural poison is higher. How is the environment for kids more socially toxic now than the 1950's and even the 1960's? For one thing, no kid ever died from a drive-by fist fight and no mother was terrorized by the prospect of such an assault to the degree that mothers living in "war zones" today fear that their children will be shot. The proliferation of guns among growing numbers of adolescent peer groups means that conflict and confrontation that once were settled with fists now can be "resolved" by shooting. The lethality associated with adolescent conflict in many neighborhoods today is radically different from the threat faced by a teen who angered his or her peers 30 or 40 years ago.

Kids today are bombarded with messages about the potentially lethal consequences of sex. There is no comparison between the threat of AIDS today and the threat of VD during my youth. More generally, children and youth today must contend with a constant stream of messages that undermine their sense of security. If it isn't the threat of kidnapping, it's the high probability of parental divorce. If it isn't weapons at school, it's contemplating a future with dim employment opportunities.

Beyond these dramatic issues there are more, many more, that are subtle yet equally serious. High on the list is the departure of adults from the lives of kids. The lack of adult supervision and time spent doing constructive, cooperative activities are important toxic aspects of the social environment today, and these forces compound the effects of other negative influences in kids' social environments. Kids "home alone" are more vulnerable to every cultural poison they encounter than are children backed up by adults.

Although everyone is vulnerable to toxicity in the social environment, children (like the elderly) are the most vulnerable, just as they are among the most vulnerable to physical toxicity in the environment. When airborne pollution reaches toxic levels, who suffers first and most? Who is most vulnerable? It is the children (and our elders) with asthma or other respiratory conditions who show the effects soonest and with greatest intensity. When a house is contaminated with lead or asbestos, who is at greatest risk? Young children.

As the social environment becomes more socially toxic, it is the children - particularly the most vulnerable among them - who show the effects first and worst. And who are the children who will show the effects of social toxicity first and most dramatically? They are the children who already have accumulated the most developmental risk factors: poverty, racism, abuse, neglect, absent or incapacitated parents (Sameroff, et. al. 1987; Dunst and Trivette, 1992).

The concept of social toxicity explains a great deal of what troubles us about children growing up as we approach the 21st Century. At stake is the essence of childhood as a protected time and place in the human life cycle.

Imagine living in a city plagued by cholera. In this city, the challenge to parents to keep kids healthy would be overwhelming. Yes, the most competent parents and those with the most resources would have more success delivering drinkable water to their children than would other parents. But even these "successful" parents would sometimes fail. Would we blame them for their failure, or point the finger at the community's failed water purification system? In a socially toxic environment the same principle holds. So let us put aside blaming parents and take a good hard look at what we all can do to lend a hand with the challenging task of raising children in a socially toxic environment. What we do on the policy front in support of parenthood in detoxifying the social environment will go a long way to enhancing the quality of life for children and youth in the decades to come, when we really are facing the transition to the 21st century as issues of resiliency and coping become ever more important.

IV. Factors Leading to Resiliency and Coping

Convergent findings from several studies of life course responses to stressful early experience suggest a series of ameliorating factors that lead to pro-social and healthy adaptability (Losel & Bliesener, 1990):

These factors have been identified as important when the stresses involved are in the "normal" range found in the mainstream of modern industrial societies -- e.g., poverty, family conflict, childhood physical disability, and parental involvement in substance abuse. They thus provide a starting point for efforts to understand the impact of policy on parenting -- and ultimately on children.

Of the seven factors identified in the research on resilience and coping, several are particularly relevant to policy (and some of the others are indirectly relevant). We are particularly interested in the factors of "social support from persons outside the family," "an open, supportive educational climate and parental model of behavior that encourages constructive coping with problems," and "a stable emotional relationship with at last one parent or other reference person." In these three factors is the beginning of an agenda for policy initiatives to enhance parenting -- particularly under conditions of high stress and threat.

The first factor is, of course, at the heart of our concern: "social support from persons outside the family." We see this as a generic affirmation of the validity of policies designed to promote parent support efforts. It tells us that the importance of social support increases inversely with the inner resources of the parent: the poorer need more help. Of course, here as elsewhere, we expect to find a kind of "Catch 22" in operation: the more troubled and impoverished a parent, the less effective he or she will be in identifying, soliciting, and making effective use of resources outside the family.

This is the message of research on neglecting parents conducted by Polansky, Guadin, and their colleagues (c.f. Gaudin & Polansky, 1985). Neglecting mothers are less ready, willing and able to see and make use of social support in their neighborhoods and more in need of such support than other mothers. This vicious cycle is evident repeatedly in studies of child maltreatment (Garbarino & Crouter, 1977).

The second resilience factor explicitly targets the community's institutions. It is schools, religious institutions, civic organizations, and other social entities that operationalize the concept of "an open, supportive educational climate." Programs and role models that teach and reward the reflective "processing" of experience are an essential feature of social support at the neighborhood and community level.

The third resilience factor is "a stable emotional relationship with at least one parent or other reference person." How does this translate into policies affecting parenting? It does so through repeated findings that depth -- as opposed to simply breadth -- is an important feature of social support (and one often neglected in programmatic approaches). In addition to having social support effectively available through friends, neighbors, co-workers, and professionals, parents need social support in its most intensive form: you need "someone who is absolutely crazy about you." This is clear from research on parenting (children must have someone in this role) but it is also important in the functioning and development of youth and adults, including those in parenting roles.

The implications are quite significant. For example, in his efforts to prevent child maltreatment among malfunctioning parent-child dyads, Wahler found that the effects of his programmatic intervention were attenuated to the point of being negligible for mothers who had no close allies who supported revisions in parenting style and practices. For poor mothers this person is likely to be neighborhood-based.

Only by identifying and incorporating into the preventive intervention such a maternal ally was Wahler able to ensure that the preventive strategies he was teaching to the mother would endure. This finding parallels other studies emphasizing the importance of social support for the goals of professional intervention (e.g., the congruence of residential treatment goals for youth in the post-release social environment -- c.f. Whittaker, 1986).

It is important to remember that social support has at least two distinct dimensions. The first is its role in simply making the individual feel connected -- which is important in its own right. The second is its role in promoting pro-social behavior (e.g., avoiding child maltreatment even under stressful conditions). In a socially toxic environment, policies designed to encourage social support are crucial.


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