“Today is food pantry day!” Whitney* said with a smile as we walked down the school corridor. I frowned and asked the second grader if there was a school food pantry every day? “No, just Friday’s,” she said. I’d just met this little one, but I loved her so much. I had no idea what she was going home to, but clearly the food was important to her. If we assume poverty is an indicator of potential abuse and neglect, it means roughly 16% of our students are in troubling home situations, and currently without the Monday through Friday trips to public school.1
I kept up a smile for Whitney, and spoke encouraging words to her, but inside I was frozen. Free food won’t shelter her from abuse. Free clothes won’t tuck her in at night and pray over her. Free shoes and a free backpack won’t erase negligent care. Nor will free Monday through Friday trips to public school.
In the dead of night, when you’re sick. . . who do you want across the hall? I’m so thankful to have had mom and dad nearby to care for me. I could count on them. In this time of corona virus, I don’t know of any educator who isn’t concerned about their students. We know there are some kids at home in abusive, negligent and even dangerous circumstances.
So, what have we done? Schools teach children to make decisions based on their feelings, schools provide free breakfast, lunch and dinner, weekly school-based food pantries, free school-based health clinics and counseling, free “snack packs” to take home over the weekend, free backpacks, school supplies, haircuts and dental work. And yet – these children are still in bad situations.4
16% of our kids at home for 3-4 weeks or longer because of this corona virus, and we never helped their parents be better parents! We have done nothing to motivate or help parents change their own circumstances. Our focus has been wrong. If a family is struggling, what will make the most impact on children: Loading them up with free food and clothes, or expecting their parents to provide for themselves and their children? How important is it that we help parents be good parents and that we have policies and systems in place that hold parents accountable? How important is it that we restore families’ dignity and self-respect?2
Of course, there are times when families need help, and we should help – we must help. However, we’re giving and giving through kids at school – further exacerbating the parents’ feelings of unworthiness. We’ve taken no time to build up and support parents – to hold them accountable through peer pressure and expectations that they take proper care of their children – that they CAN take proper care of your children. We might have far fewer children in dire straits right now if we’d built up their parents’ dignity, capability and responsibility.3
Going forward, we must do the harder work of coming alongside parents and holding them responsible in order for children to experience stability. Otherwise families will sink into entitlement, lose their sense of self-worth, and eventually expect others to care for their needs – tragically forgetting they have something to offer the world, themselves — their own children.
Families are the nucleus that provide the security of having someone right across the hall who will come running to care for you. Who runs across the hall to care for Whitney? Where will she go for food when she has a family of her own, if her experience is the school food pantry?
A child’s first, best teachers are their parents and when a parent is not doing their job well we ought not usurp the parental role, but help parents be good parents. Children spend 14% of the hours in a year at school, based on 180 days of school, 7 hours a day. Kids spend 86% of hours in a year with their families. By focusing on handouts to families via government schools we’re not focusing on what could bring about real change and solutions.
If we can get to fewer (better yet, no) kids in abusive, negligent situations (which would mean more kids in happy, healthy family situations), wouldn’t that be true success? Wouldn’t that be a better society? Wouldn’t all educators be breathing easier right now?
School handouts have created expectations – except school’s out, and no one was taught how to fish. I hope Whitney is okay. . .