Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment by Dr. James Garbarino is a book for anyone interesting in studying the social environment of children. It's a book for educators who want to study the results of a poor environment and recognize the signs of it; it's for parents who want to know what's good and what's not so good for their children to see. And finally, it's for students like myself who are interested in learning just how much a child's environment affects a child's psyche and what they will grow up to be.
Most of us know that today's social environment is a danger to children. Without reading this book, we can figure out that today's world of violence, sex, pop, television, and gangster rap is not the best teachers to children. Dr. Garbarino obviously agrees about the danger of this environment but goes on to tell us why and how our children are changed by it. He traces the deterioration of the social environment to a changing economy, the increasing dependence of families on government and the community for support, and the violent, empty and nasty elements of today's culture. In today's world and "toxic environment, young children are especially vulnerable to emotional and behavioral problems and to being the victims and instigators of abuse and violent behavior, to becoming teenage parents, to dropping out of school, and to school failure." (36) Dr. Garbarino breaks down our social environment and explains why it's so toxic.
But Dr. Garbarino doesn't stop there. He also paints a picture for us, he sets things in place; he tells us just how it's supposed to be. He tells us just what kind of environment children should be exposed to and why. He explains just how, "mature and civil adults to develop, and how individual adults and communities can provide the ingredients all children need to grow up healthy." (19) He goes on to say that for children to flourish and grow up to be strong stable adults, they need, "a stable, strong family and child care situation; a safe, secure home and community; positive self-identity; time with family and other caring adults; positive connection to and valuing of community; and access to basic elements of living." (24) These ideas, of course, are not new but he breaks it down in a way that is inspiring and more hopeful than before.
According to Dr. Garbarino, there are seven elements necessary to detoxify the social environment of our children, these include:
Stability - teaching children positive values by word and deed.
Security - when children feel safe and secure, they are able to relax and explore their environment and learn from it in new ways.
Affirmation and acceptance - both necessary for creating identity in children.
Time together - spending quality time together is the greatest gift parents can give their children.
Values and community - children learn from both parents and community what it means to have and express positive values.
Access to basic resources -- children must have their very basic needs satisfied in order to thrive.
Thriving - encourage children to do more than just survive or struggle through by making positive life changes within the walls of our own homes.
He goes on to tell readers the effects of children that do not have these fundamentals of living. He argues that children without the nourishing environment he describes are even more susceptible to the damaging effects of our social environment. These children live with a greater "accumulation of risk factors for unhealthy outcomes (poverty; absent father; low parental education; inflexible, punitive parenting; member of minority groups; parental substance abuse or mental illness; large family size) and are most affected by the present society." (77) Many of us have seen just the effects these conditions can have on children. Many of us know first-hand what a child grows to be when exposed to an environment that is filled with dysfunction and conflict. Educators and parents alike do understand what it means for children to learn from the examples of our current culture. Dr. Garbarino reminds us.
Children can be resilient and strong enough to overcome such circumstances, he argues, but their self-image and achievement is seriously affected by a harmful environment. We've all wondered about a certain child, what he could have become, what he could have been able to achieve had he or she been given the proper environment in which to thrive. This is Dr. James Garbarino's main thesis in his book: Children need to be given the best possible chance; their environment reflects that chance and hope of possibility for their future. "Individuals, parents, and communities can foster positive child development through more interpersonal contact (reading, music, game-playing together), less television, modeling empathizing and less dehumanizing behavior, and establishing home visiting programs and standards of behavior." (149) He shows us that it doesn't stop at the child's environment; personal care is just as important in child raising as is a child's surroundings.
Dr. James Garbarino cites numerous studies that show evidence of toxic influences in our children's social world. "The social world of children has become poisonous to their development. The level of social and cultural poison is higher today than in the past," says Dr. Garbarino. (112) Nowadays, there are open discussions about things such as negative consequences to sex including AIDS and pregnancy; today, we openly talk about kidnappings and violence; today, divorce is more common and weapons are mainstream. All this has become "normal" and it's changing our kids. According to Dr. Garbarino, "the lack of adult supervision and time spent doing constructive, cooperative activities are important toxic aspects . . . And compound the effects of other negative influences in the social environment." (188) It's not just about giving our time to kids, but about being positive and instructive to them.
This negative environment is what leads children to low self-esteem and other forms of emotional distress that cause them to do the very things in their environment that have caused the damage in the first place. It is this toxic environment that teaches children to create the very same kind of world they come from. The problems among the young start with this environment. While Dr. Garbarino points out the problems with the social environment of our children, he doesn't go on to say that in this environment, we are growing the kind of children that will grow up and do the very same things. What I'm suggesting is that it is an ever-revolving circle: whatever kids are exposed to is what they will become. Parents raise the kind of children they are and they don't know how to stop the viscous cycle.
At the heart of this toxic environment is television. This is suggested by Dr. Garbarino as well as every other researcher that has studied child development and social environments. We all know the dangerous effects television has not only on children but on adults. It's too often that we hear about an individual that has watched a movie or television program and then gone out to assimilate the very same behavior. If adults are vulnerable to these messages, we can only fear for the children and what they are being shown to be okay. "Television transmits and validates violence as a way to deal with conflicts." (79) According to Dr. Garbarino's research, up to 15% of violence presented in children and young adults today can be attributed to televised violence. And if those effects weren't enough, Dr. Garabino also suggest that television is damaging because it crowds out other activities that should be "used to be shared with family and friends," substitutes "passive observation for real social interaction" and "deprives people of vital lessons in living together." (86) In all seriousness, several books could be written on the dangerous effects television has on children and even adults. In my opinion, this should be a larger part of our focus as we try and think of better ways to raise our children. Just what our children are exposed to with television, should be at the front of any parent's mind. We all know television isn't what it used to be. Television reflects our toxic culture.
But beyond television, Dr. Garbarino suggests that the ugliness and "nastiness" children are exposed to is tearing down the innocence of our children. "Many children are exposed to adult themes long before their time." (147) Children of today are exposed to adult content way more than previous generations were. Today, children read books, listen to rap music, or are influenced by adults that expose them to adult behavior and actions way before they are ready to digest such things. Dr. Garbarino asked some eight-year-olds to compare "Mr. Rogers" to "Beavis and Butthead." Although they saw Mr. Rogers as "kind" and Beavis and Butthead as "rude " and "mean," the youngsters preferred the toxic program: "Mr. Rogers is from our childhood; Beavis and Butthead are today." (163)…