Disengaged Students, Part 16: Too Much Parental Concern, But Not About Education
In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake..
Today’s parents are hyper-aware that parental actions in the formative years can lead to problems in later life, and the widespread disagreement about which actions are harmful leads to great stress and confusion . Raising children safely to adulthood is no longer sufficient to earn the label of a “good” parent. A glance at any handful of parenting blogs shows the self-conscious nature of the job. Moms and dads debate the repercussions of breastfeeding versus formula feeding, working full-time versus staying home with children (or a hybrid version). They speculate about how many extra-curricular activities are healthy and how many will ruin kids forever. Instead of parents defending their own views on parenting, there is a lot of hand-wringing and self-doubt that screams for reassurance in the comment section.
Parents today worry about their actions and daily choices far more than new parents did just ten years ago. While it is admirable that parents take so much interest in how they interact with their kids, much of this worry is not wisely focused. It seems that in the debate over the long-term life effects of wearing organic clothing or the impact of allowing children to buy school lunches, a more important issue is being neglected: the involvement of parents in early childhood education and in the years that follow.
The Irrationality of the Vaccination Debate
Perhaps one of the hottest of hot button issues in contemporary parenting is the issue of vaccinations. The average child will have 30 immunizations or booster shots by the time she enters Kindergarten, not counting the recommended yearly influenza shot. The dramatic rise in vaccinations since 1980, when immunizations were offered for only seven known diseases, is a direct result of improvements in modern medicine that make it possible to ward off other illnesses. Chicken pox, once considered an accepted childhood rite of passage, is no longer a concern since all children are required to be vaccinated for it within their first year of life. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children today be vaccinated against 16 preventable diseases throughout childhood. Instead of praising these marvels of modern medicine, though, many parents are questioning them.
On its website, the CDC addresses the most common questions asked by parents who are concerned about the adverse effects of vaccination on the littlest family members:
Why are vaccines given at such a young age? Wouldn’t it be safer to wait? Can so many vaccines, given so early in life, overwhelm a child’s immune system… so it does not function correctly?
Each question is answered with scientific data that validates the CDC’s recommendations and warns against delaying or skipping vaccines, claiming that the only measurable effect such actions have is to increase the number of incidences of childhood diseases for which vaccines were created. Though childhood diseases, some life-threatening or life-altering at the very least, have been basically vanquished, vaccinations fuel the contemporary parenting paranoia.
But Vaccines Cause Autism, Right?
The most widely-held concern about vaccinations is that they may cause autism and autism-spectrum disorders. The parents who believe this cite the rise in autism cases, up 78 percent since 2000. It’s a convenient argument, really, and one that releases parents of any responsibility for the rising problem that has no cut-and-dry answer yet. It is easy to blame vaccines and to feel a false sense of protection when asking doctors to delay giving them or refusing them altogether. These same parents may also believe that the hours children spend in front of a television or computer screen as infants add to the propensity for autism, or they may dismiss that theory altogether because the vaccine answer “makes the most sense.”
Scientists have found no direct link between vaccines, or their timing, on a rise in autism. In research on autism-spectrum disorders, scientists have learned that the brains of affected people are shaped differently than those of their neuro-typical peers. Genetics are believed to be a factor, particularly since some family trees tend to show a pattern of autism or other related issues. Some researchers will concede that there may be “triggers” that usher in the disorder, though these experts are quick to point out that this only happens in people already prone to the disorder. Leading autism research does not place any blame on recommended vaccines after children are born, but does argue that environmental causes, particularly during pregnancy, could contribute.
So if the people at the forefront of autism research place no blame on immunizations, why is the theory so prevalent? Actress and comedian Jenny McCarthy subscribes to the vaccination-induced autism theory as it relates to her son, and she has been widely publicized for speaking out. Perhaps it is easier for parents, angry and looking for somewhere to lay blame, to read a popular book written by McCarthy than to delve into the scientific research available from scientists with names they have never heard. Like other facets of American life, it is simpler to jump on the nearest bandwagon than to take time to hear all sides of an issue.
Organic Foods, Unsafe Car Seats
The vaccination debate is just one example of how parents are quick to succumb to paranoia and slow to research facts. The same tendency appears in parents who buy food with the word “organic” stamped on the side, but do not actually read the ingredients on the label or research the true way the food was made. Parents worry about the negative effects of vaccines, processed foods and cyber-creeps stalking their children online. Yet, despite the fact that automobile accidents account for the largest percentage of accidental child deaths, the site SeatCheck.org reports that 70 percent of parents and caregivers improperly restrain children in car seats. Parents seem to invest great passion in warding off perceived threats and spend less energy on dealing with real dangers. It is easier to make decisions based on ideology than actual reality.
This trend of paranoia among parents is dangerous in physical terms but also in less measurable ways. Children who learn to cling to ideas without proof are less likely to seek out true answers academically. It is enough for these children to simply memorize what is placed in front of them, without any real questioning, because they have learned in their pre-K years to accept ideas automatically rather than examining them critically.
Some parents may mistake this trait for tolerance or sensitivity. But unless they demand substantive understanding and seek actual truth, children have no ownership of knowledge. What’s worse, they are indifferent to the distinction between reality and groundless ideas. Educators are tasked with awakening students’ desire to learn the why and how of things, not simply to accept what is put in front of them. Parents who are not vigilant about seeking their own truths at home make the intellectual pursuit of knowledge more of a challenge for K-12 educators – and play into the theories of irrational thought.