How Do You Love a Child?

Ideally, encouragement is mixed with discipline. Hugs are unconditional. Listening to a child means full attention. Your presence is gentle in their daily lives. Your example of strength shows them the way. Your support is solid when they falter.

And, sadly, in the often aggressive and violent crosscurrents of the day, you make sure your protective wing is spread over a child, too.

As identified and discussed in the Monitor series, "Out of Harm's Way," over the past three months, many parents, schools, and other agencies are making special efforts to protect and strengthen children in society today.

But the nation's protective wing is less than encompassing when it comes to reducing violence in children's lives, or mitigating the poverty - either economic or spiritual - that sparks violence in families and communities.

Clearly, what remains after any historical analysis of why America is so violent, or any analysis of cultural patterns of aggression that shaped a powerful nation, is the bedrock of family, the heart of social development where much of what an individual becomes is set in motion.

And where do many American teens say they learn about violence and what it does these days? First, from their parents. At home. And second, from the killing and bashing on TV and in movies. Domestic violence, anger, aggression, and neglect, in real life or on the screen, undermine a child's growth and potential.

Although adult crime rates are falling in big cities, teen crime and drug use continue to climb in just about every city. As the Monitor series indicated, incidents of violence, often spurred by drug and alcohol use, occur now in a greater number of public places, including schools, so that the prevalence of violence in or near young lives is common and an urgent concern.

What parents and other adults can do is be an active, caring presence in children's lives - including discussing the implications and consequences of substance abuse - and see that they have access to productive after-school activities, the time when most teen crime occurs. And discussions which help children understand peer pressure strengthen their sense of being an individual, not a mere follower.

Survey after survey points out that teens want a parent's input and discipline, and, too often, kids say they or their friends get into trouble because "there's nothing to do."

If a single parent feels alone in dealing with his or her troubled teen, there are many community agencies that can help. Connect your child with a mentor or church group, or a police recreation or athletic league, or a computer club or other kinds of specific activity. Know your child's interests and seek ways to feed those interests. If a parent limits a child's TV time, more often than not the parent has to initiate other options for the child.

Today communities are recognizing that prevention is effective and less costly than waiting and dealing with problem children when they get into serious trouble. And many schools and communities also now realize that most children only do well when their families have hope and stability. Through collaborative programs that involve parents in schools, and with innovative community projects that support families, conditions that spawn violence and drug abuse can be reduced.

In Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, the Fighting Back program links all community institutions - schools, hospitals, police, courts, media, businesses - in a dynamic collaboration of "community mentoring" to help individuals in a more sustained manner, and thereby strengthens the community. Teens are seen not as liabilities but as capable participants.

In Moorhead, Minn., the city has identified 30 "assets" or attributes in families and the community that foster well-being and strength. A long-range community-wide effort is now under way to provide after-school and volunteer programs that specifically address each asset. Forty other communities have also adopted the asset-building approach.

How do you love a child?

As a parent you confirm a child's worth through careful, unswerving love, and the recognition that the world faced by children is increasingly complex. It might even help to try to "walk in their shoes" for a bit when contentious issues arise.

As a concerned community member, you can become a mentor to a child who is looking for support and someone who cares. Conversations with young people for "Out of Harm's Way" frequently found kids saying that when they were in or on the edge of trouble, a teacher or parent or mentor made all the difference. And, usually, that adult can set some standards and give a child the insight to move from crisis to solution.

Prevention is less costly than waiting and dealing with children who get into trouble.

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