Wellbeing: Part of a Complete Childhood

This post was written by John Converse Townsend (@JohnCTownsend), an editor and digital strategist at Ashoka Changemakers.

Kids these days. In the United States, kids are more miserable than most — and not just in the classroom. According to findings from adolescence scholar Larry Steinberg, Ph.D., children in the U.S. are “among the world leaders in violence, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, abortion, binge drinking, marijuana use, obesity, and unhappiness.”

And consider this: Children in America rank 26th out of 29 in overall measures of wellbeing, per a UNICEF study focused on rich countries. In fact, kids in the U.S. are worse off than they were in the early aughts. See, when it comes to material wellbeing, education, health and safety, behavior and risks, and housing and environment, children in the U.S. compared to those in the three “poorest” countries in the study: Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania.

Yikes. How is that possible in a land where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inherent and inalienable rights?

There is obviously no one single reason, but a confluence of issues. Among them: a misguided insistence on the standardization in education, overwhelmed teachers, under-involved parents, intensive helicopter parents, too much screen time, everyday violence against children (including ineffective physical discipline and, much worse, so many school shootings), institutionalized racism (it exists), and a general ignorance about the positive, game-changing effects of mental health care.

We need a new way forward to change the fortunes and faculties of America’s bright young talent. We need hate and divisiveness replaced by caring and creativity, the new currency in the 21st century.

What if children’s wellbeing were about more than just physical safety or addressing negative outcomes? What if our societal definition of wellbeing also encompassed positive attributes like a strong sense of self, purpose, and belonging? What if individuals, communities, and institutions could work together to create an environment where everyone is empowered to fulfill their own needs for wellbeing?

Those are the compelling questions being asked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Ashoka, two organizations in a search for extraordinary leaders who are ready to lead a cultural shift in the way the United States ensures its children grow into healthy adulthood.

The opportunities afforded by such a culture would be accessible by all. Such opportunities are needed right now.

The challenges standing in the way of wellbeing affect every child in the United States. And those from underserved neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately affected. Damaging effects can be seen as early as third grade, according to Sean Reardon, Stanford University professor of poverty and inequality in education.

Those scars don’t fade with time.

“Our teens are more stressed than adults and feel less supported than teens in other countries,” Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence research affiliate Diana Divecha, Ph.D., wrote in the Washington Post.

“One study found that teens today are five times more likely to meet the cutoff for significant psychopathology than teens were 75 years ago, using the same measure of psychological health. Youth suicide attempts are more frequent here than in most other countries, resulting in about 4,600 deaths a year.”

Now, imagine the possibilities if children in the U.S. as a whole didn’t self-report as being unsatisfied with life (which they do), and instead enjoyed the lifetime benefits of early interventions and investments.

…If every child living in poverty had the tools to decrease stress and increase self-esteem.

…If every child could enjoy their school years without fear of being bullied or harassed.

…If every child recognized him or herself as a resourceful, innovative changemaker.

…If every child was able to form healthy relationships, show resilience in the face of trauma, make thoughtful choices, tap into their limitless potential, and serve the public good with both passion and empathy.

That reality is very much possible. It’s also in demand in today’s fast-moving global economy — and will stay in demand in a future that promises rapid change and new challenges.

So, let’s shape a new vision for ensuring every child grows up with the building blocks of wellbeing.

The search is on for 10 champions of #childrenswellbeing!

Share your impact with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Ashoka by 11:59 p.m. EDT on June 22: changemakers.com/childrenswellbeing.