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Virginia Journal of Education

‘It Should Not Require Heroism to Be a Child’

Caring adults, like you, make all the difference for at-risk children.

By Alma and Colin Powell

The daily reality of at-risk children can seem like a conspiracy to destroy their dreams. The problems of neglect and abuse are not limited to any class or background. But they are concentrated in neighborhoods that are also characterized by neglect and abuse. In too many places, children are caught in a sticky web of troubles that would be difficult for any of us to escape. Some children do heroically transcend these problems through hard work, character, and idealism. But it should not require heroism to be a child.

Improving the lives and futures of children is a moral, social and economic imperative in our country. The well-being of children should be the common-ground commitment of our national life.

We remain deeply concerned about social trends that leave so many children at risk. Over the years, we have seen a weakening of family structure and support that has put excessive pressure on and stunted opportunity for parents and children. Observers on both the left and right agree that the loosening of this most basic unit in our society has proven to be bad for children and economic mobility.

We have seen the institutions that prepare young people buckle under the pressures of modern life. Families and children flourish in a rich network of community – quality daycare and preschool, excellent schools, sports teams, religious youth groups, extracurricular activities, libraries, and effective youth development organizations. Without the shelter of these institutions, young people are left exposed and vulnerable to harsh winds of adversity.

We have seen economic and social problems in America become more geographically concentrated, with certain communities facing multiple layers of need and challenge. This has resulted in pockets of intergenerational poverty where there are few examples of success, few clear pathways to success, and scant belief in a brighter future.

These challenges – highly-stressed parents and families, community fragmentation and economic isolation, along with the persistence of discrimination – are the enemies of young people’s success. Solving them is the domestic challenge of our time.

In the face of considerable skepticism, great movements of conscience have been brought to scale. Graduation rates in America have reached the highest level in our nation’s history. Efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been dramatically successful. Teen drug and alcohol abuse, by and large, have been on a steady decline. More students of color are attending college. We know that broad progress in the lives of young people is possible, because we have witnessed it.

The prospect of greater progress is within reach. Using better data, it is now possible to pinpoint educational problems by school district, school and student – focusing help exactly where it is most needed. A richer array of nonprofits and other organizations are involved in this work, guided by better research than ever before. Advances in neuroscience have opened new windows into how children learn and have underscored the importance of early childhood. And scientific breakthroughs on the impact of adversity, high levels of stress, and trauma have told us why some students struggle and how they might be helped.

We begin by putting caring adults close to the lives of at-risk children. There is no more fundamental human need than the attention and concern of another person. And not only self-confidence is at stake: A moral compass is always the gift of a caring adult.

Children can’t thrive without safe places to study and play, because fear is the enemy of orderly education and shrinks the timeline of life planning. And how can a child develop self-confidence and safety without a healthy start? The central role of physical and mental health as a building block of a young person’s development, learning and progress toward healthy adulthood has never been clearer.

On this foundation, children are prepared for an effective education that produces marketable skills. Work can bring advancement, a feeling of accomplishment and dignity, and the means to care for others.

And then our healthy, educated, motivated children should have opportunities to serve their community, because responsibility, empathy and compassion are essential elements of citizenship, as well as a life of purpose. Everyone should have the chance to say, “I helped build this community. I left it better than I found it.”

The Lessons of a Lifetime
We are not child development experts, but we have learned some lessons over the years, occasionally through hard experience. There are proper ways to treat and reach the young people we know by name. Influencing them depends on some very basic practices that allow adults to enter and impact their lives.

Lesson 1: When trying to serve young people, it is necessary to listen, really listen. Shaking the hand of a young man or woman, looking them in the eyes, taking the time to engage – all these things signal concern and respect. Especially if children feel betrayed, a connection may take time. But this is what many children need most – sustained, sympathetic interaction with adults who care for them as individuals and help them thrive. This always begins with a willingness to listen.

Lesson 2: Influence with young people requires consistency. Much hostility and suspicion toward the adult world comes from broken promises of attention and care, especially when family arrangements are unstable. Many children are effectively asking adults: Will you be back tomorrow? And the day after? Will you have my back over time? Children are not reached by a one-time flash of engagement; they are influenced by the long-term glow of commitment.

Lesson 3: There is no way to “fix” a child with a single plan or idea. The success of young people depends on many overlapping factors. So does their failure. They can experience concurrent problems – neglect, economic crisis, bad peer influences, trauma – that reach a tipping point. All their hopes and plans can shrink down to the needs and wants of the moment; they may leave school, join a gang, numb their pain with drugs. Whatever the latest policy trend may be – and we have seen many – no single response will be enough. It is necessary to surround a child with love, support and encouragement on every side, in every endeavor.

Lesson 4: Reaching young people requires a deep-down conviction that they are capable of learning and succeeding. Children have a way of knowing when adults have given up on them. They test our faith in them in a variety of ways. And discouragement can come very early. Educators have told us that most children in low-income schools arrive in kindergarten smiling, hungry for learning and eager to start. But many lack basic skills and feel dismissed and discounted. By the third grade, one educator told us, “The light can go out of their eyes.” It is only a sense of possibility that can rekindle the flame. Children will not believe in themselves if we don’t believe in them.

All of us have a responsibility to the state of children in our country. This begins by not averting our eyes. The adult world is not sufficiently focused on the continuing crisis of broken childhoods. We are a nation that spends vast sums of money, but devotes too few resources to the development of future citizens. This is a scandal of misplaced priorities.

It is unacceptable to see young people cut off from the world of opportunity and contribution. It is unacceptable to watch children abandon faith in the future before their lives have really begun.

Alma J. Powell is the chair and General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) is the founding chair of the America’s Promise Alliance. These excerpts were taken from Our Cause: A Letter to America,  co-written by the Powells. To read it in its entirety, visit America’s Promise Alliance is devoted to improving the lives of children and youth. To learn more, visit 


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