The Lost Children

Today I had the opportunity to take part in a teacher education day. The theme was how aggression in adolescents is received and perceived by adults. The speaker, Samuli Koiso-Kanttila from the Family Federation (Väestöliitto) in Finland, presented alarming statistics on how aggressive and risk-seeking behaviour in boys and young men has increased during the past decades. 

He cited a cohort study, which showed, among other things, what had caused deaths in the age group 8-25 year olds. The discoveries were staggering: only 4% of all deaths we’re illness related. The overwhelming majority (96%) of the deaths in this group were caused by accidents (due to risk-seeking behaviour), suicide or violence.

Compared to girls in the same age group, boys were much more likely to die a violent death. According to Koiso-Kanttila, girls are not necessarily doing any better emotionally, but they often tend to turn their aggressions inwards, the results of which are much more difficult to measure. Girls develop eating disorders, cut themselves or become depressed. However, for both groups, there has been a dramatic rise in these tough statistics during the past decades.

This made the participants at the seminar question what has changed so drastically during that time period. One thing which came up is that during the past decades children in Western European countries and the US (which all were represented in the study) have been left increasingly alone. Parents (mainly mothers) have moved to working life and have not been replaced by fathers  or any other primary caretakers. This has meant that even very small children have been left in day care, sometimes in very large groups. In later years, after-school hours can often be spent alone or in the company of just other children, without adult role models and support. Could this be a triggering factor in the increasing mental problems we’re seeing in adolescents today?

We still know very little of what happens with children who lack close contact to those important primary caretakers in early childhood. How does it affect them, if from a very early age, they’re left in a group with perhaps only 1 or 2 adults, whose attention they have to fight for with 20 other toddlers? That combined with frequent changes in personnel, which at least in Finnish day care is often the norm, can be the time-bomb we haven’t even realized is ticking in our midst. 

Sadly, at least in the Nordic countries, this discussion is burdened by its political hot potato status. Here it’s close to political suicide to claim that parents should stay at home longer with their kids. Making such a claim is almost always interpreted as a backward strive to get women off the labour market. However, what is mostly ignored in these discussions is that from a child’s point of view, the sex of the caretaker is irrelevant. The only thing children need is a primary caretaker with whom they can form close and longstanding relationships and who can serve as a role model for learning – and handling aggression and negative feelings. Theoretically, this could be done in daycare also – provided the caretakers would stay the same during the child’s time in day care (for years, that is). And as of yet, that seems to be an exception.

We need to start addressing this issue – without making it a woman’s rights battle. Women have every right to work – as much and as often they like. Just the same as men. But when you decide to start a family, the adults in that family need to face up to their responsibilities. We need to accept the fact that, ultimately, this is not a gender issue – it’s children’s right’s issue. Every child born into this world deserves to have hers and his needs met. And one very pressing need is for adults to be there for them. Not just for those first crucial years (according to studies years 0-3 are the most prominent when it comes to the ability to develop emotions) but further on as well. Children will be needing their parents – and other possible primary caretakers – for a long time to come.

There are probably other pressing reasons for this tragic development as well, such as the seemingly ever increasing demands of today’s society or the questionable role models provided by ever-present media. But that just gives us all the more reason to be there for our kids.

Are we (fathers and mothers alike) prepared to face up to that responsibility? From looking at these gloomy statistics, it seems we’re not. And, sadly, that means we’ll be reaping what we’ve sowed for many years to come. Every child lost is one too many.

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