In the past year, parents and caregivers in the United States have grown increasingly aware that, despite their optimism about the future for their children, there is still a long way to go to make their hopes a reality and to end the harms from centuries of injustice. A new survey released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), “Raising the Next Generation: A Survey of Parents and Caregivers” examines what it is like to raise children in America today. The survey questioned equal numbers of parents and caregivers from five racial and ethnic groups: Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black, Indigenous, Latino and White.
The survey results explore themes around parents’ optimism, their feelings about parenting, their feelings about their communities and their experiences with racism and discrimination. It further assesses how some of those factors support or hinder a child’s ability to thrive. The parents surveyed remain largely optimistic about the future of the country for their children, but very few say that all children have the same opportunity to grow up to be independent, financially stable and healthy adults.
Their responses inspired several Burness parents to reflect on what it means to raise their children — in the United States and Kenya! Like the parents surveyed in the RWJF survey, Burness parents agree that they try to give their children everything they need to succeed. Yet, because of systemic racism and other social inequities, they still worry that their countries do not offer every child the same opportunities. Black parents, in particular, express fear and anxiety that their children will not be valued for who they are and that they will have opportunities taken from them.
ReDonah Anderson says that, although her daughter will face many obstacles as a Black woman, it is her responsibility to make sure that she is prepared. “I’m concerned about how she may be perceived and how that will hinder her from opportunities. As a mother, I don’t want her to ever worry about that; I want to take on her pain but, unfortunately, this is reality. All we can do is control how we react or respond. If we ever face any hindrances, we will fight 10 times as hard and make the most out of the yes’s we get.”
Lowell Dempsey shares the same fear, that “when people see my son individually and Black boys as a collective, they will see a reason to be fearful or think that they are not capable of doing something important, and that is worrisome.”
Burness parents are creating a space so that they can have conversations with their children about racism, sexism, diversity and other issues that are so critical to preparing them for the world.
Anne-Marie Schryer-Roy, who lives in Kenya, emphasizes that she and her husband “have very open discussions about things going on in the United States and abroad” with their children. “We see what their privileges are and where they stand in all of this. Finding books and movies to address these issues in an age-appropriate way and not shoving things under the rug is the way we are preparing our children to navigate the world.”
Similarly, in the United States, Matt Gruenburg and his wife “try to be pretty direct with our six-year-old daughter about what’s going around the world. For example, we talked about George Floyd, the protests and the election. We don’t sugarcoat things. We try to be pretty direct about everything that has been going on in the past year.”
The pandemic has been hard on all of us, but especially on children, many of whom have experienced increased anxiety or mental distress. Age and geographic location do not limit that anxiety, either. Most RWJF survey respondents believe it is likely that their children will experience anxiety, bullying or depression during their childhood and teen years. Burness parents agree.
Michelle Geis Wallace, who lives in Kenya, shares that her daughter, who is only 4, has continuously asked “When is the sickness going away?” Meanwhile, Elizabeth Wenk, who lives in the United States and has two teen daughters and a set of boy-girl twins, expresses concern that “social media, the pandemic, online schooling and all the things that teens deal with, when compounded, result in a lot of anxiety.”
When looking to the future, Burness parents are optimistic that their children will grow up in a more inclusive and accepting world than they did. With each generation, there is increased acceptance, openness and appreciation of differences.
Parents have shared similar sentiments that, as Wallace puts it, “our children’s generation or Generation Z and below are also exposing issues we have all neglected. And they’re not backing down. I am optimistic and I feel like they are calling the older generations out, which is a good thing. Even in the last year, there has been movement on big issues like climate change and racism. There’s a lot more engagement and awareness on those issues than there was before.” Parents have faith that their children’s generation will be strong-willed, tackle social injustices and succeed where previous generations have failed.
Parents have the opportunity to support the work of future generations. For example, they can help undo the structural racism and classism in our education system. In the United States, schools are funded according to how much money a family has or the color of their skin –– wealthy districts have more resources.
“There are parents who have the cards stacked against them, like whether they are able to live in neighborhoods with good schools or get a job that pays enough to support their children. It’s not the parents’ fault; it’s society’s fault,” Wenk said.
Adam Zimmerman, father of two, said: “It takes a village for every school to have the resources to keep children safe because we are depending on them. This just shows how, as a society, we need to do our part to make sure that everybody’s kids are our priority in our policies and the way we treat people.”
Between having to juggle helping their children with school and keeping up with work, parents are more challenged than usual during these difficult times. But Burness parents agree: At the end of the day, being a parent is incredibly rewarding. And it is important to prepare the next generation to make the world a better place. To see what other parents across the country are saying, read more in the RWJF study.