What does the way we care for children say about society?

“How are the children?” is the traditional greeting of the mighty Masai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania. No tribe is considered more fearsome or more intelligent than the Masai warriors; yet they continue to place the highest value on their children and can answer, “All the children are well.” This means, of course, that peace and safety prevail, the priorities of safeguarding the young and powerless are in place. It means the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their children.

Former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul that the way in which it treats its children.” What does the U.S. record of how we care for our children reveal about our soul as a society?

Maternity leave: The United Nations International Labor Organization has set these standards for leave: 14 to 18 weeks minimum, pay should cover a minimum of two-thirds of a parent’s earnings and family members should be covered by medical insurance. All European countries, except for Ireland and the U.K., exceed the standard for wage replacement. Some countries also have “father quotas,” as long as three months’ leave time for the dad, also. Germany gives parents two to 12 months of allowance, and single parents can go for 14 months, with between 67 and 100 percent income replacement.

The U.S., by contrast, does not meet any of the ILO’s standards. We are one of the four countries (Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the other three) that does not require paid maternity leave. We allow only 12 weeks of unpaid leave but only for companies that employ 50 or more people. Only one-fourth of American employers give fully paid leaves of absences to give birth.

Early care: European countries also support child care in the very early years of development. The French offer eight hours daily of free care for 2- to 6-year-olds. Europe has plenty of care for younger-than-2s and pays about 75 percent of the cost. Family allowances also exist to subsidize families through cash payments.

The U.S. has no national child care programs, and we do not offer family assistance. We rely instead on private sources, some targeted state child care assistance and subsidized programs by income levels, and tax breaks.

Preschool: European governments also heavily support and subsidize preschool, starting at age 3, instead of our Head Start at age 4. Eighty-four percent of European kids attend publicly funded programs, while in the U.S., only 55 percent do, and they must qualify financially. The U.S. ranks 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds in early childhood education. European programs are taught by qualified teachers with a formal curriculum.

Older American children rate the fifth worst, as determined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in lacking more than four of eight key educational possessions – a desk on which to study, a quiet place to work, a computer for schoolwork, educational software, Internet connection, a calculator, a dictionary and school textbooks.

Infant mortality in the U.S. is the fourth worst (after Mexico, Turkey and the Slovak Republic), and we have the sixth worst rate of low birth weight. Europeans enjoy universal health benefits, while in the U.S., 50 million citizens are uninsured and lack access to care.

These statistics are shocking to me and a real wake-up call to the reality of many children in La Plata County. I wonder how it might effect our consciousness if we took to greeting each other with, “How are the children?” I wonder if we all heard this many times a day, from friends, in meetings, in the press, at county commissioners and city council meetings, in church, on the mountain and in the gym, it would begin to make a difference in how children are thought of and cared about.

I wonder if and when we can all say, “They are well, yes, all the children are well.”

Martha McClellan has been an early care child educator, director and administrator for 36 years. She currently has an early childhood consulting business, supporting child care centers and families. Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.