In this episode, our hosts Bruce Lesley and Messellech “Selley” Looby chat with law professor Adam Benforado about the lack of attention paid to children in the policymaking process. Benforado, who focuses on criminal justice and children’s rights, argues that many societal problems we see all around us — incarceration or homelessness, for example — are prevented most effectively by investing in our children. For the U.S. to remain competitive and produce healthy, happy, and thriving adults, Benforado believes we must prioritize the well-being of our youth.
Benforado explains that American society has gone backward on children’s rights. We haven’t made the same progress as our peer nations on leading causes of childhood death, like gun and automobile safety, which jeopardizes the well-being and security of our youth as well as our nation.
Learn more about children’s rights:
- Book: A Minor Revolution: How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All, By Adam Benforado
- Book Review: A Minor Revolution Proposes Improving the Rights of Children By Bruce Lesley
- Article: ‘Two Little Texans’ in Thick of Textbook Battle for Young Minds, By Dan Balz
Be sure to check out Adam Benferado’s website and follow on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. To join the conversation. Follow First Focus on Children on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Connect with our hosts and tell us what you would like to hear on the podcast at:
Please rate and review this podcast and share it with friends and family.
Want to be a voice for kids? Become an Ambassador for Children here. Connect with First Focus Campaign for Children for easy training on how to be a powerful advocate for children. Please consider donating to First Focus on Children here.
Bruce Lesley 00:03
Hey Messellech. Do you remember your high school literature class?
Selley Looby 00:06
Vaguely. But now I’m curious as to why you’re asking.
Bruce Lesley 00:10
So when I was the high school editor of our newspaper, we had a situation where a parent didn’t like a book that some of us were reading for our high school English class called The Canterbury Tales. So she got the principal of the school to actually ban it. And so we decided we were going to run a story in opposition to the banning of the book
Selley Looby 00:33
Feels familiar. What was the issue with the book? What was the offense?
Bruce Lesley 00:37
This parent must have, you know, decided that the book was, you know, too racy or something and had swear words, which we found ridiculous, like, give me a break. And this is a book that was written in the 1400s. So we were we were outraged at the time,
Selley Looby 00:51
It really surprises me how one person’s offense translates to all this, right? Like, who was one person to determine what another family can consume?
Bruce Lesley 01:02
Selley Looby 01:02
So then what happened? What was the fallout? What are the other students say? Or
Bruce Lesley 01:06
Well it was interesting? Because it led to sort of conversations about, you know, what are our rights and The Canterbury Tales, I mean, it’s pretty tame, to be honest. And in fact, it’s in the library today at Coronado High School. So it just seems like at the time, we were just like, really turned off by the idea that one parent could decide for all of us what we could and cannot read and that that conversation is happening today across the country. But sorry, I just wanted to ask you like, did you have a circumstance where you felt that parents rights was also interfering with you know, how you thought of, you should be allowed to do stuff as a kid?
Selley Looby 01:43
I do have similar stories, but they’re not quite at the level of of book banning. This was more of an internal team family huddle situation, but I felt violated nonetheless.
Bruce Lesley 01:58
First Focus on Children. This is Speaking of Kids, I’m Bruce Lesley.
Selley Looby 02:02
And I’m a Messellech Looby. Speaking of Kids is a podcast that puts kids at the center of public policy. A lighter but similar sentiment, as at least as a kid is I was on the yearbook committee. I loved it. It was such a cool project. And you got free yearbooks, and you know those yearbooks were like $40, or $50. So it was always a perk, and you had the opportunity to kind of, you know, feature what you wanted to feature in the yearbook. So you were automatically like cool kids status. And my parents being, you know, Ethiopian immigrant parents, they love the value of, hey, this is a great extra curricular activity, but part of this was covering after school dances, and just the whole notion of a dance just immediately in their mind, they just had turned it off. And so I wasn’t allowed to go. But again, like, you know, even as a middle school, high school kid, I felt like my rights were being violated to a degree. It’s funny, because they didn’t know until years after they didn’t stop to ask like, oh, so when is the dance? When would you need a ride? And I was like, it’s just right after school, it’s over at 5:30. But at that point, the yearbook had been published so.
Bruce Lesley 03:20
I think like that moment, where you sort of realize like, hey my rights are being diminished or being restricted in some way, whether it’s, you know, something that may be small, and in terms of your interactions with your parents, or, or something that’s really big, right? We see that sometimes and you think about things like child abuse, and really horrible things like that. And even in Texas, I grew up in we were subjected to corporal punishment. And I just remember thinking God that is just, not only is it barbaric, but it really made no sense to me, like why is it okay, that adults can inflict, you know, violence against children in a way that that it would be completely unacceptable for them to do to each other?
Selley Looby 04:03
Absolutely. And my example was one that my parents had my best intentions, and were really just trying their best. But we know that that’s not the case all the time. Right. And so, for those listening, if you haven’t caught on yet, today, we’re talking about children’s rights. Bruce, how would you define children’s rights?
Bruce Lesley 04:22
I think sometimes people think of it in terms of the affirmative rights that kids should have, and then also, the negative rights, but I would actually characterize it a little bit differently. And I would think of it as affirmative or positive rights, and then sort of the protective rights. And so we talk a lot about how kids need both the support of both parents and government, but they honestly need sometimes protection from parents in government. We know that, in the case of the supports kids need, they need sort of the fundamentals we all need, right like so. Nutrition and housing and education and all those kinds of things. And some of those things are provided by their parents. And sometimes government, in the case of schools provide those supports. And so kids need both of those. But sometimes they also need protections from parents and government. And so you think about kids need protection from abusive parents, whether it’s sexual abuse or physical abuse. And they also need protection sometimes from government and government sometimes can do things like censorship and book bands, that sometimes are inspired by the public and the fundamental needs and rights and kids ability to know the truth then is restricted. And that’s just not right.
Selley Looby 05:39
Yeah, I think sometimes it’s hard for people and systems and structures, to center kids in those decisions. You know, oftentimes, it’s easy to get distracted or clouded by your own personal opinions and thoughts. But really, when you’re talking about children and their growth and their development, and what they have access to, you really do have to center children. Starting at a young age, absolutely by middle school, high school kids have thoughts, right, or they have the ability to decipher and weigh in on their future where, no, that’s not going to be the only pillar of voice that is factored into the overall equation. But we oftentimes argue at First Focus that it should be a piece. And we talk about this in a lot of the issues that we cover, especially, you know, when talking about issues like child welfare, juvenile justice, youth advocacy, I mean, education, you know, with the book bans, when you really center kids in their best interest for how to make them complete, whole, well rounded adults and humans. It’s hard to ignore their voice and all of that.
Bruce Lesley 07:00
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s why I’m really excited about today’s guest, Adam Benforado. He’s going to talk about this issue of when the issue is about kids, we should center their best interests and their well being in the conversation. That should be first and foremost, we did a poll on this, and the American public agrees. And yet, it’s unbelievable how often there’s an issue that’s about kids and the conversation has nothing to do with kids. It’s all about the adults. And we’ve seen it time and time again, we saw it last year right with the Child Tax Credit. So here’s something called the Child Tax Credit and the reason why it was not extended as people were talking about deservingness and individualism and things about adults, that concerns about how will adults spend this money. And the fact is, is most parents, vast majority of parents spend that money on children and, and yet this concern about parents and the deservingness of them really caused the Child Tax Credit not to be extended. And that’s really what’s great about our guest today, Adam Benforado talks about how we really need a children first mindset.
Selley Looby 08:13
Yeah, his his new book, A Minor Revolution is great. And I think it does a great job of demonstrating why it’s important to center kids in the conversation. Adam Benforado is a professor, writer and lawyer. As a legal scholar and teacher Adam’s main focus is on criminal justice and children’s rights. He is particularly interested in bringing insights from the mind sciences, most notably cognitive psychology to law and legal theory. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
Bruce Lesley 08:53
So we’d like to welcome today, our amazing guest, Professor Adam Benforado, and he’s got an amazing book out right now called A Minor Revolution: How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All. I just want to say, Professor Benforado that like as we were reading it, we do this work on a daily basis. And constantly I was coming across aha moments that that was like God, such a great way to talk about that or an enlightened moments, so I really appreciate how you really delve into the issues and and what an outstanding book it is. And I encourage all our listeners to order it and read up on it. But yeah, thank you, and welcome to our podcast.
Adam Benforado 09:32
Well, thank you so much. And thank you for all that you all do. I’m an academic, but I often think that this stuff is too important to just confine to academics or even experts. And so this is a book that I tried to write for everyone. It has special meaning when people who are pushing so hard on issues I care most about when it resonates with them, but this for me was it was a project to try to create a big tent to reach even, you know, young people, it’s been exciting actually to hear from, you know, high schoolers who are reading this book and talking about this book, as well. So great to be here speaking with you.
Bruce Lesley 10:11
Thank you so much. And I think the first thing we probably want to ask you is tell us a little bit about your backstory and why you got so interested in this issue and sort of the well being and rights of children and why that became such a centerpiece of your book.
Adam Benforado 10:25
This truly is a lifelong project for me. I think I was interested in children’s rights as a kid. And I think speaking with a lot of people who come to children’s rights, I think a lot of it does have to do with our experiences as a young person. And, and I think I was incredibly lucky in a lot of ways. I had two very loving parents who supported me my whole life. But I think, as a kid, I looked around and saw a lot of injustice and a lot of mistreatment. And I think one of the reasons I was attuned to children’s rights was because my parents actually saw me as someone who had rights, they listened to what I said, they gave me power in our family to discuss like, what should we have for dinner, little things, and big things as well. And so I think I looked around and as a kid, you know, I thought it was wrong, that my best friend’s dad spanked him, I didn’t think that was right. I looked at kind of the effects of poverty, I write about this a little bit about other people’s experiences. First, recognizing that there are rich people and poor people in the world. But I remember the moments from my childhood, particularly going from I had a, you know, little 1200 square foot house, in a neighborhood that, you know, there were plenty of people who had smaller apartments and things. And I felt like the wealthy kid in the beginning of elementary school and then moved kind of in third grade to a school that had much wealthier kids. And suddenly, you know, fourth grade birthday party, my friend’s father’s had a limousine for the fourth graders to go in, and starting to think about the effects of that, on the trajectory of a person’s life. Those were things that I was thinking about in elementary school. And I think certainly I didn’t understand why as a sixth grader, I was not allowed to vote. I thought there’s lots of things that I don’t know about the world. But there’s lots of things I do know, and that are certainly relevant to the years ahead. And those experiences both shaped the decision to go to law school, and certainly as a professor, the types of things I was interested in researching on, and certainly what I’m interested, I teach, you know, the rights of children. But even when I teach first year courses, like criminal law, thinking about the effects of the criminal justice system, on young people is a big part of that.
Selley Looby 12:57
You know, it’s funny that you say that, Adam, I have a girlfriend that was sharing with me that her daughter got an invite for a 10th birthday party in Paris.
Adam Benforado 13:08
That’s one of the funny things is that I think, when you were in these insulated kind of communities, whatever community you are, you start to imagine that everyone is similarly situated. That’s one of the really great things and challenges though of you know, my kids go to a public school in downtown Philadelphia, there are just such a diversity of experiences in my children’s classes. So you know, last year, first little table, she was sitting at, you know, there was a refugee from Afghanistan, there was a refugee from Ukraine, there were kids whose parents have houses that, you know, are couple million dollar houses and their kids who are living in public housing all in the same classroom. And I think when you have that exposure, it’s so much easier to start to think about, like little things like, okay, we’re having the festival to celebrate the school and raise funds. Should we sell tickets? I mean, if you go to a school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, it’s like, oh, yeah, just charge $100 a ticket and raise the money. In our school, it’s like, No, we actually need to go to neighborhood restaurants and things and ask for donations because we can’t charge any money. We want everyone to be part of this. And you can imagine the challenge of a teacher who has parents who have PhDs and doctorates, and kids who are honestly living in a shelter and going to school, from the shelter. And I think, you know, one of my goals when I’ve talked to people, is to be thinking about all children in America in our policies and understanding you know, I think the word privilege is a little overused these days, but I think thinking about the ways that little things matter so much, and how those kids who have less start life with such a greater set of challenges ahead.
Selley Looby 15:10
Absolutely, absolutely. In your book you know you describe at our nation’s inception, children were treated as property of their fathers, whereby children could be used, sold, hired out to employers, when you think of the progression of children’s rights and where it is today, looking back at the history, what made you start there?
Adam Benforado 15:31
In part, I always look at things from multiple angles. When I went off to undergrad, I was a history major, and I was very interested in early American history was kind of my specialty. And then in law school, I got very interested in psychology. And so I think this project is certainly drawing upon a whole bunch of social sciences, to kind of understand where we’ve been and where we are and where we’re going. So I start looking at history to understand what I see in contemporary America, which is still the notion that children belong to their parents. Some people might say they are, you know, owned, it’s an ownership mentality. But it also can be more of a notion that that you are from me, and therefore I have like some command over you. How it manifests in the United States is unique, in part because of slavery, in part because of some of the needs for labor, even in sort of northern colonies, and the way that children were apprentice. But I think what we see is, as we move into the 19th century, we start to have kind of these Victorian, more sentimental notions about children, mixing with the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. By the time that we get to the 20th century, there’s a whole bunch of people and these are really the early progressives, who look at the plight of children, particularly children living in eastern Northeastern cities, and say, this is terrible for kids. But more importantly, this is terrible for the future of America. And they start demanding broad changes across society, it’s a different mentality. It’s a mentality that starts to say, we can’t leave it to individual parents. If we leave it to individual parents, we have kids working in sweatshops losing fingers, in factories, we have kids who cannot read, we have children dying of preventable things, you know, getting sick from cow’s milk. And so across society, we see these, the group was often referred to as child savers, but these progressive notions of we need free mandatory public education, we need a separate juvenile justice system focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. We need health and safety measures, we need child labor laws. And what is very interesting, and I think depressing, and deeply unsettling is that, you know, at this moment of the early 20th century, we were on the dawn of this bright new age, in which prioritizing children would be the goal across local, state, national government. And what we’ve seen over the course of the 20th century, into the last couple of decades, is not simply that we’ve kind of slowed to a trudge, but in many areas, we’re backtracking.
Bruce Lesley 18:31
Can you share some examples with our audience on where we are backtracking on the prioritization of children?
Adam Benforado 18:37
Oh, yeah, just the last few months on child labor, you’d think okay, well, at least that I know, you know, education, at least child labor we’re not backtracking. Absolutely we are. If you look at the state level, we are repealing laws about using heavy machinery, things that were no brainers 100 years ago, we’re backtracking. And we’re using the same arguments that were used in the 19th century, it’s economic necessity. Families need this money.
Bruce Lesley 19:05
Adam Benforado 19:06
Businesses need this money. And who loses with that way of thinking is kids. With respect to public health measures in terms of infant mortality, early childhood deaths, we really with what we know, in terms of the last 100 years scientific breakthroughs, technological breakthroughs, children should face much safer futures than they currently face. But we haven’t taken the action that our peer nations have done on some of the leading causes of childhood deaths, gun safety, automobile safety, these are these are leading causes of childhood deaths. We have not passed those measures again, often because we’re focused on other people’s rights, other people’s interests and not on children’s rights. It’s a very complex story, how we go from this moment of really saying hey, our future as a nation is entwined with children. And in order to be the great power that we want to be and the great beacon for the rest of the world, we need to put children first, to a moment where I think on so many levels, children are always placed second. And I think you know, how we get there is partially a story of regression back to these earlier notions of children belonging to their parents. But I think it’s also a process of elite institutions. I’m a law professor, so I always go to what was the Supreme Court talking about over the course of the 20th century, we have some really iconic cases that involved confronting these progressive changes like mandatory public education. And we have the Supreme Court having this opportunity to focus on children’s rights. And what do they say instead, let’s focus on parents rights.
Bruce Lesley 20:54
That’s right, yeah.
Adam Benforado 20:55
To be the deciders of their children’s destinies, parents rights to exclude their children from school.
Bruce Lesley 21:03
Adam Benforado 21:03
Parents rights, to exclude their children from medical care, parents rights to exclude their children from family connections. That was, again, a process that has a very long history in our popular culture. But it also was facilitated in over the course of the 20th century by elite institutions. And we now I think, see the most common notion of children who takes care of children as parents today, and it’s a very dispositional account, good parents should be patted on the back, that his parents whose kids have good, in quotes, outcomes, and bad parents should be blamed. And so yes, if your kid is not in a, quote, unquote, good school, that’s your fault. You should be working harder, you should move to one of those wealthy schools in the suburbs.
Bruce Lesley 21:56
Adam Benforado 21:57
If your kid doesn’t have lunch, that’s not a societal problem. States shouldn’t invest in lunch, for kids in elementary school, that’s parents and if we pay for school lunch, we’re incentivizing bad parenting.
Bruce Lesley 22:13
Adam Benforado 22:14
And again, I think that would have appalled child savers back in the early 20th century, who understood, hey, if you don’t give kids lunch at school, they’re not going to learn. If you have a bad school that is failing infrastructure, you’re going to see in 20 years time, children who are not prepared to be those full citizens and productive citizens of society. And unfortunately, today, if you go around the state houses, oftentimes in red states, you will see people making these arguments which are almost always about bad parents. We can’t incentivize bad parenting as opposed to thinking, well, kids don’t choose their parents. That’s so obvious. We need to give children a fair shot at the American dream, or we are not living up to the country that I think we all want to live in.
Selley Looby 23:13
Adam just laid out a great history of children’s rights. Coming up after the break, Adam will outline the children’s first mindset and how it is so necessary to adapt this mindset when advocating for children.
Leila Nimatallah 23:27
Making the world a better place for all children can seem like an impossibly huge task. Some of you may be thinking, I am just one person, what could I possibly do to make a difference? I’m Leila Nimatallah, Vice President of Advocacy and Mobilization at First Focus on Children. And I’m inviting you to join us and become one of our volunteer advocates, whom we call our Ambassadors for Children. Ambassadors are our most active child advocates who raise critical issues with the US Congress, and with the administration related to child policy and funding decisions, both for kids in the US and worldwide. But don’t take my word for it. We asked one of our ambassadors to share her experience.
Katie Landa 24:18
I am Katie Landa, I live in New York City. I currently work as a researcher for an institute called the Child and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. I joined the ambassador program because it’s important to me to participate in working towards public policies that support children and their families. And I would encourage you to become an ambassador if you would like to become a part of a very supportive and warm network of people that value is teaching and learning and activism towards creating a more just and caring country. Thank you.
Leila Nimatallah 25:09
So please join us won’t you? Check out campaignforchildren.org/ambassadors on how to become a First Focus on Children Ambassador, and to link up with our fabulous community of committed child advocates.
Selley Looby 25:35
First Focus on Children is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions.
Bruce Lesley 25:44
First Focus on Children moves beyond individual issues to serve a more important role, children’s advocacy, we educate lawmakers and the American public about the issues facing children.
Selley Looby 25:55
We just released the 2023 Children’s Budget Book and hosted our annual Children’s Budget Summit not too long ago.
Bruce Lesley 26:03
We were pleased to have Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, and Kirabo Jackson with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers at our summit, and they said,
There is no better investment the federal government can make than in kids and families.
Money matters. It matters a lot. It matters for the most vulnerable groups. And beyond that it matters exactly how we spend it.
Selley Looby 26:26
Stick around, we’ll get into the Children’s Budget Book in more detail in our upcoming segment, Legislative State of Play.
Bruce Lesley 26:36
You explain in such a great way the the important role that parents play in raising kids, obviously, but also the role that government and society should also play. And so kids need the support and, you know, from parents, government and society to do well and thrive. But they also need protections from government and parents and society sometimes. And so there’s this sort of role about what are the rights of children? And how do all those things balance? And I think it’s a complicated one I just wanted to give you opportunity to really talk about sort of that evolving the evolving rights of kids, I think for some people, when they think about the rights of kids, it doesn’t make sense to them, because they’re like, what do you mean, baby has rights, as opposed to a 17 year old? And I think what you magnificently do is really sort of talk about the evolving rights of kids. So can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Adam Benforado 27:34
Yeah, so one thing I think is so important to understand, and it’s a misperception out there, which is that when someone comes along and says, we need to recognize children’s rights, it takes away from the rest of us. When you say children have rights, necessarily, that means other people losing rights, older adults losing rights, or parents losing rights. And one of the reasons I wrote this book, is because I think focusing on kids is the best way to create the society we all want to live in. And that is because so many social problems are best addressed in childhood. Right, childhood is the window of opportunity, we have a wealth of research, which suggests right, you can either invest pennies in prevention, that is, you know, prenatal care, early education, all those things, or you can wait until problems have metastasized and hardened, and build prisons and try to do jobs programs and build public housing. So again, it’s not it’s not a zero sum game. When you make the lives of children better, you’re going to have healthier, happier, more successful adults. And I think that’s particularly true, coming out of the pandemic period where parents suffer. I mean, I’m a parent, and boy, did we suffer, and I had so many advantages over many parents, and I’m sure we all suffered so much. And so I think sometimes, folks, when they hear children’s rights, they’re like, wait, I was so disrespected during this period. And one of the things I want you to think about, if you’re in that camp, is to think about all of the ways that respecting kids and empowering kids and giving literally just money to kids can make your life so much easier. All of us felt so alone, felt so much like we had the weight of the world. And every day, it’s worse. It’s like, you know, when suddenly you have to be deciding on the vaccine schedule, and you have to be deciding what history, our school can’t teach about the Holocaust or slavery or so, you actually have to be a history teacher and decide what lessons and what is appropriate. You have to decide about, you know, reproductive health and have that conversation. It’s like, it is so difficult to be a parent. And I think understanding that actually recognizing children’s rights is a great way to take the pressure off the rest of us and to reduce the consequences, right, like all of us feel this enormous pressure to be helicopter parents, to invest in tutors, and it’s overwhelming. And one of the things with respecting children’s rights and making a broad societal commitment to children’s rights is allowing parents to relax a little bit. It’s actually really surprising if you look at, you know, parental happiness in the United States versus other much, much poor kind we’re like at the bottom. People struggle, they love their children, this is the common thing. People love their children and parents are suffering and often feel overwhelmed and despairing. And I think that’s because of the atomized each of you are completely on your own to sink or swim mentality.
Selley Looby 30:53
What is your definition of children’s rights? What do the rights of children even mean?
Adam Benforado 30:58
You know, the way I like to think about it, you know, it’s certainly in the book, there are kind of an infinite number of rights that we might think about and that are worthy of discussion. But I sort of focus on the ones that I think are most important at each stage of development. So I start looking at first, the right to attachment. There’s a huge amount of scientific literature, which talks about the importance of preserving healthy attachment with primary caregivers in the first years of life. And that yields benefits not just to the child, but actually even to the child’s children. And so, one of the things that’s so frustrating in America is all of the ways in which we have this overwhelming literature, which we do not follow.
Bruce Lesley 31:42
Adam Benforado 31:42
And it’s on simple things, like for example, not having paid mandatory leave for new parents being the outlier among wealthy countries in the world. But it’s also in the way that we callously separate loving parents from their kids through the child welfare system. So a lot of people think the child welfare system is simply set up to remove child abusers, physical abusers from their parents, but a lot of time, what that works out to is simply to remove kids who have poor parents, so you know, child welfare worker comes to our house and sees empty refrigerator, peeling, lead paint cockroaches on the floor, it’s, it well you’re, you’re negligent, and removes that kid and puts them into foster care. And again, I think the literature would suggest a much better way to deal with poverty is to address poverty.
Selley Looby 32:37
Adam Benforado 32:38
Give poor parents money, and you alleviate the conditions that seem to necessitate this thing that we know, harms kids in long, long run. And the same thing, obviously, is with the criminal justice system, we remove so many kids from their parents, and again, the focus is on the parents, it’s on, well, this is a bad person, and we need them to punish them without thinking there are innocent people here.
Bruce Lesley 33:06
Adam Benforado 33:06
And one of the things I want my criminal law students often to think about is, if they come in so attuned to the presumption of innocence, the importance to our history of preserving innocent and I asked him, you know, what type of system would you be happy with, you know, one in which for every innocent person, you know, we ensure that one guilty person, or is it 10, to what’s the kind of ratio? My students are so focused on ensuring that innocent people are not punished, they’re willing to have 10 guilty people go free, 100 guilty people go free. And I say, but what about children? Every time you lock up a mom or dad, who is the primary caregiver, you are punishing those children. It is clear from a single conversation with a kid whose father or mother was locked up when they’re four or five years old. But it’s even more clear and looking at the data. And so, again, I think, you know, this is just one example of I think, our rights mindset, when you’re focused on a right to attachment, suddenly, these things are a lot clearer to you all these ways that we’re not living up to the country that we want to be, the country that we believe ourselves to be. And I move through, obviously, you know, later stages of development, I’m focused on like empowerment rights. So I’m focused on, you know, the right to vote, the right to hold office, run, run for office, the right to serve on a jury, the right to have a say in our major institutions, in our business organizations. I really think that in some ways, if I was to pick one right, that I think is kind of the most important.
Bruce Lesley 34:47
Now expanding on that train of thought, how is it possible that we are the only UN member of the entire world who didn’t sign on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
Adam Benforado 34:56
Well, one of the answers to that is while the people who might I’d actually put pressure on, you know, the Senate have no power. If you look at, you know, the power circuit, who are the most powerful people even who who’s running for president, who are the leaders, we’re gonna have octogenarian leaders without, you know, a 17 year old American having any power, the only thing they can do is protest. And to see the courage and the commitment of protesters on gun control on climate change, I am inspired by them, but also appalled to think that’s all they get. That’s all they get. And we just say, you know, again, conservative commentary, often disparages them. And I think we need to listen to them, and we need to empower them.
Selley Looby 35:45
Adam, I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. I say it often that children’s issues are a national security. You know, if we’re not pouring into our kids, what is this gonna look like? What is our economy going to look like in the next 15 years? And also, to your point about this being an issue that really starts with prevention. You know, you mentioned the child welfare system, we know that most of the kids entering the child welfare system are three and under, which is wild to think about. And we know like you said, children are oftentimes ignored. They’re invisible. Children don’t have PACs. They don’t want political action committees. But it does go beyond that to your point as a societal problem. And in your book, you say it so eloquently, “So often, children are at the back of our minds, not the front. They are afterthoughts, are never noticed at all. They are invisible when they are right before us. What’s particularly worrying is that even those charged directly with protecting kids are often infected with this heedlessness a careless apathy at critical moments even they are just going through the motions.”
Adam Benforado 35:51
Absolutely. Yeah, so I mean, I think if we don’t listen to children, we are doomed. I don’t mean to, to be too dramatic here. But I think if we do not start thinking about not just children, but future generations, we are doomed. And I mean that, to actually like for you to think about it. I think one of the reasons that we undervalue future generations is we’re so focused on ourself and our own experience in this moment. And I think it results in a society that is not investing enough, in that forward focus what’s going to happen, not simply now, but what’s happening in 20 years, what’s happening in 50 years? What responsibilities do we have to future generations to preserve the environment, for exampl?, That was the gloom and doom part. But this is the good news is that actually children are at the forefront of some of the, you know, most promising efforts to get state legislators and others to actually start to change things, is taking state constitutions and saying, hey, it’s right here written our state constitution, you do have a responsibility to do these things. And it’s children who are bringing that voice. But I think one of the things when we don’t allow them to vote, we can also be too conservative. And there’s a lot of actually psych literature on this in terms of investors, as people get older, they get more risk averse. And that can be a good strategy in certain environments, but particularly in one, a period of rapid change, staying where you are can be the most dangerous thing you can do. And one of the great things about kids is that I think they are willing to take risks risk can be very good. And I think that’s particularly true politically. Sometimes we need to make urgent changes now. And I think if we empower kids, we could get a lot more of that forward thinking into government.
Bruce Lesley 38:51
On that point, I think it’s really important. And I think you do a great job of talking about, you know, how society doesn’t respect the voice of kids. And that, yes, they have unique perspectives, some of what you talked about here, like so in Montana, the court case that affirmed the right, with respect to climate change, is an example. But I also think your point that kids voices should be heard because they actually have unique perspectives in ways that none of the rest of us do, right. They’re the only ones who’ve experienced cyber bullying. Internet did not exist when most adults were children. They also uniquely understand things like school shootings and having to deal with lockdown drills and the current children’s mental health crisis. It is their perspective that needs to be heard. And we know in society that so often institutions just fail kids. You know, you see it time and time again, right. We saw it with respect to the US Women’s Gymnastics Team with the Jerry Sandusky stuff at Penn State and you know, the Boy Scouts. Again and again, institutions will cover up and they do not respect the rights of children or their voice and, and we know in the in the case of the US Olympic team that was 20 years, kids, we’re telling adults We often just silence and don’t listen to them. So yeah, we’d love your perspective on that. And also from your criminal law perspective, like, we silence kids in the legal system. So in the child welfare system, we don’t listen to them either, or the juvenile justice system? So anyway, yeah. Any thoughts you have on how we silence and don’t listen to kids and really do need to hear their voice and it should be respected?
Adam Benforado 40:31
Yeah, I think, again, it’s a combination of in our family life, that norms, and it’s also in our formal institutions. And so I think, as a parent, well let’s get personal here is, you know, as a busy parent, you’re heading out the door, and you get felt like why, why do we have to do this? And so in those moments, it’s so easy to say, well, because I said, so I don’t have time to explain or shh, shh just like, let daddy speak. I’ve been there. I experienced that. But that I think notion, we know, it’s so valuable to kids. They ask those why questions, and they’re listening to the answers. That’s their little brains. That’s what toddlers do. They should ask 1000s of why questions. That’s how they’re learning. And it’s important to like, even in those moments of stress, to listen and to respond, and to not have that knee jerk reaction. And I think, again, going to the institutional story, going back to the Supreme Court, I think it’s the same thing. I think repeatedly, we have kids trying to come and assert their rights. And we meet that with silencing by saying, actor, your parents, okay, you actually don’t have standing to sue, you need an adult to come in and do that You have no formal vote, you can exercise your your franchise, in quotation marks, through your parents. And I think, again, you know, in terms of where we need to go, I think we need to give children a voice in our families, I think we need to give them a voice at school. I think one of the very frustrating things over all these book ban arguments has been the response of the left has been to say, well, okay, these people were asserting parents rights to exclude these books. We need a robust parents rights movement on the left, you’re denying my right to have my kid read the book that I want them to read. I say, well, I actually want to know, like, kids in Florida, high schoolers, what would you like to learn? What books do you think you should be reading in English? What don’t you feel like you know about American history and racism in contemporary America? And what experiences have you had? You know, Bruce, you mentioned experiences. One of the pushback that I often get against voting by appeals, they don’t have relevant experiences. I’m like, you need to talk to high schoolers.
Bruce Lesley 42:50
Adam Benforado 42:51
Let me tell you, they have intimate experience with the key issues that are affecting America today. Tell me what do you think are the most important issues? Well gun control. Every kid in America has lived through a lockdown drill?
Bruce Lesley 43:05
Adam Benforado 43:06
How do we regulate social media? They actually know how social media, they are on it now.
Bruce Lesley 43:13
Adam Benforado 43:14
Climate change, like literally an AI. Like anything that you could bring up, kids have intimate experience. Police brutality, 14 year olds in Philadelphia, know what it is like to be afraid of have a police officer chase after them. Yes, they know that. And so again, I think if you listen to kids, you actually learn things yourself. You will change your own perspective. One of the really meaningful conversations, interviews I did for this book, and I talked to lots of young people I had talked to people looking back on their life and thinking about their childhood. One of the most meaningful ones that I had was talking to this 17 year old who had been very affected by some of the recent shooting incidents in school and after Parkland wanted to participate in a walkout to show solidarity with the Parkland kids. And unfortunately, he lived in a very conservative little town in Arkansas. And so he was kind of the only kid who stood up in his high school and walked outside and luckily outside there were a couple other students. And the principal came out, Dean of Students, and said, you better get back in. Police rolled by and said you guys better get in or there’ll be consequences. After the 17 Minute protest, he walks back into the school and again, the Dean of Students called him in and says okay, well you have a choice. You can either be suspended for school for your silent peaceful protest of a scourge on American society. Or you can receive swats. Swats, what are swats? In a public school, public high school in Arkansas, it is legal and it is constitutionally permissible by Supreme Court edict a child can be hit with a cricket bat for protesting silently gun violence. The insights of this kid say out, you know, the irony here of you know, protesting violence and the response of adults is, violence was not lost I think on any of us, it was kind of his his response. But I think also, the thing that was hopeful from the story was how he said, you know, I’ve been talking to my dad, my dad’s a much more conservative guy, as I’ve talked to him about this, these issues, his views are changing. And that gives me such great hope. Right? Like, if you listen to your kids, if you actually have conversations, they may have very different opinions than you. But I think, you know, that is an opportunity for all of us to grow in ways that are good for society as a whole.
Selley Looby 45:58
I just finished watching on Netflix, there’s a new docu series called Live to 100 Secrets of the Blue Zones. And essentially, it’s, you know, documenting folks that have lived over 100 communities where there’s a dense population, and towards the tail end of the docu series, they’re trying to replicate that, right, in different societies. And then the ultimate question that leaves you with is, can we do that in America? And when you look at a life to reach that level, all of it has started, in their view, with programs educating children, about nutrition, about empathy, about, you know, human connection, or how to live a purpose driven life. And so, you know, I know a big center to your book was on, you know, all of these things, like you said, in early childhood in K-12, education, you know, investments with with youth, they require investments. And you know, when we look at policy, we work at the cross of issues. And so that’s why I think for us, we see it bubble up so much, and we see why it’s so important to not just be focused on one singular issue. But you really talk about in center, this children first mindset. And so why do you think that’s so important for children today, especially as it relates to policy?
Adam Benforado 47:13
The child first mindset in everything we do is at the core message of the book. And I think why this is is really kind of twofold. I think, first, it allows us to focus societal resources, where they can have the most impact. We’ve already talked about that a little bit. But I think another reason why focusing on children can have such a huge impact is that kids are our canaries in our coal mines. There’s so many ways in which all of us are affected by things like lead exposure, and drinking water or paint chips. It’s not good for any human beings, brain heavy, heavy metals, but children are particularly vulnerable. And so if you are focusing on kids, is this thing good or bad? When we test for lead, how careful should we be? If you focus on kids, right? Well they’re most sensitive, you set it at a much lower level, you invest first and removing those things, we all benefit from that. I think, you know, if we focused on kids, our flights would be better, our cars would be safer to all of our benefit. Now, I think the third reason why focusing on kids and having a child first mindset is so valuable, is that it allows us to really draw upon a deeply human characteristic, which is our empathy. I think it’s not a coincidence that some of the most iconic photographs of the last 100 years have been of children suffering, a child running naked from a napalm attack, a little boy, dead boy washing up on the shores. There’s a reason why those things hit us so hard, and why they have prompted societal changes. And that is backed up by the scientific literature, which is when we think of children, we care more about humans, we think about people other than ourselves. And so I think, to me, a world in which, you know, we prioritize children in all aspects of government in which they are at the forefront of our minds in terms of schools, in terms of our families. I think that’s the path forward for all of us. And I try to appeal here. You know, I talked to a lot of parents, I talked to child rights advocates, but I want to reach people who think that they have nothing to do with kids. They don’t like kids. They do, I asked, what’s the most important thing for you? Low taxes. I’m like, hey, I got a pitch for you. Child prioritization.
Selley Looby 49:44
Adam Benforado 49:45
You’re gonna love this. This is the way to the lowest taxes imaginable. Put children first.
Bruce Lesley 49:51
Yeah, I was gonna ask you one last question before we sort of wrap up but on that point, you talked about an issue that’s near and dear to our heart, which is Is this idea of having child impact statements. And because kids are so often invisiblilized and sort of an afterthought in society. And, and that’s true in government, we would argue that every issue is a kid’s issue. And I think your book makes that point very well. And that often, those issues and interests, best interest of children are not addressed. So we are huge proponents of child impact statements, but love that you are, too. So can you talk a little bit about that as well and why that is important?
Adam Benforado 50:31
This may be for listeners here, it’s like, okay, I buy in, I’m actually one of the true believers like this actually does make sense. How do we operationalize this? And I think there are lots of things. So part of it is empowering kids that is actually lowering the voting age, that’s things like allowing children to sit on school boards, things like that. But I think we can also operationalize this by writing into law. So other nations have actually shown us the path forward, that when new laws regulations are passed, we can make a requirement that we actually look at how is this going to affect kids? We sometimes already do that when it’s something that involves kids like an educational spending bill. But there are so many things that affect kids that don’t seem to have anything to do with kids, right? So like, energy utility, what rates can they charge or minimum wage can only happen at the state level, it can’t happen. Well, each of those decisions, deeply impacts kids. And you won’t notice it unless you’re required to look and one of the cool thing is, is even the United States, we have environmental impact assessment is a standard practice, we have, you know, racial impact assessments being done in certain states. And so this is not reinventing the wheel. This is a tried and true process, which can get you everyday people who are working on things that will affect children thinking about it, I also really argue in favor of creating children’s bureaus both creating a federal agency tasked with looking out for the whole child, I think this was an idea back in 1912, we created a Children’s Bureau under President Taft. We’ve lost that idea that we need to have central government entities looking out for children in this broad way. Right now, we tend to, again, use the word atomized, but to focus on these individual facets of things like we have the EPA looking at, you know, to go back to lead, being affected by lead, we have the Department of Education, looking at low test scores, well guess what those things are linked. And it’s really important to have a centralized entity looking out for that. And so again, in the book, I focused on a lot of practical things that we can do right now, as well as those 20-year, 30-year, 50-year government changes we can make.
Bruce Lesley 52:43
Selley Looby 52:44
And Adam, those things will take a lot of time and energy and effort. And our whole team is dedicated to that fight. But on days when it feels overwhelming. Is there a song that you listen to or turn to, to kind of offer some inspiration?
Adam Benforado 53:00
That’s a great question. You know, I love music. Instead of picking a single song, I find my interactions with kids, my own kids and other kids great joy. And so I think for me, when I think about music, I think about actually making music with my kids. My daughter is taking piano lessons, I play piano with her every night. My son has just taken up, five year old, playing the ukulele and we wrote a song just yesterday. And so that’s what your question prompted in my mind.
Selley Looby 53:28
Oh my, gosh, you will need to send us a recording of it. In our house, none of my children are into musical instruments. But we do come up with songs. And our classic is “Parking Genie”. Whenever we’re driving around DC and need us we have a whole song about how Parking Genie needs to come out and find a spot. So that’s awesome. I love it. Thank you, Adam.
Bruce Lesley 53:52
Yeah, Adam, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time and your awesome book. And thank you for joining the podcast today.
Adam Benforado 54:01
It was an absolute pleasure. And I look forward to future conversations as well. You guys keep up the wonderful work
Bruce Lesley 54:08
Thank you so much. So September, we released the Children’s Budget Book. The budget book is critically important because what it shows is how are we investing our nation’s children? It calculates all the spending for kids. And I think it’s important to note that kids are almost about a quarter of the population. But what we find is that the investments in kids are less than 1/10 of all federal spending.
Selley Looby 54:37
That’s right. We’ve been releasing the Children’s Budget Book for the last 16 years now. And last year, you know, we really tracked and analyzed spending that was going to children and families in more than 250 federal government programs. And so for the purposes of our book, we broke it down into 11 investment areas is. And what we found was, to your point Bruce, spending on children declined. It was a decrease of nearly 16% in real spending from the previous fiscal year. You know, we know that money matters as we have tracked federal spending as it relates to children and families over the last 16 years. What have you noticed?
Bruce Lesley 55:20
Yeah, I think that our guests at the summit really did hit the mark. Senator Whitehouse talked about how important investments in children are. And Dr. Jackson talked about, you know, his research and how he found that money matters, it makes a huge difference in really all aspects of the lives of kids. And what our book really shows, as you talked about Messellech is that there’s been this decline in spending. And so kids are right now standing at a crossroads. And are we going to be making investments in them in their future are we going to start pulling back from that? And what we’re seeing is that, particularly in the House of Representatives, that is exactly what they’re doing. It’s not just an issue of neglect, they’re actually targeting children for budget cuts.
Selley Looby 56:06
And to your point, we’ve seen this, the Child Tax Credit, we have seen time and time again, through direct stories from families from across the country, and even spending habits and, and the outputs of children. But when that investment went away, we saw in 2022, child poverty more than doubled to over 12%, which was the largest increase of poverty in all age groups between 2021 and 2022. That was, according to the recent census numbers that came out.
Bruce Lesley 56:35
Yep. And if you kind of marry that to our budget book, or budget book shows this and that, the data reveals that the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit dropped from 131 billion in 2022, to just 30 billion. So it was a 77% reduction. And so as the theme is, is that money matters, we pulled money away from families, and it resulted in just what you talked about is a doubling more than doubling of child poverty in this country.
Selley Looby 57:05
So first, what does this mean for an average family?
Bruce Lesley 57:09
Yeah, for families all across this country, the expiration of the Child Tax Credit, resulted in at least $1,000 increase in taxes for every child in America. And for some families, it actually resulted in a $3,600 tax increase. So for the families of more than 60 million children, they received a tax increase at the very time, we are seeing rising inflation. And you know, those things have really compounded and affected families. And that’s why you’re seeing a lot of families expressing concern about the economy. And it really is this combination of what’s going on in the economy, but also the disinvestment that our government has made in families and children.
Selley Looby 57:55
And we know the childcare subsidies expired at the end of September, as well. Recent reports from the Century Foundation indicates that this will impact 3.2 million children, which is wild, given the state of child care in this country. I personally have, you know, experience just the shortcomings of the childcare system and what it looks like, especially for families with young young kids. Why is all this important, Bruce?
Bruce Lesley 58:21
Well, I think that what we would argue is that budgets really do show you what you value. And Congress is devaluing children and families, they are doing it purposefully, it is not just an issue of neglect it is they are targeting kids for the bulk of cuts. And so what we really need from the American people and parents across this country, is we need people to sort of look at this data and to call Congress and ask them to put their money where their mouth is, and to actually make investments in kids. There’s no scenario where cutting kids is in their best interest. And so this whole notion that, you know, we need to make these cuts to help families is ludicrous. It’s actually having a major negative impact on families. And so kind of is Professor Benforado said earlier, we really need a children first mindset.
Selley Looby 59:15
Definitely, definitely. And you know, for those listeners that are just being introduced to the Children’s Budget Book, and the fact that First Focus on Children has been tracking these numbers for the last several years. We encourage you to read the book, or at least the executive summary that shares key insights, share the book or the summary, call your Congress member. We hope that this helps shape your view of where our investments are made, where honestly your tax dollars are going or not going rather.
Bruce Lesley 59:51
This is Speaking of Kids thanks for listening. I’m Bruce Lesley.
Selley Looby 59:55
and I’m Messellech Looby. Special Thanks to our guest Adam Benforado.
Bruce Lesley 59:59
Speaking of Kids is a podcast by First Focus on Children.
Selley Looby 1:00:03
Elizabeth Windham is the Supervising Producer and Julia Windham is the Associate Producer.
Bruce Lesley 1:00:08
Leila Nimatallah is the Advocacy and Mobilizing Producer and Senior Producer is Jay Woodward.
Selley Looby 1:00:14
Our theme music is Don’t Look Twice by Sam Barsh.
Bruce Lesley 1:00:17
For more information about this week’s episode go to firstfocus.org. You can find our links in our show notes.
Selley Looby 1:00:24
If you have thoughts, questions or interest in becoming a First Focus on Children Ambassador, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bruce Lesley 1:00:33
And please follow rate and review on Apple podcasts or Spotify.
Selley Looby 1:00:38
Speaking of Kids is produced by Windhaven Productions and Blue Jay Atlantic.