Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

We need solutions to failed parenting

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By Jim Nowlan

Mayor Lori Lightfoot finally put her finger on the fundamental problem about youth violence in her city: “Parents should not let their 10-year-olds go downtown alone late at night, as some are doing!”


I fear the quality of parenting has declined sharply over the past half century, especially in—I’m generalizing here, of course—households that often lack good intergenerational child rearing skills; a paucity of financial resources and inadequate positive social support networks in the community.

Parenting is a tough job in the best of situations. It is almost impossible when parents and grandparents have largely lost the skills they should be passing along, and when most absent fathers have never given a thought to being in the home with their children.

I am still haunted by an after-class discussion at the Downstate Illinois prison where I have frequently been a guest instructor in a course on how to behave on the outside upon release—after 15-20 years out of circulation.

GSWNH JimNowlan 083019

Jim Nowlan

One of the inmates said, wistfully, “I just wish somebody had given me some love as a child.” I noticed heads nod.

A mother naturally wants to love her child, yet it’s hard to show that love when your life is chaotic, lacking in the structure and stability that should underpin the household. In a city like Chicago, where the gang culture is strong, joining is often a way to belonging, to something.

The Chicago Crime Commission publication “The Gang Book 2012” reported that Chicago has more gang members than any other city in the world, with a reported gang population of 150,000. For context, there are this year 345,000 Chicago public school pupils, K-12.

Life is about navigation. As with all animals, parents provide the most important navigational training. They spend much more time with youngsters than anyone else, more than teachers, much more than any one teacher.

Two-parent households, not always possible, I grant you, are generally much better than one: more time with children, more financial resources, more time for creating order and discipline, more time for loving the child.

When I was a college professor, I had a student assistant who had two children. After the children came along, my assistant came out as a lesbian. A white, she partnered with a black woman student. They reared her children. The women both became college professors themselves. The children have done just fine. Two loving adults in the home are generally much better than one, regardless of their backgrounds.

Lest this essay be seen as a racist rant, which it isn’t, I note quickly that the parenting deficiencies are also found in my white rural Downstate setting, again, especially among inadequately educated, single parents. There are, as we know, more whites than blacks or browns on welfare and in single households, though the rates are lower for whites.

How and why did the American family culture (“learned behaviors” is my quickie definition) decline so much since I was a child in the 1940-50s, especially among the less well off? Factors might include a dramatic increase in divorce rates; decline in church participation; misguided welfare programs that denied financial assistance to a household where the father was present; abandonment of struggling neighborhoods by the middle class. Other factors as well, I’m sure.

This is not to glorify parenting in my childhood days. The two-parent family then (most were such) had more community and church supports, yet there were many awful marriages and wretched home situations

Today, I fear that many depleted, basically abandoned urban neighborhoods have lost the capacity to cope with their many dysfunctional households.

So, what to do? Conservatives often see the problem as one where the single parent simply needs to buck up, get her act together, act like the better off do, with all their supports. To many conservatives, guns are not the problem, when of course they are, certainly in gang-infested cities like Chicago.

I think liberals see the problem, not as that of the parent, but of the society. So, we must provide all sorts of impersonal supports—child care, WIC, food stamps, food pantries, rental and utility assistance, and much more. None of that improves the quality of the parenting.

The following partial remedies may be way off the mark. Please offer better ones.

But, how about required parent coaching for persons receiving welfare assistance? Birth control support for single mothers (teen birth rates have come way down in recent decades, by the way, which is a positive); and sanctions against parents for the misdeeds of their children, e.g., the 10-year-olds allowed to roam late at night in downtown Chicago on their own.

More effective parenting won’t solve the present violence problem in Chicago, largely generated by gangs of wild youths. But it may stabilize communities in the years to come. In the meantime, we simply must have more police/social worker presence in the neighborhoods. We need more love from all of us for the single parents and their children, whom we have largely abandoned to their own devices.

James Nowlan is a retired professor of political science and former Illinois state legislator, agency director and aide to three un-indicted Illinois governors. He lives in Princeton, Ill.

1 Comment

  1. Arthur Yagodnik on May 31, 2022 at 4:05 pm

    Finally someone with the guts to tell the truth about gang/gun problems. Too bad Mr. Nowlan isn’t black, which would help his credibility with the black community in denial. Black leaders would rather blame anything/anybody for the problem instead of the truth! Great job, Mr. Nowlan.

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