Today’s television programming seemingly brims over with a million options — reality shows, partisan cable news, and food shows (And, yes, there are thankfully fifteen ESPN channels!). When I was growing up a million years ago, television programming was different to be sure. Three channels. Black and white. And the show options were “cowboys and Indians,” “Ed Sullivan” shielding America from Elvis’ dance moves and introducing us to the “lads from Liverpool,” and shows featuring American families.
Those programs set around the American family had three things in common. They were all situation comedies. They all ended with some version of a life lesson to be learned. And they pictured every family as a mom, a dad, and two or three children. The homogeneity went even further. Each of the moms stayed at home, cooked dinner, actually ran the decision-making in the household, and – amazingly – did it all while wearing a cocktail dress and pearls. Every dad wore a suit to work, came home and was confused at all the goings on, and – most amazing to me – stayed in that shirt and tie while they ate, played ball with the kids and relaxed for the evening.
Those days of the American family – whether they were real or only imagined – are no longer a reality for Kentucky’s kids. This is vividly seen by a rash of data points, many of which animate the recently released 2014 National KIDS COUNT Data Book. I am in the middle of a series of blogs about different segments of that report and this week’s reflection animates from the Family and Community domain. The major takeaway for me from the Family and Community domain data is just how diverse Kentucky families are becoming. Almost 350,000 children live in single parent families. That is 37 percent of kids in the Commonwealth, and the percentage is growing. While the rate of teen births is declining, Kentucky’s rate is still well above the national average and represents a large number of children. Adding to this portrait of Kentucky Families is KIDS COUNT data showing that about 59,000 or 6 percent of all children in Kentucky are being raised by extended family members – one of the highest rates in the nation.
The reality of families in our state can be a challenge to making Kentucky the best place in America to be young. The research is clear – though sometimes considered politically incorrect. As noted in the National KIDS COUNT Data Book, “Compared with children in married-couple families, children raised in a female-headed household are more likely to drop out of school, to have or to cause a teen pregnancy, and to experience a divorce in childhood.” So what can we – what should we – do in response?
I would respectfully suggest that the days of “Leave It to Beaver” are over. Kentucky’s kids are not all going to grow up in homes where mom and dad are present in a nuclear family. And yet, we can learn lessons from the research that speak to the value of a home setting where there is stability, support and connectivity.
How do we ensure that single parents, that kinship caregivers and that others who find themselves “raising the next generation” have the supports and help they need? Maybe that means ensuring families have simplified access to the supports and assistance children are eligible for. Maybe that means schools providing more wrap-around services and social supports for kids. Maybe that means peer support groups and learning opportunities for families.
It’s time for us to ALL roll up our sleeves and make a conscious decision to recognize Kentucky families for what they are – increasingly diverse in arrangement and challenged by childhood in the 21st century. And then, we need to think about the unique contribution we can each make to ensure kids have a secure home setting. In many ways, that kind of a renewed commitment to the changing Kentucky family – for elected leaders; preachers; principals; community center heads; and, next door neighbors – is a long-standing and treasured Kentucky value. Yes, it takes parents to raise a child. And it also takes community leaders and citizens to support and help caregivers be successful.