In ongoing coverage of the pandemic, it has been noted that with most of the world having experienced major outbreaks of the virus, the United States stands alone as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months. When it comes to the virus, the United States has come to resemble not the wealthy and powerful countries to which it has been compared, but to far poorer countries with large migrant populations.
There has been some commentary attempting to understand how and why this has happened, considering our country’s supposed excellence in science, technology and advancement in many areas. One focus has been on the reaction of the population to the impact of the virus, particularly regarding behavioral changes deemed essential for curtailing spread.
Some comparison has been made between resistance to wearing masks and earlier resistance to using seat belts while driving in cars. It was not overnight acceptance of seat belts that produced changed behavior. Needed was major educational input, automobile manufacturers compliance, legal requirements with enforced penalties, and widespread advertising of accident consequences without seat belts.
Cited in this connection, and in understanding behavioral response to the pandemic, is the American tradition of individualism. Through much of our history, a pervasive myth dominating political thinking has been the equation of equality with freedom and of democracy with liberty. The equality of the individual in a democracy has been construed as individual freedom of thought and behavior. This produces an ongoing tension between the individual and the community or larger society.
In a very real sense the issues arising from the relationship of the individual to society are reflected in the questions parents face in raising their children. The world in which parents raise children has changed considerably in recent years producing new pressures and stresses. The nature of child-rearing itself reflects these changes.
A notable change has been the role of mothers as breadwinners. In an earlier time, mothers were supposed to put children’s needs ahead of their own. In a still earlier time, all family members were expected to work and sacrifice if need be for the good of the family or larger community. Also changed has been a view of the nature of children as requiring protection and education.
Children are no longer an economic asset, rather increasingly an economic drain. Childhood has become long and sheltered, devoted to the education and emotional growth of children. The goal of child-rearing has shifted from raising a child to be a contributing member of his family and community to a goal of benefiting the child himself. The child and what benefits him or her has become the focus. Finding a balance between one’s own needs and those of one’s children is a major challenge.
The challenge of the needs or rights of the individual to those of society has been cited as a major factor in the American failure thus far in combatting the spread here of the pandemic. Various groups and individuals have asserted their rights within a democracy to refuse wearing masks and social distancing. The areas where the assertion of individual rights has predominated are those with rising hot spots of the virus.
Another way has been noted besides the scale of the continuing outbreaks and deaths in which the United States stands out from other high-income countries. In no others have the messages from political leaders been so mixed and confusing. This too, suggests the lessons of child-rearing: the role of parents as educators delivering clear messages about expected behavior.
And rule enforcement when needed.