Oct 26, 2004

From the Archives

Americans Agree: Kids Are Not Being Prepared for Life

The presidential election season has brought to light numerous issues on which the nation’s population is divided. According to a new survey from The Barna Group, however, there is one issue on which most adults agree: the nation’s children are not being adequately prepared for life.

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Based on interviews with more than 1000 adults nationwide, the survey discovered that less than one out of every five adults believes that children under the age of 13 are being “superbly” or “pretty well” prepared for life emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually or physically. Fewer than one out of every twenty adults believe that America’s youngsters are receiving above average preparation in all five of those areas of life.

Moral and Spiritual Development Lags the Most

Adults were asked to evaluate how well children under the age of 13 are being prepared for life in each of five dimensions. Using a scale that ranged from “superbly” to “poorly,” half or more of all adults contended that children are “not being prepared well enough” or are “poorly prepared” for the life that awaits them in relation to each of the five dimensions tested.

Adults feel most confident in the intellectual preparation that children receive these days. However, just 18% said kids are prepared “superbly” or “pretty well” in the intellectual dimension. In comparison, half of all adults said kids are “not prepared well enough” or are “poorly prepared” intellectually to effectively grapple with life.

Physical development generated a similar response pattern. One-sixth of adults (16%) felt that children were being superbly or pretty well prepared physically, while a slight majority (54%) felt they were not being prepared well enough or were being poorly prepared physically.

Adults indicated that children are faring somewhat worse in the area of emotional preparation: only 12% gave positive ratings compared 62% offering a negative assessment.

The lowest ratings, however, were reserved for the moral and spiritual preparation of children. Only 8% of adults said kids get better-than-adequate preparation in the spiritual realm, while more than 7-out-of-10 adults (71%) said children get inadequate spiritual training. Similarly, 8% said kids get above average moral preparation while three-fourths said youngsters get inadequate moral preparation.

Americans Agree: Kids Are Not Being
Prepared for Life
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)
All Adults
Born Again
Not Born Again
Not Well
Not Well
Not Well
(Notes: “Well” includes those who say children under 13 are being prepared “superbly” or “pretty well”; “Not well” reflects those who say they are being prepared for life “not well enough” or “poorly.” The balance represents those who said children are being prepared “adequately.”)

Subgroups Differ In Their Views

Unexpectedly, men and women held nearly identical views on these matters. Perhaps an even greater surprise was the similarity of views between parents of young children and the views of adults who do not have children in their household. Another eye opener was that the differences in perspective across generations were minimal. Baby Busters (ages 21 through 39) were slightly less likely than were older adults to criticize the intellectual training children receive. Baby Boomers (ages 40 through 58) were more likely than other age groups to critique the physical preparation children receive these days. Otherwise, there were no significant distinctions across generational groups.

Liberals and conservatives were both more concerned about the preparation children receive than were those who have a middle-of-the-road perspective. Conservatives were notably less impressed with the preparation children get than were liberals in regard to moral and spiritual development. There was a 15-point gap separating the two segments in relation to moral development and a 22-point distinction related to spiritual preparation.

The most consistent disparities in viewpoints related to people’s faith experience. Evangelicals were the population group most likely to describe the moral, spiritual and emotional preparation of children as inadequate. Notional Christians, on the other hand – i.e., adults who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again – were among those least likely to say that children are inadequately equipped in the areas of emotional, intellectual, physical and moral development. (Atheists and agnostics were the adults least critical of the spiritual preparation children receive.)

Protestants and Catholics diverged in some of their views on these matters. Protestants were substantially less satisfied with the preparation that children receive in the emotional, spiritual and moral aspects of life.

There was also a noteworthy difference between married born again adults and adults who are married but not born again. The married born again adults were more likely to be dissatisfied with the preparation children receive in each of the five areas examined. The biggest gaps were related to emotional preparation (51% of the non-born again married adults were dissatisfied compared to 69% of the married born agains); moral preparation (68% versus 87%, respectively); and spiritual development (59% versus 86%, respectively).

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Everyone’s Waiting For Someone Else

The survey findings indicate that parents feel they are being let down by society. In his analysis of the data, George Barna noted that the same people who are anguished about the mediocre support that children receive – i.e., parents – are the ones primarily responsible for the problem. “Parents alone may be incapable of fully equipping their children in every area of life,” the survey’s director explained, “but the common strategy of waiting for social institutions to provide whatever their children need is seriously flawed. The family is obliged to invest in the life preparation of their own children. Passing youngsters off to agencies ought to be a secondary option, not the primary means through which values, skills and perspectives are developed. And when parents lean on institutions for help in this process, unless parents hold those institutions accountable, the quality of life preparation that our nation’s children receive will continue to fail to meet even the most modest standards.”

Barna cited data from a companion study his company conducted showing that most parents of children under 13 claim that they are responsible for the moral, spiritual, intellectual and emotional maturation of their offspring. However, the study also showed most parents lack defined standards for evaluating their child’s preparation, spend surprisingly little time engaged in developmental activities with their children, and generally assume that the brunt of the responsibility for facilitating life skills and perspectives lies on the shoulders of schools, churches and community organizations. Combined with the increasingly busy schedules of adults, the result is a culture in which nobody is responsible and nearly everybody is dissatisfied with the results.

“Ultimately, children get neglected because parents rely upon everyone else to do their job for them,” Barna stated. “The popular notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has become an accepted excuse for millions of parents to assign away the commitment for their child’s development. Families may not be able to provide everything that a child needs to be successfully launched into today’s world, but they can do a lot more than they are seeking to provide today. Rather than play victim and blame social institutions for inadequate performance of duties, millions of families would be well-advised to rearrange their priorities and reclaim their commitment to preparing their children for life.”

Barna also connected some of his recent research regarding the forthcoming presidential election with the current study on the needs of children. “The election has led millions of people to identify what they feel are the major issues facing the nation, and how each of the major candidates plans to address those issues. In that light, it’s intriguing that comparatively few adults have identified the plight of children as one of the key issues requiring greater attention,” noted the California-based researcher. “The major concerns listed by voters pertain to their own needs and dreams. What does it say about our society when we admit that our children are being set up for failure, but we do not incorporate that challenge among the most pressing issues facing the nation? Even if government policies and programs are not the ultimate solution, you would expect adults to integrate the needs of children into the dialogue regarding the future of our country.”

Research Methods

The data described in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted in September 2004 by The Barna Group. In total, 1011 adults were interviewed, providing a maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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