Spotlight Exclusives

What Will It Take For America to Finally Put Kids First?

David Alexander and Jessica Moyer David Alexander and Jessica Moyer, posted on

Over the past five years, Leading for Kids and the Frameworks Institute have been trying to answer a central question: why is it so difficult in America to build broad-based public support around programs and policies that help kids? A new report outlines key principles for talking about and advocating for pro-kids policies that may avoid some of the political divisions, stereotypes, and tropes of the past. Leading for Kids President David Alexander and FrameWorks Senior Principal Strategist Jessica Moyer spoke with Spotlight recently about the findings. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

David, let’s start with some background on Leading for Kids

Well, as you know, I’m a pediatrician. It’s hard to imagine, but I finished my pediatric training 40 some years ago. And on the one hand, if you look at kids’ health as narrowly defined, we’ve made a ton of progress during the 40 years I’ve been around this space. Some of the most common things that I took care of when I was a resident, people just don’t even see any more. But if you look at the wellbeing of kids defined more broadly, we haven’t made a whole heck of a lot of progress. And I’ve been wondering for the last 35 or 40 years why that is—what is it about us that keeps us from doing the things for kids that we all know they need to be on a better trajectory for life?

We all do that individually; whether it’s our own kids or our grandkids, we’ll do anything we can for them. But if you look at the general measures of child health and wellbeing, whether it’s education or poverty levels, or hunger in America, we really haven’t moved the needle that much in the last 40 years. And so, about five years ago, I started Leading For Kids to try to understand the answer to that question. What is it about us and our culture that keeps us from being able to get together and do the things we all need to do to make life better for kids?

And then the work you’ve been doing with Frameworks started about three years ago?

When I first started this, I had this question and no idea how to get at the answer. So, one of the things I did was I traveled to a lot of countries in the world where kids are doing better than they are here. And unfortunately, those countries are not hard to find. Every place does it differently, but there were some common policies that I found interesting. For example, in virtually every country in the world where kids are doing better than they are here, there are people who go to work in government at every level of government every day, whose job it is to think about how kids are doing. And we just don’t do that here. In other countries, there’s a minister for children or a children’s commissioner or a children’s ombudsman, and that’s just not something we do in the United States. We haven’t had a congressional committee on children. We haven’t had a White House office on children.

Another difference that I saw is when we as American kids advocates talk about why kids should have the things that they need to do well in life, we tend to use one of three arguments or frames to talk about why that is. Number one, we say we should do it because it’s the right thing to do—there’s a moral argument that we use to justify doing the right thing for kids. A second argument is that kids are vulnerable or at risk, and we have to look out for them. And then the third is an economic argument that kids are our future. We need to invest in them. There’s no better investment you can make than investing in kids.

But when I traveled, especially in Europe, it was striking to me that the Europeans believe all those things, but that’s not the argument that they use; they use a rights argument. In Europe, kids have high quality child care because they have a right to it. There’s a lot of resources for kids because kids have a right to a safe place to play. Parents get parental leave because they have a right to be with their child for the first part of their life.

So, I came back from this trip thinking that all we had to do was advocate for child rights in America, because it worked in Europe. And it turned out that child rights as a concept started in America. There’s a treaty in the United Nations called the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that is the most widely adopted human rights convention in the world and we happen to live in the only country in the world that hasn’t adopted it, even though the convention was largely written by Americans from the first Bush administration. And so, the question is, what is it about us that makes it so difficult to do the things that the rest of the world seems to be able to do?

When I was struggling with this question, I ran into Jess’s partner in crime, Nat Kendall-Taylor, at a meeting. And it turns out that what I was describing was the fact that Europeans frame childrens’ advocacy in a different way than we do, using a children’s rights frame. And so, Nat and I started a conversation that has been going on for close to 5 years now about is that really the challenge in America? Are we not framing children’s issues in a way that resonates with the American public?

Frameworks has been around for well more than 20 years, and they’ve done a lot of work in a number of what I would call the silos that make up children’s advocacy. The idea of this project was to look at children writ large, and was there a more effective, impactful frame for us to use as kids advocates to talk about what kids need.  We have just in the last month published the final findings from an 18-month grant we got in 2019. There was a pandemic in the middle of it, but that timeline also tells you that the questions we were asking were just very hard ones to find the answers to.

Well, congratulations on this finally coming out. Let’s talk about the report, and again, for either one of you, let’s start with this idea of collective care and what that means.

Let me start, and then I’ll let Jess get into the details. One of the early things that we did as part of this project was to understand what Frameworks would call the deep cultural mindsets that drive American thinking about kids. And these are commonly held beliefs that are available to most Americans. It’s not like we all believe them all the time, but they’re out there. One of them is this notion of the family bubble—that the family is responsible for what happens to the child. Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, you may be more willing to let systems outside the family have a role in caring for the family. But the default position for most people is that the family should take care of their own.

The other mindset that we found commonly in Americans is that kids are these creatures that need care. And care is defined in a fairly narrow way by most people—kids need their parents, their teachers, their doctors to provide them with the things that they need. It turns out that understanding those mindsets is really important to where we ended up, because we tried a lot of stuff before we landed on this collective care frame. It turns out that something quite simple turned out to be a key to unlocking people’s thinking about kids. So, I’ll let Jess talk about collective care.

Jessica Moyer: I think it’s a way to navigate those two kinds of obstacles that David mentioned. We know that people kind of get stuck when we’re thinking about what kids need and how to promote kids’ wellbeing. Because the dominant mindset is kids need love and care and then because of this family bubble thinking, it’s hard to imagine what role the rest of us can play. But the collective caregiving frame almost builds on how central care is to thinking about kids and works by expanding the very definition of care. It’s saying yes, kids need, love and care, but let’s actually think about what kind of care kids need. It’s not just interpersonal care. It’s not just the kind of care that individual parents can provide through interpersonal interactions. Kids need clean water. Kids need access to green space. Kids need all kinds of things that we maybe don’t currently think of as care but are crucial in the way that love and care is essential for kids. This whole strategy works by expanding the notion of care itself and the idea that care is something all of us are part of delivering and providing for kids through our support and demand for policies that will provide the resources that kids need and ensure that all kids can thrive.

And is the role of government in that collective care a stumbling block for some people?

Definitely the word government is, and if you lead with that, we found you can easily get tripped up. That’s another mindset that we uncovered—this idea about government getting in the way, government being inept or corrupt or inefficient and that government should be limited in scope. But we did find that there are productive ways to build support for policies that are needed. One of them is by talking about specific policies, the decisions themselves, the programs that are needed, the actions that we can take collectively, and getting specific about those. Being specific is a way to invite people into the conversation and an effective way to navigate that unhelpful mindset about limited government.

Alexander:  The recommendation largely in the report is to not talk about government very much, but to talk about programs, because government is a word that people seem to have an allergic reaction to these days. I wish it weren’t so.

It is just a particularly interesting and I guess ironic moment given what’s happened with the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which is sort of the ultimate example of what we’re talking about—the biggest decrease in child poverty in history, but then there’s not the political support to get it extended.

Alexander: We could spend the entire time here talking about how the advocacy for that bill was completely wrong, based on what we know, by focusing on poor people. You know, I wish people cared about poor people, but because of this whole individualism mindset that exists in America, talking about a government program for poor people is just not a winner.

Let’s talk about inclusivity, which I know is another one of the big themes of the report. Jess, you want to jump in there?

Moyer: We were incorporating insights from findings along the way, but we discovered that feelings of different groups being deserving or undeserving deservingness was really a big obstacle to building broad public support for needed policy. It’s connected to the individualism mindset that we talked about, but one way that this feeling of deservingness come into play is a lot of the policies that we want to promote are about rectifying disparities, in particular racial disparities and outcomes. Whether it’s reading levels or graduation rates, significant disparities exist. And because there’s this idea that it’s parents who are responsible for the outcomes of their children, where there are disparities and where there are negative outcomes, it’s parents who get blamed. And where we’re talking about disparities between different groups of folks, in particular where we’re talking about negative outcomes for children and families of color in relation to white kids and white families, it’s families of color who get blamed for those negative outcomes. And that kind of perpetuates feelings of being undeserving and even uglier stereotypes and toxic tropes and associations between people of color and makes it even harder to build support for needed policies.

We discovered that it’s easier to build support for policies that help white kids with means and it’s a lot harder to build support for policies that directly target inequities and that channel support to low-income families, kids, and families of color. We found that in talking about inequities and talking about how to extend the kind of collective caregiving we’re talking about to those families, we have to explain why inequities exist in the first place. We have to kind of inoculate against those assumptions about particular parents or particular racial identity groups being to blame for those disparities.

There are several different ways that it works. One thing that really helps is talking about parents as experts. Instead of talking about parents as recipients of support, talk about what parents know, talk about parents’ valuable perspectives and expertise. They’re direct caregivers, but they’re also collective caregivers. They can be a voice and demand policy change and collective action. And that’s something that kind of counters those stereotypes about parents and the blame on parents. David, did you want to add to that?

Alexander: I just wanted to add that when advocacy organizations are talking about inequity or equity, it’s a concept that is not generally well understood by the public. People in the field get it, but the general public does not. But if you talk to the public about the fact that we don’t provide care to all kids in all communities in the same way collectively, people get that. People know that we don’t fund schools in certain neighborhoods to the same level as in other neighborhoods. And if you describe that as providing care, it gets people over the hump without necessarily having them run for the PC police. It was really remarkable to me, when the results started to come in, to look at how this kind of framing opens people up and moves them away from some of these unhelpful mindsets.

And Jess, it sounds like it’s helpful to focus more on race and less on economic status.

Moyer: I think it’s both. I think the point is to be explicit about who we’re talking about, to name those things. When we’re talking about the wellbeing of kids, I think what gets queued up in folks’ minds are white kids with means. And to expand that out, both in terms of our thinking, but also in terms of our policies and our actual delivery of collective care, we have to bring those other groups into our consciousness and into our conversations and actually name them.

Alexander: Another broad mindset that came up early is that people think about kids’ issues very narrowly—they think about child care and education and a little bit of healthcare, but they don’t think about a broad range of issues as kids’ issues. They don’t think necessarily about hunger as a kids’ issue or poverty as a kids’ issue, or transportation as a kids’ issue. And framing these issues as care issues really helps people understand that these are all kids issues. One of the ways that we care for kids in our community is to make sure that our schools are safe from violence. That’s very different than saying there’s an epidemic of gun violence in the country and we need to do something about it.

And that gets to the final key point, which is talking about an expansive list of activities, not just the traditional ones that people have in their minds.

Alexander: Every issue is a kids issue. Climate is something that everybody gets, that you can’t do by yourself, and it’s a good example of how we can start to talk about these issues as issues of collective care.

Moyer: This expansive piece points to the broad potential impact of the framing strategy because it’s a strategy that folks working across all different fields and in various different spaces can use. It’s a frame that encourages them to think beyond the household or the school, the typical context and the delivery of care. We know that parents and teachers are essential and play but this serves as a prompt to think about the role that the rest of us can play.

Alexander: One of the things that we were measuring was, if we talk about kids issues this way, do we move our sense of collective responsibility for kids? Do we move from, I’m responsible for my kids and my grandkids to, I’m responsible for all kids? The audience for this is culture change. And the way we’re trying to do that is to try to get the advocacy organizations, organizations that are out there talking to the public all the time, to start to do that differently. We’ve got some additional funding and are starting to try to do several things, but largely what we’re working on is we brought together a group of kids advocacy organizations to think through how to move this kind of framing out into the world. What we are working on is developing a communications plan for the field. How can kids advocacy start to talk to use this framing and bring their message forward?

I will emphasize that this new way of talking about kids’ issues is not something that’s going to come naturally to those of us who are in the field. And it’s not that what we’ve been doing is wrong; it’s gotten us where we are today. But if we’re not happy with where we are today, we’re going to have to do some things differently.



David Alexander, MD, is the president of Leading for Kids.



Jessica Moyer is the senior principal strategist in the Research Interpretation and Application unit at the FrameWorks Institute.

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