The 2015 Revival of America’s Can-Do Spirit

Published by — In 2015, let’s consider policies, decisions, architecture, whatever, in terms of whether or not they’re good for kids.


A “can-do” spirit seems as fundamentally American as Mom and apple pie.  “Can do” has a super-encouraging tone of voice, the kind that kindergarten teachers use, or my mother when she assured us that “good manners can be fun!”  The “can-do” approach is determined, but light-hearted.  Yes of course Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) could gather the neighborhood kids to put on a show that raised money for a good cause, and do a bang up job to boot!

But in these cynical times, “can-do” sounds corny, even naive.  As everyone with a brain knows, Mr. Smith certainly does not go to Washington these days, and no, Virginia, there is no Santa.

So, sadly for modern kids, America’s “can-do” spirit feels as though it’s morphed into an appetite for advocacy.  Very argumentative.  If you’re for kids, you must be against someone else, like the taxpayer.  Advocates and the increasing need for everyone to speak in clear, sound-bite slogans can turn issues into impossible polarities — we’re either for Common Core or agin it; for environmentalism or against its costs; for guns or against freedom.  Advocacy definitely has its place, but by nature it promotes head-butting.

Somehow advocacy doesn’t really help kids feel the love.

Actually, “can do” is short for “We can do it,” an idea with a warmer, more embracing nature.  It returns the missing the “we” — who can do the love — and the “it,” the goal.

We can do it.  In 2015, we can surely do better by our kids.  The current situation is ridiculous.  By so many measures, American kids aren’t doing at all well, given their high rates of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, single-parent homes, failure to launch, educational under-achievement, etc.  Our kids’ stats are dismal compared with the rest of the developed world.  As with the healthcare crisis, Americans pump a boatload of money into the front end — into schools, juvenile justice, medicating bad behavior, and spoiling kids materially.  And then we get our famously mediocre results.  Kids need at least as much attention and press as healthcare, and I don’t consider obsessing about test scores to be attention to kids.

In 2015, let’s consider policies, decisions, actions, architecture, whatever, in terms of whether or not they’re good for kids.  This is a relatively easy mental exercise that would be useful for parents, political leaders, school staff, social-service administrators and adults in general.

So:  are juvenile-justice facilities good for kids?  Do they do what we want them to?  Do they teach feral kids the impulse control and community-appropriate behavior that we want from all youth?  Do suspensions?  If not, what would work?  How can adults generally inspire more of kids’ enthused cooperation, instead of mere compliance?

Are the parks fun?  Have concerns with safety been carried out to the point that we frighten kids needlessly and don’t let them learn resilience?  (There’s a sign in a local park that says “No running.”  Seriously.)

Is most TV good for kids?  (Who is it good for?)  Is hanging on electronics by the hour good for kids?  If not, is there anything for kids to do in their neighborhoods?  If not, does public transportation allow them to get to more interesting places safely and comfortably?  (It does in much of Europe.)  How about getting around under their own steam on bikes?  Do children and youth have enough autonomy these days?

The questions are infinite.  And when you start asking them, you wonder when was the last time we did strongly consider the interests of kids as we made decisions.

Actually, the international Child-Friendly Cities movement, nearly absent in the U.S., does exactly that:  looks at the world through the lens of the health and welfare of their kids.  They just had a conference in Odense, Denmark.  This year’s focus was on play.

Ask:  “Does this improve things for the kids?”  It’s an excellent sniff test for public and private decisions.  Congress and everyone else should take it up.

So let’s imagine that this coming year we’re going to become peacock proud of our collective parenting, as evidenced by more kids becoming young adults we enjoy sharing the earth with.  We’re Americans.  We so can do it!


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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