Franklin D. Roosevelt photo

Address at the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy.

April 23, 1939

Madam Secretary and Members of the Conference:

It is, perhaps, because I happened to be born with what might be called a "relative mind" and because I have sought to cultivate that kind of thinking for nearly half a century, that I think of this Conference in the first instance in terms of the past.

Child welfare—to use a much misused term—did not enter into the public conscience of any nation in a big way until about one hundred years ago. And we know from reading Dickens and the literature of his period that the well-being of children in those early days was principally considered from the viewpoint of schooling, crime prevention and the ending of physical cruelty to the children—all of them, of course, interwoven with the well-known sentimentality of the good, the ultra-good, Victorians.

As time went on, some interest came to be taken in every nation, but still the activities of those who sought the bettering of the younger generation of the moment viewed the problem before them as a problem somewhat apart from the relationship of the younger generation to the broader public weal.

And, not so long ago, even at the time of the first Children's Conference to assemble in the White House under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, the conditions that surrounded child life were discussed more in terms of child life by itself than in terms of the national community.

This was true to a very great extent in the two succeeding White House Conferences, and it occurs to me that this, the fourth Conference, marks a new and a somewhat changed era.

It is still our task to bring to bear on the major problems of child life all the wisdom and the understanding that can be distilled from compilations of facts, from the intuitions of common sense, and from professional skill. This Conference, like the others, is composed of men and women having a broad range of experience and interest in matters pertaining to the welfare of children. It is our purpose to review the objectives and methods affecting the safety and the well-being and the happiness of the younger generation and their preparation for the responsibilities of citizenship.

But we have gone one step further. Definitely we are here with a principal objective of considering the relationship between a successful democracy and the children who form an integral part of that democracy. We no longer set them apart from democracy as if they were a segregated group. They are at one with democracy because they are dependent upon democracy and democracy is dependent upon them.

Our work will not be concluded at the end of one day or two days—it will only have begun. During the greater part of the coming year the members of this Conference representing every State in the Union and many fields of endeavor, will be at work. In thousands of places, we shall be testing our institutions, and our own convictions and attitudes of mind as they affect our actions as parents and as citizens, in terms of their significance to the childhood of the Nation and, therefore, the Nation itself.

In an address on Pan American Day, two weeks ago, I said "Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds. They have within themselves the power to become free at any moment." And a few days later, on April fifteenth, in addressing the heads of two great foreign States, I stated that I refused to believe that the world is, of necessity, a prisoner of destiny. "On the contrary," I said, "it is clear that the leaders of great nations have it in their power to liberate their people from the disaster that impends. It is equally clear that in their own minds and in their own hearts the peoples themselves desire that their fears be ended."

In providing for the health and education of children and for the formation of their minds and characters in ways which are in harmony with the institutions of a free society, democracy is training its future leaders. The safety of democracy therefore depends upon the widespread diffusion of opportunities for developing those qualities of mind and character which are essential to leadership in our modern age.

Further, democracy is concerned not only with preparation for leadership, but also with preparation for the discharge of the duties of citizenship in the determination of general policies and the selection of those persons who are to be entrusted with special duties. Beyond this, democracy must inculcate in its children capacities for living and assure opportunities for the fulfillment of those capacities. The success of democratic institutions is measured, not by extent of territory, financial power, machines or armaments, but by the desires, the hopes and the deep-lying satisfactions of the individual men, women and children who make up its citizenship.

We shall be concerned with ways in which the broad chasm between knowing and doing may be bridged over. We shall be reminding ourselves that all the lectures on nutrition will avail nothing unless there is food for a child to eat; that a law for compulsory school attendance is one thing and a chance to go to school is another. Prenatal instruction cannot assure healthy babies unless the mother has access to good medical and nursing care when the time for the baby's arrival is at hand. We know how to budget a family's expenditures, we have undertaken to preserve home life for fatherless or motherless children through the joint effort of the Federal Government and the States. We have made great progress in the application of money and service to the promotion of maternal and child health; the restoration of crippled children to normal physical condition; the protection of neglected children and children in danger of becoming delinquent, especially in rural areas; and the elimination of child labor from industries shipping goods in interstate commerce.

Yet, after all has been said, only a beginning has been made in affording security to children. In many parts of the country we have not provided enough to meet the minimum needs of dependent children for food, shelter and clothing, and the Federal Government's contribution toward their care is less generous than its contribution to the care of the aged.

It is not enough, however, to consider what a democratic society most provide. We must look at our civilization through the eyes of children. If we can state in simple language some of the basic necessities of childhood, we shall see more clearly the issues which challenge our intelligence today.

We make the assumption that a happy child should live in a home where he will find warmth and food and affection; that his parents will take care of him should he fall ill; that at school he will find the teachers and tools needed for an education; that when he grows up there will be a job for him and that he will some day be able to establish his own home.

As we consider these essentials of a happy childhood our hearts are necessarily heavy with the knowledge that there are many children who cannot make these assumptions.

We are concerned about the children of the unemployed.

We are concerned about other children who are without adequate shelter or food or clothing because of the poverty of their parents.

We are concerned about the children of migratory families who have no settled place of abode or normal community relationships.

We are concerned about the children of minority groups in our population who, confronted with discrimination and prejudice, must find it difficult to believe in the just ordering of life or the ability of the adults in their world to deal with life's problems.

We are concerned about the children living beyond the reach of medical service or lacking medical service because their parents cannot afford to pay for it.

We are concerned about the children who are not in school or who attend schools poorly equipped to meet their needs.

We are concerned about the children who are outside the reach of religious influences, and are denied help in attaining faith in an ordered universe and in the fatherhood of God.

We are concerned about the future of our democracy when children cannot make the assumptions that mean security and happiness.

This Conference and the activities which it initiates furnish an opportunity for us to test ourselves and our institutions by the extent to which they serve our children. I look to you for comprehensive review of the problems and for suggestions as to practical ways in which we may advance toward our goal.

Many branches of the Federal Government are engaged in the promotion of the health, education and well-being of the Nation's children. You will be asked to consider the points at which these undertakings may be strengthened, and the needs for service which cannot be supplied with the resources that we have at hand. But the attention of this Conference must not be directed to Federal activities alone, or even to joint Federal and State undertakings. It is the local community which is the focal point for all these programs. Children receive benefits not in Washington but in the places and the homes where they live.

The men and women within the sound of my voice, as well as you who are assembled at the White House today, are, in the larger sense, all members of this Conference. Recommendations will be brought to us in a final session next year. That is more than a year to find out what we want to do next. When that time comes I think it will be for all of us to determine the extent to which the recommendations will be translated into action.

But action we must have.

I bid you, the members of the Conference, Godspeed in this, your high endeavor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209554

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