Raising a successful child with just values is the most important human activity, and it will be as complex, demanding and fulfilling in 2020 as it is today. This mystical process cannot be reduced to a single essential ingredient, but one crucial factor that determines whether a child succeeds or fails is the presence of caring adults.
I grew up in rural South Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s in a racially segregated social order born of the ugly history of slavery. Fortunately for me, my parents and other adults never let the unjust external barriers become my internal ones. They provided buffers to combat a hostile world that told black children we weren't important. And they prepared me by precept and example to spend my life challenging that world.
The changes from that time have been remarkable, and by 2020 the world will look very different from today. Many of our children will be parents, and they will find themselves enmeshed in a popular culture shaped by technological, social and economic forces hurtling past us before we even realize it. In such conditions, the need to instill in their children a set of ironclad core values _ honesty, integrity and service _ will become even more important. Adults hold a sacred trust to protect children from physical and spiritual poverty, violence and greed, and to show them how to care about something beyond themselves.
Children need adult mentors in their homes, schools and communities who struggle to live what they preach. As the writer James Baldwin said, our children do not always do what we say, but they almost always do what we do. If we lie, children will. If we give nothing to the poor, they won't. If we don't vote, they will not fulfill their civic responsibilities as adults. If we tell or laugh at racial jokes, they will too. If we are violent and tolerate the glorification of violence, so will they.
Our children tend to try to meet our expectations _ good or bad. They need adults who expect and help them to succeed. Parents need to teach children to respect others and themselves and to respond to people because they are good or wise or loving, not merely because they are powerful or rich. And adults need to stress nonviolent ways of resolving conflict in a violence-saturated world.
Poor parents will need support to be good parents, meaning jobs with decent wages and health coverage in safe communities that offer educational opportunities for all. We know that America could harness its stupendous financial and intellectual treasure to break the cycle of poverty that limits our nation's progress and threatens our leadership in the world. Perhaps by 2020 the barriers that cause millions of children to fail will at last be cleared away.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.
Special to the Washington Post