Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: We’re waging war on our children. It has to stop. | Opinion

February 22, 2023 - Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

COMMENTARY | OPINION This piece expresses the views of its author(s).

After swinging the stethoscope around my neck, my hand soberly rested on the Michigan State University Spartan logo on my white coat. Another mass shooting, this time at my university, with three undergrads dead, several critically injured, and an entire state traumatized.

We failed our kids, again. But it is worse than a failure. It’s no exaggeration to say we are waging war on our children. A war with many fronts.

Gun violence is now the number one killer of children in the United States, causing 20% of all child deaths. There is a national mental health crisis with increasing rates of child and adolescent depression, anxiety and suicide. Almost 4 million children were plunged back into toxic poverty after Congress failed to renew the successful Covid-era expanded Child Tax Credit.

After two miserable Covid-disrupted school years, education inequities widened, and some activists and politicians are intent on banning books in schools and libraries, a practice associated with dictatorships, not democracies.

Child-protective environmental rules lag behind science, thanks to the outsized influence of profit-driven industries. One maddening example: only after an exposé, did the FDA recently reduce − not even eliminate − the amount of lead allowed in baby food. Let that set in − lead is okay in baby food.

And possibly the greatest assault on our children is the rapidly escalating climate crisis, raising the odds that they will inherit a broken planet.

Sometimes I think of my doctor’s white coat as a suit of armor, defending our children against a society that treats them as if they are insignificant. Nonessential. Dispensable. After the horrific shooting at MSU, I needed that Spartan strength to care for my pediatric patients.

The first patient of the day was an eight-year-old in for his checkup. I asked what he wants to be when he grows up. Without a pause he said, “a guitar player and a weatherman.” I gave him a first bump.

The next patient was a shy, bookish four-year old girl with thick glasses and an ankle sprain. In a barely audible voice, she shared that she wanted to be a doctor. I bandaged her ankle, gave her a high five, and told her I couldn’t wait to have her as my colleague.

One of the MSU shooting victims wanted to be a doctor. She could have been my colleague, too.

I took a deep breath and walked in to see the next kiddo. From the moment I entered the exam room, the two-month-old baby boy met and held my gaze. I listened to his heart, checked his reflexes, plotted his growth, and answered his parents' questions. I placed my hand over his fontanelle − the soft spot atop his head − and shared with his parents the fact that his brain will literally double in size in the critical first year of life. “Read to him, sing to him, talk to him,” I said. “Surround him with goodness. Smother him in love.”

When I said, “love,” I swear I saw his eyes brighten. I scooped him up and held him in my arms. That’s the diagnosis and also the treatment. There is a national deficiency of love, and our kids require so much more.

Too many people care more about guns and money than children’s lives. We tell our kids to “run, hide, fight.” We send parents kits to collect their child's DNA in anticipation of school shootings so their body can be identified. We have become a country that watches these horrors unfold − expects them − and collectively shrugs its shoulders as if there is nothing we can do.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can become a country that looks after its children as they deserve to be looked after, that works to protect them and their futures.

I started speaking to the baby in my arms. I apologized for the gun violence, the poisoned planet, the toxic poverty. I apologized that the adult world was waging war against his generation. I told him that he has a right to grow up healthy, safe and happy. I told him that I love him.

If only I could prescribe love, but I can’t. There is no magic pill. We need to consciously, whole-heartedly commit to our kids. We need to view our policies and practices through a child-centric lens so that we are serving their needs, not those of gun makers or polluters or craven politicians.

It means proactively working to protect kids from the many preventable traumas − seen and unseen − that we are subjecting them to and giving them grace and empathy when we fall short. It means building a robust society that centers our children so they can be kids in the best sense and fulfill their dreams.

How do we get there? Science and the best practices of peer nations tell us what works: restore the full Child Tax Credit; expand free high-quality early education; strengthen environmental protections and commit to an all-of-society climate change moonshot; reduce racial and class inequalities; create great jobs that provide dignity and stability; invest in public health; and embrace universal healthcare access. And finally, of course, enact gun control legislation that at a minimum includes universal background checks, child safety protections, and an assault weapons ban.

It’s time to call a cease-fire on our kids.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a Michigan State University College of Human Medicine pediatrician, C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health, and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative in Flint. She leads Rx Kids, a prenatal and infant cash allowance pilot for Flint kids. She is the author of "What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City."

This story originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.