Friday, July 27, 2007

Whatever happened to the good childhood?

So I've decided to have a go at a childhood/parenting discussion. I've just finished reading Neil Postman's book, The Disappearance of Childhood, which reminded me of the Good Childhood seminar I attended a few months ago. The question I've been struggling to resolve is this: if children are no longer children (in how they act, and how they are treated), is that really a bad thing? If children are becoming more and more like adults (or as Postman would add, adults are becoming more like children), what is really at stake?

For starters we can take a look at what I mean by children no longer being "children" in it's original sense. Historically, the distinction between children and adults was less a biological fact and more a social construction (that Postman claims arises with literacy, which has since been discredited). By social construction I mean that children were treated differently than adults, they were kept from certain secrets/mysteries of the adult world, they acted differently, etc. Children were, in essence, shielded from the realities faced by adults. The realities were then, in turn, revealed to them slowly and at a time when they would be ready for them. How were they protected? Well, in part, knowledge was in print, and to access that knowledge you not only needed to be able to read, but you also needed to be functioning at a high level of analytical thinking. Today the story is quite different. Knowledge of the adult world is indiscriminately broadcast to people of all ages through the medium of television. It's one thing for a child to read an inappropriate passage in a book (the extent of harm done would depend upon the strength of the child's imagination), and another for a child to be constantly bombarded with violence, sexuality, and materialism on the television. It takes zero effort to assimilate those images, and they inevitably take their toll on the ethos of children's culture. Postman's book was written somewhere around 20 years ago, and his concern was limited mainly to television. But I think it's also safe to add the concern of the affect the internet has on young minds. Parents rarely keep taps on their children's web surfing, and everyone knows the things they can find on there far surpass anything they'd see on primetime tv... This, of course, is old news, but it's worth remembering. I distinctly remember having free reign on the internet when I was in middle/high school. Thankfully, I was a total dork and spent most of my time looking up html codes for building web pages or IMing my friends, but that's not very typical, and parents ought to be more aware of what their kids are finding online...

Now, before I'm branded as the old fashion Puritan who is just overreacting, consider what's at stake. If the realities of adult life aren't suitable for children, then children ought to be protected from them. If they're not protected, then they will ultimately suffer for it. Consider this quote that I am shamelessly stealing from the Good Childhood Seminar. It's from from Juliet Schor’s study of the marketing industry:

Children are being exposed to plenty of glamour, fashion, style, irony, and popular music, that is, sex. Even the family-friendly Disney Channel is full of sexually suggestive outfits and dancing. One Radio Disney employee explained to me that the company keeps a careful watch on the lyrics, but is hands-off with the other stuff… Emma Gilding of Ogilvy and Mather recounted an experience she had during an in-home videotaping. The little girl was doing a Britney Spears imitation, with flirting and sexual grinding. Asked by Gilding what she wanted to be when she grew up, the three year old answered, “a sexy shirt girl”…. Mary Prescott [an industry professional] who is more deeply immersed [than other interviewees] in the world of tweening, confessed that “I am doing the most horrible thing in the world. We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things…It’s not worth the almighty buck."

The saddest part is that this is entirely too familiar. I dare anyone to challenge the claim that today's youth are becoming more and more adult-like in their behavior and tastes. Mean Girls showed it most poignantly when one of the girls younger sister was dancing to Britney Spear's music video and no one seemed bothered by it in the least, as though it's expected for young girls to try and be sexy, even at the age of 7 or 8! I'm young enough to testify to this disturbing phenomenon. I distinctly remember the transition into middle school, where, for the first time, I became acutely aware of my appearance and that of the other girls around me. For the first few months I proudly wore my over sized sweaters handed down from my mom or neighbors. Slowly but surely the girls around me began to shake off their childhood clothes as they adopted the trends of the 7th and 8th graders (who in turn were mimicking the high schoolers who were themselves trying to dress like adults...). I hung in there for awhile, but then the teasing started, and eventually I too adopted the tweeny fashion that modeled itself after adult celebrities.

So children are being bombarded with the message that they ought to be more like adults: what's wrong with that? Is it liberating (as some people seriously suggest, much to my dismay) for children to be broken out of the bondage and suffocation of paternalistic restraints? Maybe it is liberating in the sense that children now have practically unrestricted access to the trials and tribulations of adulthood, but at the same time children are not necessarily ready for this reality shock. Yes, in reality, sexuality is a driving force in our society, but why should that be any concern of children? Why should children feel the need to dress/act provocatively when they aren't even physically ready for sex (let alone emotionally ready for it)? It all seems nonsensical, and that's why I'm so disturbed to see the lack of restraint in the adult sphere when it comes to the information/messages passed on to children. Of course children aren't ready to be adults, that's why they're children, so why aren't they being raised accordingly?

One answer is that adults aren't really adults anymore, not in the traditional sense. They act more and more like children, as though remaining forever immature will be the equivalent of some sacred fountain of youth. You've seen those cheesy talk shows where the children bring on their parents and grandparents in an attempt to get them to "act their age." You have grandmothers wearing miniskirts, fathers beating each other up at little league games, and parents arguing like children. Adults should act differently from children in the sense that they have learned how to hold off immediate gratification in pursuit of long term goals and have learned some self-restraint, but in today's culture that's far from accurate. I've seen enough shows where the parents seek help from someone (like the supernanny!) because they can't seem to control their kids, when the real problem is that they spend all their time trying to befriend their children (in some lackluster attempt at resolving some underlying insecurities) instead of parenting them. Children are now our friends, not our charges, not our responsibilities, so in essence, they aren't really children at all.

The dilemma of the disappearing childhood can be coupled with that of the quest for the "good" childhood. Is a good childhood one in which children are treated more like adults? For example, there are those who think that the middle class suburban childhood is the benchmark of a good childhood. But the middle class childhood is marked by it's tendency to treat children as mini-adults. Parents try to reason with their kids, they let kids make the decisions (from what they want for dinner, to whether or not they want to watch tv or do their homework), they put children in a myriad of organized activities (instead of letting them make up games or play spontaneous pickup games with neighborhood friends). Life becomes a competition, let the parent with the best (most accomplished) child win. While it's true that the middle class upbringing prepares kids quite well (overall) for the competitive marketplace, it seems like they are at the same time robbing children of the bliss of being a child. Why should a 6 year old be shuttled to a different organized sport, music lesson, or acting class every night? Why is the 5 year old deciding whether or not the family should stay in or eat out (and in the case of a girl at the preschool my roommate works at: whether or not the babysitter should have to stay for dinner too)? Children don't need to make those decisions; they don't need that many organized activities. What they need is time to let their imagination wander, to explore their own world without being thrust into the world of adults. They don't need to be maxed out, stressed out, and spoiled. They need to be treated like children, with proper restraint and proper room for growing the imagination and playfulness.

If the middle-class-ambition-driven childhood isn't "good," then what else is there? Should we aim for whatever makes children the happiest? That would certainly fit nicely with our hedonistic society that proclaims: pleasure is the goal, all is fair in the pursuit of it. But what children often want in order to be "happy" (and by happy, it usually means temporarily not a pain for the parents) is often in opposition to what will make them happy in the long run. That realization, of course, they aren't aware of (which is why they are children in the first place), but sadly parents aren't aware of it either. Of course the child wants McDonald's now, but when she's an adult does she really want to be plagued by the habit of eating unhealthily? Probably not, but as a child she didn't know that what happened to her then would affect the person she became later.

A side question to this issue is where Christian parents stand. I was asked once if being raised in a Christian household help shield me better from the materialism (etc) of our society. In many ways it didn't because I still grew up in a fairly affluent suburb where materialism reigned supreme. But at the same time, I was equipped with a pretty compelling message that taught me not to trust in worldly treasures. This varies from family to family, but, if a child is truly presented with Christ's message, then no matter what goes on in the their family they have something else to point them in the right direction. So in essence, being a Christian has shown me where I struggle with the materialism and whatnot of our culture, but that doesn't mean my childhood wasn't steeped in it. The only difference is that I'm aware of it, and I have a good shot at trying to turn that all around now... (this probably warrants it's own post, and perhaps I'll try to get one up soon)

All of that was really just a rambling way of saying that I'm worried about the situation of children in our society and where their future is headed. I'm worried as a non-parent, but I hope to be one, and I do have a sister in middle school who faces all of the aforementioned problems of today's children. Of course I didn't do much for outlining what those problems are; I just wanted to point to the problem as a whole and leave it up to you to think about it some more. I think I'll just leave the discussion here (as incomplete and unhelpful as it is, sorry), and I'll add a small confession. I write this post today as a total hypocrite because while writing it I'm also watching America's Next Top Model (my guilty pleasure) with my 13 year old sister. But hey, that just proves how society has failed me. At least I'm aware of it though ;)

Good Childhood discussion on CT
Disappearnce of Childhood book
My other parenting post

(okay, so maybe not a lot of links, sorry, but I might expand on a future post...)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More and Monopoly

Well I finished readying Thomas More's Utopia a few weeks back, and I've finally found some time to write out some of my thoughts. Though, to be perfectly honest, the book left me with mixed feelings, and I have yet to resolve them. Perhaps my confusion is the result of reading this book immediately after Orwell's 1984, but who knows.

For starters, one of More's most forceful critiques was his stance on England's use of the death penalty. At the time, almost everything was punishable by death. More, rightly, points out that petty theft and murder are crimes that are not at all the same, and they shouldn't be punished the same either. He also points out, interestingly, that if a "Christian" nation is trivially putting people to death, then it is, in effect, overriding one of the basic commandments. He makes his observation as follows:

"God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'-- does the theft of a little money make it quite all right for us to do so? If it's said that this commandment applies only to illegal killing, what's to prevent human beings from similarly agreeing among themselves to legalize certain types of rape, adultery, or perjury? Considering that God has forbidden us even to kill ourselves, can we really believe that purely human arrangements for the regulation of mutual slaughter are enough, without divine authority, to exempt executioners from the sixth commandment? Isn't that rather like saying that this particular commandment has no more validity than human laws allow it? --in which case the principle can be extended indefinitely, until in all spheres of life human beings decide just how far God's commandments may conveniently be observed."

Personally, I am undecided on the death penalty. There are issues of how well can we really know that the person is guilty, and to what extent does the State have a right to take away the life of somebody. But do serial killers forfeit their right to live when they kill a bunch of people...? I'm not sure. Regardless, in More's case, he's quite right to point out that we shouldn't use capital punishment for just anything. I mean, the crime must be pretty horrible to warrant it. Anyways, this section just reminded me that I need to think on this some more (esp as a Christian, since Jesus' stance on mercy is pretty clear).

And then there's this wonderful part about how Raphael should give advice to political leaders (as a philosopher). The debate is whether or not he ought to, and whether or not anyone would listen if he did. More (the character) says that there's no room for "academic" philosophy, by which I think he means ideal theory, because it's "irrespective of circumstances." But there is, apparently, room for non-ideal philosophy, if only anyone would bother to care. He goes on to complain that "if we're never to say anything unconventional, for fear of its sounding ridiculous, we'll have to hush up, even in a Christian country, practically everything that Christ taught." That quote in particular made me laugh, as sad as that is.

Now here is where I think More is on to something. In Utopia, of course, there is no money and the usual things that we value (gold, gems) are worthless. Instead, everyone does their share and has what they need and they all seem to be content enough. Now all of that is quite attractive when you read it, but then you realize that it's far from practical (at least for a large nation). Utopia is an island with tons of natural resources, natural defenses, the people are raised to be of a certain sort, etc etc. But, one of the great lessons of their little hippy commune, is their attitude towards work. Check out this passage:

"They never force people to work unnecessarily, for the main purpose of their whole economy is the give each person as much time free from physical drudgery as the needs of the community will allow, so that he can cultivate his mind (yay!) -which they regard as the secret of a happy life."

In the US it seems like we live to work, whereas elsewhere in the world people work to live. Why the turn around? Maybe we can chalk this one up to the Puritans.... In any case, this was a discussion in my french business class where we discovered that the French (apparently) don't like to work, and they only want to work enough to have a decent quality of life. I'm not going to lie, our way seems to be quite stupid (working to work so we can work some more?), but I often find myself following in this stupid American tradition. I don't mean to say that we should do nothing at all, but we should have the free time to do the "work"/ activities that we enjoy (for some that means raising a family, for others it's education, and for some still it's something else entirely).

Moving along, here's a passage that struck me precisely because I've thought the very same thing myself. It's about our desire for precious stones when they look the same as non-precious stones (so it's not really an about the atheistic value, per se, but the whole rarity thing):

"There's another type of person I mentioned before, who has a passion for jewels, and feels practically superhuman if he manages to get hold of a rare one, esp if it's a kind that's considered particularly precious in his country and period -for the value of such things varies according to where and when you live. But he's so terrified of being taken in by appearances that he refuses to buy any jewel until he's stripped off all the gold and inspected it in the nude...But my dear sir, why shouldn't a fake give you just as much pleasure, if you can't, with your own eyes, distinguish it from a real one? It makes no difference to you whether it's genuine or not -any more than it would to a blind man!"

I really think he's on to something. Maybe in the future I should have a cubic zirconium for an engagement ring...(though we'll see if I still feel that way by then!). I never did understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, I've had people think my cheap Claire's earrings were real, so what does it matter anyway? If it's really about how it looks, then costume jewelery should suffice... ;)

Oh, and I particularly liked this bit about the law and lawyers (for those who are unaware, I am heading off to law school soon, so I suppose I ought to find this offensive and not funny). This part I think makes a lot of sense, and it's a wonder we haven't adopted it yet:

"It's quite unjust for anyone to be bound by a legal code which is too long for an ordinary person to read right through, or too difficult for him to understand."

The reason our's is so obnoxious is, of course, the lawyer's fault:

"If nobody's telling the sort of lies that one learns from lawyers, the judge can apply all his shrewdness to weighing the facts of the case, and protecting simple-minded characters against the unscrupulous attacks of clever ones."

Unscrupulous, I like the word usage here. What if one day I became a lawyer that's *gasp* unscrupulous. Heaven help us.

So, I thought the book was clever, obviously, it is after all a classic. It was a bit too unrealistic for me (yes, even me, a philosophy student), and I couldn't shake the image of what the State would turn into when it started to implement it (ie, big brother). But, the attitude is right, and we should at least take that away. This, of course, brings me to my follow-up story from a few nights back. I may have some socialist, maybe even communist, tenancies, but apparently in the face of good old capitalist competition those all melt away and reveal my true colors. By this I mean, the other night I played Monopoly with some of my friends and I found myself bending over backwards to get hotels on Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Ave, and Marvin Gardens (the yellow properties). We were off to a great start because we landing on free parking 5 times in a row, and, apparently, all that monopoly dough can go to your head. Needless to say we ended up bankrupt with nothing by the end, so that shows you something. Everyone has an inner capitalist within, just waiting to be unleashed by a Parker Brothers game. So much for working together in social unity for the common good. Go straight to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect $200...

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Bar Talk: US health care, or lack thereof

I'm back with another fruitful bar discussion, only this time it came about quite unexpectedly. My bartending friend has actually left her job at the BW, so my dreams of finding stimulating conversation there with the BW's diverse crowd have been dashed. However, it seems that a college-town bar can be conducive to interesting discussions as well, and I found myself in the middle of one a few nights ago. Though, to be honest, I think the place has less to do with it than the fact that I tend to get more thoughtful about things when I've had a bit to drink, but doesn't? Anyways, the topic of the night somehow-- and I really have no recollection of how-- landed on politics. Those that know me well can attest to the fact that I loathe politics, and for all my political philosophy musings, I simply cannot bring myself to have faith in our current political system. But for all my political pessimism, there are some political issues that I can not shy away from. So when the guy I was chatting with mentioned that he has applied to help out in the Edwards campaign, I put away my pessimism and listened. And soon enough our conversation turned to health care, or more accurately, the lack thereof. We both agreed that the current system sucks, and something needs to be done. Everyone has a right to health care, not just the wealthy or those lucky enough to be in the right sort of jobs. But of course, it's all easier said than done...

You may have come across my post a month or so ago about my disgust with Guiliani's attitude towards health care. I used to share his attitude, and many Americans still do, much to my dismay. Namely he thinks that the quality will go down if we mess with the current system, and our quality is the best in the world so we shouldn't tamper with it. To put it roughly, he's unwilling to sacrifice the quality of care that he receives, all the while neglecting the millions of Americans who receive no health care at all, high quality or otherwise. What's the point of having excellent health care if no one can take advantage of it? But of course, there are the naysayers who boo and hiss at the idea of a universal system because it would, they say, never work. Well, let's have a look...

First, I thought it would be helpful to outline what our current system is like. For those not from the US, you may not be familar with our multi-payer / market system. And for those who are from here, it's important to look beyond your personal expereiences with health care and see what is happening in the big picture. I say that because I went a long time thinking our system was just fine precisely because I had great health insurance, well my mom who is a teacher had great insurance, and I've been a free-rider milking it for all it's worth. But my experiences aren't typical, so I thought I'd look for some answers elsewhere.

There's a great article here that gives an outline of our current system, and if you look here you can read up on a study about how our system is failing to meet quality standards. Here are some things I learned that I didn't know before:

  • The US spends more than other countries on health services (after you figure in GDP), but at the same time the US is below the median for it's use of medical services (physician visits, length of stay, etc). Take a look at the US dot. Way to be an outlier guys:
  • 17% of Americans under 65 are completely uninsured (yikes), and the uninsured population is on the rise.
  • Being uninsured is not just a problem for the poor or unemployed. Most (70%) of the uninsured live in families with at least one worker. Also, one third of the non elderly uninsured earn up to twice the amount of the poverty line ($14, 000 ish for a family of 3).
  • My age group (18-24) is the least insured of all other age groups, with a whopping 30% of us going around without insurance.
  • Medical costs, not surprisingly, are on the rise, with the average cost of a day at the hospital costing over 10 ten times what it did 40 years ago.
  • For all three categories of care that are needed (chronic, acute, and preventative), the recommended care (of an appropriate quality) was provided only about 50% of the time.
  • When people don't receive the care they need, they are the ones who pay:
  • The US is behind many other developed countries in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, obesity rates...etc. Granted, there are many factors that contribute to this, but it's important to remember that widespread preventative care can do a lot of good. And, with the proper prevention, many Americans can lead the way in changing their daily habits that contribute to poor health.
  • Other effects of being uninsured: emotional stress or anxiety, job lock (being unable to leave a job solely because you need the insurance), and bankruptcy...among other things.
With over 45 million Americans without insurance, and millions more who are under insured, it's not hard to see that our current system isn't cutting it. In the Case for Universal Health Care, the writers point out that Americans treat health care as a privilege, like owning a car or a DVD player. However, many other countries treat health care like a right that everyone should be able to access, because they see health care more like a public or social good than a commodity to be bought by the highest bidder. After all, who can put a price on health? And even if you could, why shouldn't we make sure everyone has a decent shot at it? Morally speaking, good health is a stepping stone to leading a flourishing life. Like freedom of thought or expression, freedom to maintain an adequate level of health enables people, or gives them a foundation, to live a life that they choose and a life where they can flourish as a human being. If good health is a prerequisite (or some sort of capability, if you're a Sen fan) for living a good life (in whatever form that might be for you), then it should be at the top of the list of things that the people want their government to ensure. Political theorists would probably disagree with this, but I think that the purpose of the government is defeated when it fails to live up to the only reason it's around at all, which is to improve the quality of life that it's members have.

The next question is: what are the costs of reforming the system? Well, it would be expensive (I found an estimate of upwards of $70 billion). And if there's minimal/no cost-sharing (the individual paying something out of pocket), then healthcare might be overused (depending on structure of the solution). Also, employers that provide decent health care now might push employees to take the government provided program, a practice referred to as "crowding out."

And what are the costs if we don't? Well aside for the obvious detrimental effect on people's health, we can expect a loss in productivity from workers, a decreased time-span of years spent working all together, job lock, strain on businesses, and a loss in global competitiveness (because our products carry the cost of privately bought health care).

But there's hope yet, and Dr Kenneth Thorpe, an economist at Emory University, has some positive light to shed the question of health care reform. You can check out his non-partisan study here. The good news is that the government could save over one trillion dollars if it implemented a universal, public financed plan along with cost controls and further measures to improve efficiency.

And once again my goal is high: health care for everyone. Can it be done, I think so. Can it be done in the US, well, I hope so. But before anyone can do anything we must wake up the American population and make them aware of the truth behind our wonderful system. Nothing will change until people see the need. But then again, at the rate that people are loosing their insurance, that time may be coming sooner than you'd think.

RAND nonprofit research findings
Nice overview of the US system
Case for Universal Health Care
Impacts of Health Care Reform: projections of costs and savings, K. Thorpe