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...)

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