Read an Excerpt
Imagine an account of human life in the twenty-first century. The genre is science fiction, perhaps delivered in a futuristic novel or movie. The account is set in any city or town of the populated world. The main characters are all younger than twenty. They are the children and adolescents who inhabit the streets, the homes, and the schools of this typical community of tomorrow.
A Fable of Our Near Future
The scene opens on a bleak deserted neighborhood in the heart of town. It is daytime, just after working hours, and the place has emptied out. The sense of emptiness is not a great change from earlier in the day. From nine to five, some government offices and a few small shops provide a bit of life to the area, but it is a muted, confined life that mostly takes place off the street. Most of the area's stores and the oldtime movie theaters have been boarded up for decades. The remaining businesses, there only to serve the government workers, are barricaded behind steel grates that have been adorned with rolls of barbed wire. After the working day is done, nowhere is there an open eatery, a pharmacy, or newsstand.
Soon it is clear why. Roving bands of youth begin bringing a more vivid life to the neighborhood, though it is a macabre and chilling one. Some of the youths are crammed into cars that creep ominously around corners like big cats on the prowl. Others dart through the alleys or leap across the rooftops. The youngsters move in a quick, guarded pantomime, signaling each other by hand or by eye contact. Before long, taunts, gunshots, and screams punctuate the watchful silence. Then flashes of fire, smoke, the screeching of car motors and wheels, and the wail of police sirens bring the scene to a climax. Stretchers carry away three young corpses. No photographer comes to chronicle the grisly sight: such events have long since lost their news appeal. Next follows an uneasy calm. Then, before anything approaching a decent interval has passed, similar events unfold with a dreary predictability.
The scene now shifts to the outskirts of town. We are in a leafy residential area. But barricades and angry signs have taken away some of the idyllic suburban charm. The signs warn that only neighborhood residents and their announced guests are allowed access to the streets. Private patrols have established checkpoints to enforce the edict.
In any event, there is very little outdoor traffic among young folks in this part of town. Almost all the action takes place inside if one considers TV gazing, snacking, napping, and an occasional stony-eyed pass at homework to be "action." There is a listless, isolated quality to the activity. Even the phone calls that break up the monotonous silence lack the gossipy glee that one used to associate with teenage telephoning. So lethargic are the movements of the young people that we almost wonder if the scene is being shot in slow motion. Many of these youngster have a pale, flaccid, washed-out look.
Despite the overall pall, in one of the homes a genuine drama does take place. A boy of sixteen, three days away from his next birthday, quietly slips into his father's study and turns on the home computer. With a few taps on the keyboard, he opens the data base file where his dad has catalogued the family's collection of guns. The boys studies the size, type, and location of each gun listed. After some thought, and without bothering to turn off the computer, the boy walks to the hallway, opens a cabinet, and removes a thick single-barrel shotgun. He knows that the gun has been kept loaded for the purposes of instant household protection. Leaving the cabinet door open, the boy takes the shotgun down into the basement. After a ten-minute pause in which he neither leaves a note nor makes any other significant gesture, he ends his life with a shot to his head.
At the suburban high school the following day, there is some consternation at the news of the boy's suicide, but the feelings lean more toward sorrow than surprise. Suicides occur periodically, here and in every other suburb around. In the meantime, there are other happenings at school that demand more urgent talk and vigilance. The most pressing is the epidemic of knifings that is placing both students and teachers at daily risk. The sophisticated metal screening devices at the school entrances have done little to deter students from creating knife-like weapons out of sharp objects and using them against each other and the staff. Once a problem thought to be limited to students from the "tougher" parts of town, the knifings by now have no discernible link to students' social status or group identity. The girls are now as likely to do it as the boys.
A panorama of school life reveals an atmosphere that is in all other ways consistent with the sense of dread that emanates from the frequent knifings. Graffiti have been splattered everywhere, inside as well as out, easily defeating the token, halfhearted efforts of school officials to rub them out. Shaved heads, tatoos, and gaudy jewelry ornament most of the young bodies. The students wear a motley assortment of clothes or quasi-uniforms resembling degenerate war gear. The most popular T-shirts of the day bear a pair of boldface insignia, one written on the front and one on the back: "Sick of it all," and "Nothing to lose."
We move down the corridors into the school's central offices. A counselor is calling a student's home about some apparently excused absences, only to find that the parent's letters have been forged. A young boy is in the principal's office for threatening his teacher with a gun. Three students are separated from their class after hurling racial epithets at a fourth. A girl is complaining that her locker has been broken into and all her belongings stolen. A small group of boys are huddling in a corner, shielding an exchange of money for drug packets. In the playground, two girls grab a third and punch her in the stomach for flirting with the wrong boy. Throughout the corridors and classrooms, a palpable spirit of disorderliness and disrespect reigns.
The camera moves away from the suburb, past the old business district shown before, and into a truly devastated part of town where the nonworking poor live. Here many of the children and most of the adolescents no longer may be found within the walls of any school, even at the height of day. Some have formally withdrawn, others have never enrolled, and others simply never show up. Instead, they inhabit a subterranean world of crime, illicit deals, marketing in banned substances and flesh. Some run drugs, some run guns, others traffic in their own bodies. Few have any adults in their lives who are able to function as parents or guardians. For many of these youths, the grown-ups of their world have disappeared through choice or through misfortune, swept away by drugs, by criminals, by cops, or by the health hazards of poverty. Of the grown-ups who remain, few have little use for these neighborhood kids who roam the streets looking for trouble. The exception to the grown-ups who are indifferent are the hardened adults who prey on the youths by enlisting them as foot soldiers in dangerous and exploitative assignments.
The young people in this neighborhood band together in leagues of mutual protection. These are the street gangs that provide the youngsters with a sense of collective security as well as an opportunity for voicing some youthful bravado. The sense of security is as false as the bravado. Many of the children in this neighborhood will not see twenty with life and limb intact. Many of those who do will be hauled away for long stretches in prison, where they will learn even more effective ways of wreaking havoc on society.
Our science-fiction tale could show all this by documenting the tragic loss of child after child in this devastated neighborhood. Some would lose their futures quickly, through a flash of violence, a drug overdose, a criminal bust. Others would lose their futures gradually, through a steady deadening of expectations and loss of hope.
The real shock, though, comes when the camera steps back to place this neighborhood in a whole-earth perspective. We see the metropolitan area (including the leafy suburb) that flows into the neighborhood, the country that surrounds the city, and the world that surrounds the country. It turns out that this devastated neighborhood is not merely a pocket of despair in an otherwise thriving society. In all the world, wrecked neighborhoods flow together like seas that crash against a few well-guarded, frightened islands of affluence where children lethargically spend their youth on snacks and electronic entertainment. The metropolitan areas are surrounded by rural landscapes that are barren of young people because nothing is left there to hold them. As the camera scans the world, it reveals many versions of the same scene: a homogeneous global village with neither the elevated culture nor the friendly intimacy that was associated with this phrase in more hopeful times.
Back to the Present
I am not a science-fiction author, nor do I have aspirations to create fables or yarns of any sort. Happily for the average quality of fiction writing in the year that this book will be published, I shall not continue in this mode. But if this may be a small bit of good news for our culture, it is framed by some larger news that is far more serious and that is very bad indeed. Unfortunately for our society today, we do not need a science fiction account to render the circumstances that I have portrayed. Every condition and event from the "futuristic" fictional nightmare that I have just sketched can be found in quantity throughout the world today. Moreover, the prevalence of such circumstances is fast increasing. In fact, all such circumstances have grown in profusion for the past fifty years or more, in a trend that only can be described as steady acceleration.
Anyone who listens to the daily news has heard about conditions and events identical to the ones that I have just invented. We may perceive such events as aberrations, isolated misfortunes either confined to special populations or caused by unusual circumstances. There still may be a sliver of truth to this comforting sense of reassurance, but it diminishes with each passing year.
The truly bad news is that, in fact, all the news about the climate and prospects for youth development in our society is bad. As I shall show below, practically all the indicators of youth health and behavior have declined year by year for well over a generation. None has improved. The litany of decline is so well known that it is losing its ability to shock. We have become accustomed not only to the dreadful indicators themselves but also to their never-ending increase. As I recount the most recent facts and figures here, I am aware that they barely pack a punch anymore. Unfortunately, I also am sure that the data will be significantly worse by the time this statement reaches press.
Let us start with youth violence. Among teenagers living in the United States, homicide rates doubled in the decade from 1970 to 1980. After that, it doubled again in the next seven years; and by 1992 it had taken only five years to double again. "Today," reports the National Commission on Children, "more teenage boys in the United States die of gunshot wounds than of all natural causes combined." Girls, too, are joining in the mayhem, both as perpetrators and as victims of violence. Virtually every day now brings a newsstory such as the following:
A 13-year-old girl shot a cab driver to death to avoid paying a $6 fare, the police in West Palm Beach, Florida, said. The teenager was eerily calm during questioning, Sergeant John English said. "No tears, just cold," he said. "We're talking about a coldblooded, premeditated murder committed by a 13-year-old girl who shows no remorse. It's frightening."
I did not conduct extensive research to uncover this anecdote: I simply reached for the newspaper on the table next to me, confident that something along these lines would turn up. It did. Today, as I revise this section, I do the same, and I find the following:
Two children pulled a gun on a high school teacher in her classroom and stole nearly $400 collected for a class picnic. A 12-year-old who allegedly fired at a pursuer after the robber Monday was caught. A second child got away with most of the cash....The 12-year-old fired at the assistant principal before he was caught by police. A .357 Magnum was found in the bushes nearby.
(Now some more weeks have passed, and my manuscript is entering final production I have yet one more chance to recount the most recent news of youthful carnage. I do so sadly, with a sense that this will go on forever if we persist on our present path.) The date of this latest insert is Spetember 5, 1994. On page 6 of today's New York Times, the following story appears: "More sadness and disbelief in Chicago: Another eleven-year-old is accused of murder." The main subject of this story is a boy nicknamed "Frog" who has been arrested for beating an eighty-four-year-old woman with her cane, slashing her throat with a kitchen knife, binding her hands, and leaving her to die on her bathroom floor. The reason that the story's headline refers to "another" case is that earlier this week an eleven-year-old Chicago boy named Robert shot and killed a fourteen-year-old neighborhood girl. Robert's own life ended soon after that killing: according to police, he himself was executed by two teenage brothers in an act of vigilante justice.
But the catastrophes of this particular day are not confined to the urban streets of Chicago. Also on page 6 of the same edition we can read about a thirteen-year-old from High Bridge, New Jersey, who has just been accused of killing his longtime playmate, a "polite, shy, compliant" boy often. And it does not even stop there: according to police, two twelve-year-old boys from Wenatchee, Washington, have confessed to shooting a fifty-year-old migrant worker eighteen times in coldblooded sport. One final headline on the page announces what was perhaps the only accidental incident of the day; yet in context of the other killings, the news seems eerily prophetic: "Boy, 3, shot by brother, 5."
The current scourge of violence among the young is bad enough, but future trends look even worse. The most recent data show the youngest group of teenagers to be the most violent the world has ever witnessed. That is, within the overall increasing rates of youth violence, by far the most dramatic increase is taking place among children in their preteens and adolescents in their early teens. For example, in a five-year period from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, murder among children ages fourteen to seventeen rose 124 percent. This does not bode well for the next few decades.
With growing frequency, children are killing and being killed at appallingly early ages. Among children between the ages of five and fourteen, murder now is the third leading cause of death in industrial countries. In the United States, a child dies of a gunshot wound every two hours. More children have been killed by guns in little over a decade than all the American troops that were killed during the Vietnam war though with far less public protest.
Any urban medical intern can bear witness to the carnage wreaked on those who have been on the receiving end of the terror. On weekend nights, hospital wards in many of our cities and towns resemble battlefield clinics. Doctors and nurses care for once-healthy youth who, if they survive at all, will bear crippling impairments for life. Young people who witness this mayhem also are deeply affected. Speaking to Congress in the spring of 1994, a fifteen-year-old girl proclaimed through her tears:
It is so bad that I am scared to leave my house in the daytime or evening. A friend of mine got shot and killed. He was standing right beside me when someone came up and shot him 17 times....I have realized that something tragic doesn't only have to happen to bad people. It can happen to you.
The vast majority of children who have been gunned down were shot by other youngsters. This grim fact in itself signifies still another grave problem. What happens to a young person's future once he has killed someone? (Or she: girls are rapidly catching up to boys in their readiness to commit violence.) Or, for that matter, what happens to a young person who has helped to kill someone? Another disturbing present trend is the doubling of jointly committed murders among teenagers during the past five years. Because such systematic violence among the very young is a new phenomenon, we do not know much about the ultimate fates of those who participate in such terrible activities. What kinds of social relationships will these children be able to have? What kinds of self-identities will they construct for themselves? To what purposes will they dedicate their future lives?
Whether they find themselves on the giving or the receiving end of the terror, many children are now preoccupied by it. Their daily energies are focused on avoiding, dispensing, or protecting themselves against violence often through the same deadly means. The rapid rise in youth gangs is a response to this grim reality as well as a further feeder of it. A large portion of today's younger generation is growing up with the belief that they must either get a gun or fall victim to one. A fourteen-year-old from Washington, D.C., testifies:
Guns have been part of my life since I was 12 years old. That was when my friend Scooter was killed with a gun. Since then, four of my friends have been shot and killed on the streets. One of them was my friend Hank. I heard gun shots. Then, right after that, I saw Hank lying on the ground. He wasn't dead yet, but he was lying there, twitching. It was a terrible thing, terrible, to see someone you know, someone who used to make you laugh, lying there, dying right in front of you.
Homicidal violence is only one of the fatal dangers that children are turning to with ever greater frequency. Many young people who are not busy destroying others are doing it to themselves. Some are doing it indirectly through substance abuse. Others are doing it more directly and more purposefully than ever before.
Thirty years ago, our adolescent suicide rate was 3 per 100,000, already high by traditional global standards. Now it is 11 young people per 100,000, while adult rates have stayed pretty much the same. A 1993 survey found that 20 percent of high school students had made a plan to commit suicide and that half of these students had made an actual attempt. The study also reported that these percentages had doubled in just three years. After accidents, suicide is now the leading cause of youthful death in our society. It has maintained its grisly lead over homicide even as the latter races to catch up. There can be no plainer indication of youthful demoralization than suicide.
The less fatal indicators of youthful decline are just as discouraging. Each year over a million teenage girls throughout the United States become pregnant. A large and steadily rising number of the births resulting from these pregnancies take place outside of marriage. Largely because of teenage pregnancies, almost one-third of all babies born in the U.S. population at large have unmarried mothers. Many unwed teenage mothers receive a temporary emotional uplift from the natural delights of parenthood, and some manage to draw upon their extended family resources in order to raise their children responsibly. But generally the long-range consequences for both mother and baby are highly problematic. Indeed, in recent years some prominent social analysts have identified the rising numbers of unwed teenage births as one root cause of the societal disintegration that has threatened many of our communities.
Drug use among the young stabilized a few years ago, though at a dangerously high level. Some recent unpublished indicators suggest that some forms of drug use may be increasing again. As for other types of juvenile crime, they all have continued to rise without respite. I have noted the data on youth violence earlier. Teenage robberies, muggings, and vandalism also have grown by leaps and bounds during the past three decades. The number of young people serving prison time for criminal activity rises yearly with relentless predictability. Vast populations of teenagers today consider jail to be a dreary inevitability, something unavoidable that one adjusts to, almost like regular visits to the dentist. The average age of criminal offenders gets younger and younger with each passing year.
Then there are the quieter indicators of apathy and indolence among today's youth, seemingly less ominous in individual cases yet calamitous for society in the aggregate. Teachers everywhere complain of a host of behavioral problems among the students that they encounter today. At the time of this writing, compulsive teenage gambling is reaching epidemic proportions among many sectors of the population. Accompanying the gambling is a cluster of deviant social and personal behavior, including petty theft, heavy borrowing, habitual deceitfulness, and irregular sleeping hours.
Even apart from those who are caught up in gambling and other obsessions, many of today's young people are having great difficulty separating day from night. School counselors complain that this generation of youth has "sleep problems" of a magnitude rarely before seen. So many students are arriving late these days that high schools have arranged clinical sessions to treat chronic oversleepers. Colleges are having trouble filling first-period classes, and students complain when required courses are scheduled early in the day. Many professors refuse to plan morning meetings with students, since so few show up. I have heard freshman-year deans say that some students spend the greater part of their first college year sleeping until noon.
In general, our students are less literate, and far less mathematically competent, than students were a generation ago. Over a half million students a year drop out of our nation's high schools, usually with no good alternative in sight. A majority of our high school students cannot locate Greece on a world map, cannot compute the exact proportion of their spending money that goes for school lunches, and have never read a hardcover book that they were not forced to read.
And how do our young people spend their free time? During the week, the average U.S. child watches between four and five hours a day of television. This is during the school week, when there are only about six or seven waking hours available (aside from meals, bathing, dressing, and so on) for discretionary activities. On weekends and vacations, with more time on their hands, American children on the average watch TV between seven and nine hours per day. With this in mind, it may not seem surprising that childhood obesity rates have increased some 98 percent during the past fifteen years. "Children today are less physically fit than ever before in our history," according to one major national health organization.
None of these indicators of decline neither the illegal behavior, nor the educational failings, nor the wasted time and human potential is confined to young people living in disadvantaged conditions. Today's disaffected and demoralized youth are widely distributed in our affluent suburbs as well as in our impoverished "underclass" neighborhoods. I shall make the case throughout this book that, although the problem may have different manifestations in different economic conditions, it is fundamentally the same problem with the same source.
Parents and teachers in communities of all types say that children's problems are becoming steadily more serious as well as more difficult to correct. One fifty-year comparison of teachers' concerns, widely cited in the media as well as the Congressional Record, claimed that in 1940 teachers worried mostly about gum-chewing and other "disorderly" conduct among their students, whereas in 1990 teachers were worried about violence, drugs, and dishonesty. Because this comparison was not made in a systematic manner, I do not wholly trust the data, and so I do not formally cite it here. But a well-designed study of parents' and teachers' observations over time was conducted between 1976 and 1989 and published in November 1993. The results showed behavioral declines for children of all ages and both sexes during the study's thirteen-year period. In 1989, according to parents and teachers, children were far more likely to "destroy things belonging to others," to "hang around with others who get into trouble," to do poorly on their schoolwork, to be "underactive," "whining," "sullen," "stubborn," and "irritable." More children were lying and stealing; more were being held back a year at school; more were friendless; and more had chronic though minor physical problems such as frequent stomachaches. Fewer children were participating in sports or other healthy outdoor activities, and fewer had found any activity in life that truly engaged them, including their education.
The data that I have cited here pertain to the United States. To its credit, the U.S. federal government keeps good records of social indicators even though it has not been able to do much to stem the decline that these indicators reveal. But problems exist also in places where records are less well kept. The crisis that I discuss in this book is spread throughout the world today. We hear of the most vivid stories through the media: sport murders of children by other children in Britain, rampant drug use and prostitution among runaway youth in South America, drunken youth riots across Europe, skinhead gangs throughout Germany, an epidemic of teenage suicide in Japan, a rising tide of violence, theft, and gang membership everywhere. And, as in the United States, there are less dramatic stories as well stories that may be even more foreboding in their commonality. Young people in Europe are "mired in the mud," in the words of one British social scientist. They are dejected, they have given up; they are pursuing all the wrong goals; or they have no goals at all. There is a vacuum where there should be a tangible grasp of the present and a hopeful reach for the future.
Growing Up the Hard Way, Growing Up the Easy Way
Throughout the world today, young people grow up in a enormous range of conditions. Some young lives are spent "ducking the bullet," to borrow Milbrey McLaughlin's memorable phrase. These children risk their safety by walking down to the corner or home from school. They discover dread at an early age; violence is always on their minds. When asked to draw a picture for an art class at school or tell a story for an English class, a likely motif will be someone getting shot. Some of these children also have abusive parents, in which case their lives are as risky at home as when they are out on the streets. Some children have no functional parents at all. They have no one in their homes or their communities who takes the time, or has the ability, to guide them, to protect them, or to offer them advice, direction, solace, or nurturance. Some are seen solely as means of profit or pleasure rather than as children to be raised. Even their friendships turn out to be mean and exploitative.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, there are many children in the world today who have privileges that were once reserved for royalty. They are well fed, expensively clothed, and securely protected from harm. They possess their own bedrooms that overflow with playthings, and constant entertainment fills their lives. They have parents devoted to giving them the best of everything. Little is demanded of them beyond their own enjoyment of life. If they want something, it is theirs for the asking especially if they ask strenuously enough.
The extremes seem to indicate separate worlds of childhood that are destined never to intersect. The young people who grow up in these disparate conditions look as if they are on diverging tracks, some headed for disaster, others for lives of luxury and ease. At first glance, this looks like an old story, a tale of two societies, one underprivileged, the other overprivileged.
If this indeed were the entire story, it would be appalling enough. It would mean that a significant portion of our youth population has been consigned to a present that is certainly bleak and a future that is likely so; whereas others in their cohort are drowning in ease and excess privilege. Although not a new story, it is a sorry one, and it grows more unacceptable with each passing year. Modern communications have made it impossible to shut out images of children with little to show but angry and hopeless eyes.
Yet this stubborn plight is only part of our present predicament. The conditions for growing up in one place these days have a great deal to do with the conditions for growing up elsewhere. Economically, culturally, and informationally, the world is growing closer together at every moment. In an era when modern media have created an almost universal human awareness, children's separate worlds have joined together.
The problems of youth cannot be isolated in today's world. The conditions may be more severe in fact, literally more lethal in places where children are murdered daily than in places where children drift aimlessly through schools and shopping malls. I do not mean to blur this distinction nor to understate in any way the tribulations of our most disadvantaged children. But all the complications of growing up in today's world have debilitating effects on the minds and morals of the young. Further, the problems tend to merge into one another, as the secure spots of yesterday become threatened, from within and from without, by the same types of destructive youth behavior that have decimated our inner cities. The problems arise from the same cultural vacuum and feed one another as soon as children gain awareness of how others in their society live. It may be possible, for a while, to barricade suburban streets against outsiders, but there are no walls that can block out the state of the world in a modern society.
The glaring spectacles of underprivilege and overprivilege feed a similar cynicism in the minds of young people from every sector of society. For a society concerned about the character of its children (and any society that is not concerned about this is surely on its way to oblivion), it is untenable to abandon certain members of its younger generation while heaping unearned entitlements on others. What message does this impart to growing children about what it means to be a person, or what it means to belong to a community? About personal and social responsibility? About the values and ideals of their respected elders?
Nor are there any barricades that prevent a culture's beliefs and practices from shaping the growing minds of children everywhere. The mistaken beliefs that guide our childrearing practices are as prevalent in affluent communities as they are in poor neighborhoods. What is more, a diminution of standards and expectations for young people has occurred in every corner of the modern world. As I shall show in later chapters of this book, young people everywhere today are lacking guidance. They listen fruitlessly for voices that do not speak.
A Tale of the Past
From time to time, reflections from the past can throw a glaring light on the present. Not long ago I first read a short story called "Youth," written around the turn of the century by Joseph Conrad. The story helped me bring into focus some disquieting perceptions that had been troubling me for some time but that I had not been able to articulate. A sea tale, it wakened me like a splash of cold water on a groggy morning.
Conrad's story tells about a young sailor on his first working voyage. The voyage was headed towards the Orient, a long journey fraught with peril, toil, and discomfort. Conrad has the sailor narrate the tale in first person, many years later, after he has become a middle-aged man.
If viewed with cold detachment, the young sailor's first voyage looked to be nothing less than a debacle. The ship was old and in disrepair, "all dust, rust, grime soot aloft, dirt on deck." It leaked constantly and required frequent, strenuous pumping. Rats were everywhere. Two days out of harbor, the ship collided with a steamer and had to return for repairs. This and other setbacks led to interminable delays in leaving port. When the ship was finally at sea again, a gale forced another lengthy dock stay. Then the ship's cargo coal caught on fire through spontaneous combustion. The captain decided to plow on, which meant weeks of living with odiferous smoke and fumes. Even this miserable situation deteriorated further. The smoldering coal eventually exploded, the ship caught fire and sank, and the young sailor was left manning a lifeboat. After days and nights in an open boat, through drenching rains and burning sun, the boy finally rowed into an Asian port.
And what was the boy's attitude throughout this extended misadventure? He was thrilled about every experience along the way. Throughout the tale, the narrator barely can contain the exuberance that he felt as a young man long ago. At the darkest and most doleful part of the journey, the sailor recalls thinking "What next?...This is great! And as for me, there was also my youth to make me patient. There was all the East before me, and all life, and the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had come out pretty well."
The narrator goes on to conclude, "...tell me, wasn't that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks and sometimes a chance to feel your strength...." The miserable voyage had bestowed upon the boy nothing less than a sense of wonder and pride at the chance to test himself in every predicament that arose.
Now Conrad's piece is fiction, not science; and it is fiction that is laced with a thick air of nostalgia at that. Yet even romantic fantasies from another time can be revealing, especially when they are so different from our own. And of course this other time was not so long ago a mere three or four generations past, on the cusp of the modern era.
Much indeed has changed. There are many stories that one can tell about today's youth, individual stories as varied as the conditions in which young people find themselves in our society. Some of these stories are happy ones. Many young people today are well-adjusted, well-meaning, and capable. But not many of today's stories will express the exuberance, the sense of confidence, the eagerness for adventure, the wholehearted hopefulness that Conrad's youthful sailor feels. Few stories of today's youth will show the same clarity of purpose. Few, in fact, will show a sustained commitment or an unreserved dedication to anything beyond their own immediate concerns.
Few pictures of today's youth could portray young people facing their world with a sense of wholesome ambition. Even this phrase seems antiquated nowadays, almost embarrassingly eager or, worse, crassly assertive. Yet what, if not a sense of wholesome ambition, has enabled young people throughout the ages to plow ahead, through all the uncertainties of their first steps, to create a better future for themselves and their compatriots? Nowadays, even those on the right track seem timorous about their aims and guarded about their prospects.
Conrad's account struck me not because it represents a definitive picture of all that youth should be it is, after all, a tale of only one boy's life but rather because it contrasts so sharply with most of the pictures familiar to me in our contemporary social landscape. The story suggests a spirit that is very hard to find among today's young. Oddly, though, Conrad's account still rings true. It is as if it fills a natural category, an archetypical definition of youthful spirit that we shall always retain, even long after life in modern society would make it anachronistic.
But this, I hope and believe, will turn out to be too strong and too final a conclusion. The youthful exuberance expressed by Conrad's sailor is rare but not extinct. There are young people today who do have a coherent sense of purpose. Many other young people are desperately seeking one. Even those who seem truly lost have all the potential energy, intelligence, and courage with which young of our species have always been endowed.
Yet too many are demoralized, deeply so, in all the original senses of the word. When military strategists invented the notion of psychological warfare, one of the first tactics they turned to was "demoralizing" the enemy. To "demoralize" one's opponents, there were two choices. One could corrupt the enemy's morals or one could undermine the enemy's sense of hope. Either way, the will to prevail would be diminished. Courage and energy would dissipate; a defeatist attitude would mushroom into a self-fulfilling sense of despair. As legions of armies have found to their regret, this is an effective strategy when successfully implemented. But the conditions must be right. Crude attempts often have the opposite effect. If troops (or civilians, for that matter) believe in the rightness of their cause, hardship, threats, brutality, and propaganda only bind them more strongly together in a spirit of determination.
Now I do not intend to go all the way with this military analogy. Although there are many casualties in the story that I shall tell, there are no real enemies. No one has waged a strategic campaign to demoralize our youth.
But demoralization is the right word for what I have seen in too many young people today. Although it has occurred through well-intentioned mistakes rather than through hostile calculation, the effects are pretty much the same. The legacy for many young people includes a cynical attitude toward moral values and goals; a defeatist attitude toward life; a lack of hope in the future; a thinning of courage; and a distrust of others as well as of the self. Above all, many show an absence of purpose, of commitment, of dedication in a phrase, a failure of spirit.
The Present Once More: Youth, Science, and Society
I have been a social scientist for all of my professional life, and I value the insights into human development that our great works in psychology, anthropology, and sociology have provided us. But for every valid insight there have been many myths. The myths, in turn, have led to harmful conclusions about the nature of youth and how to bring out the full potential of young people. Some of the myths have arisen from distorted coverage by mass media that pursue an easy popular market by overdramatizing and oversimplifying complex issues. Some myths have arisen from misconceived research directed towards preconceived social policy aims rather than towards objective scientific standards. Others have been fashioned by contemporary childrearing experts who do little more than unreflectively replicate the biases and illusions of the popular culture.
The most painful experience for someone who cares about scientific truth is to see a good idea twisted beyond recognition and then misused. As I shall discuss in Chapter 5, the notion of a "child-centered" approach to early development was a scientific breakthrough when it was introduced almost a century ago. It allowed us to see that children are not simply "little adults" but that they have a unique perspective on the world as well as their own developmental needs. It enabled us to recognize the formidable skills and dispositions that children are born with. It opened the door to important discoveries about how children learn concepts, about how their values and character are formed, and about how we may best foster such positive developmental processes.
A child-centered stance not only helped us understand children more accurately, it also did much to improve our protective and nurturant behavior towards them. It gave us the push we needed to pass laws abolishing exploitive child labor. It has created interactive forms of instruction that make possible better communication between teacher and child in schools and other educational settings. It has made us sensitive to how abuse, poverty, and untreated disease affect children in especially pernicious ways.
But any truth can become a grotesque mockery of itself if stretched too far or taken out of context. We are living in a time when the "child-centered" ethic has become a justification for every sort of overindulgent childrearing practice. As I shall show in Chapter 5, it is now the rallying cry of educators who have stripped the classroom of challenging intellectual material and rigorous standards. It has spawned a host of permissive doctrines that have dissuaded parents from enforcing consistent discipline in the home. It has focused our attention on elusive sensibilities such as the child's self-esteem rather than on substantive sources of pride such as achievement or responsibility. In the end, the once-valuable premise of child-centeredness has been used (or misused) to encourage self-centeredness in today's children and adolescents.
There are many such examples, and they are all part of a story of cultural decline that many observers have come to lament. At the heart of any culture is its manner of raising its young. In fact, the very term "culture" derives from the root metaphor of cultivation, the essential function of raising the young. From time immemorial people have been aware that no culture will long survive unless it prepares its future generations properly. In modern times, we have strayed very far from our natural inclination to do so; and in every corner of our society there are signs that we may be in danger of losing the capacity altogether.
How could such a grave threat to our future generations come to pass with so little warning? I shall discuss the multiple causes of our present predicament in the initial chapters of this book. As I shall show, first and foremost among these causes is a misguided set of beliefs about children and what is best for them. We have been deluded by an interlocking cluster of myths, misconceptions, pseudoscientific assertions, unexamined sentiments, and a host of other biases and distortions in our notions about raising the young. Since the early days of this century, these beliefs have spread throughout the modern world. They have been communicated by the mass media, legitimized by the misapplication of scientific theory and findings, and supported by institutions that have grown up in their wake.
Misguided beliefs about youth pervade our childrearing practices in the home; they pervade our educational practices in the schools; and they pervade our public policies in the community. Misguided beliefs draw from and feed into a culture that has lost its compass for guiding children. Our culture prizes its children but nevertheless is failing them. It is failing them partly because it does so little to equip them with the skills and knowledge that they need. Even worse much worse it is failing them because it has produced a climate that discourages young people from building their natural virtues, from using their natural energies, in short from developing their own splendid natural aptitudes for character and competence to their fullest capacities.
Misconceptions of Modern Times
Many of our misconceptions began as valid new insights into the nature of childhood. Many have been fed by legitimate concerns for the welfare of children. But valid insights can be changed into fallacies when they are oversimplified or taken out of context. Legitimate concerns can become counterproductive when they are applied blindly or without careful constraints.
The childrearing literature of the past few decades has introduced parents to a host of notions that at best are easily misapplied and at worst are wholly misguided. Some of the misleading notions that I shall take up in this book include: parent/infant bonding during the first weeks of life; the fragility and amorality of children's natural dispositions; the incompetence of the young child; the hazards of "traumatic" early experiences such as failing at a challenging task; the irrelevance (some even say harmfulness) of parental discipline; the specter of the "hurried child"; the "pressures" of responsibility and the "stress" of early achievement; the need for adults to help children preserve their "magical" thinking; the value of self-esteem boosting; and the benefits of a lopsidedly "child-centered" approach to education and childrearing.
We have been led to believe that experiences which most children in the past have traditionally been exposed to hard work, firm rules, consistent disciplinary practices, other people's religious celebrations, knowledge about the terrifying dramas of life and death or about the uncertain vicissitudes of reality can harm young people and that they need to be protected from them. We have discovered (accurately enough) that young people have their own perspectives and values; but this valid insight has led us to defer to the views of the young, to treat children's sensibilities gingerly, to allow young people to drift rudderless in a sea of moral confusion.
At the heart of all our misconceptions is at least a grain of truth. Many of the errors have their source in sound writings on children's psychological development. In part at least, some of the notions have had some value in imparting insight about children or in preventing harmful practices such as child labor. But each of the notions at its periphery that is, at its contact point with public consciousness has seriously misled us. Of course this is not the fault of the notions themselves but of the ways in which they have been misapplied by our media, by many of our institutions, by some of our professional experts, and by most of our popular childrearing gurus.
Consider, for example, the notion of parent/infant bonding the idea that an essential, psychologically lasting link between parent and child is forged permanently or not at all in the moments after birth. The bonding myth is an illegitimate offspring of the important "attachment" research tradition. With little scientific justification, the bonding notion rapidly gained currency among popular writers and other advice givers, spreading rapidly throughout the culture despite objections from the serious scholarly community. Before long, the idea of early parent/child bonding was being used to lure families into bizarre birthing rituals, to stigmatize adopted and handicapped children, and to induce guilt in parents who have obligations outside the household. In Chapter 5, I shall show that early bonding is a fraudulent notion, a perversion of attachment theory. Nevertheless, it is an idea that has been propagated in the popular press long after it has been scientifically discredited.
In books with titles such as The Magic Years and The Hurried Child, we have been told that childhood is a time of play and romance that must not be interrupted by the harsh realities of the grown-up world. To do so would be to stifle the child's nascent creativity, to overburden the child with responsibilities, to "stress out" the child. At the root of these warnings is the belief that children are fragile creatures with delicate sensibilities that are easily shattered and corrupted.
This is a belief that hails back to the romantic philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is not one, however, that has been substantiated in developmental research. In Chapter 6, I show that children are psychologically resilient and that they are born with a wide range of competencies, virtues, and positive social dispositions. Children are able spontaneously to interact constructively with others. They can create their own spirit of playfulness, and they eagerly seek out information about the real world. They need a framework of adult guidance-in the face of life's complexities, not a protective bubble that shields out reality.
The idea that children will become overstressed, overburdened, and overwhelmed if we "hurry" them by urging them to achieve is diametrically opposed to the truth of the matter. Even at very early ages, children find the pursuit of talents, skills, and knowledge to be an uplifting experience, They are active and avid learners. The earlier we begin inducing children to learn and achieve, the more naturally they take to it. The longer we postpone such activities, the more they are likely to build up defenses, maladaptive habits, and unproductive interests. The stressed-out child is far more likely to be the one who has developed few proficiencies than the one who has thrived on the busy activities of exploration and achievement.
As for creativity, our childrearing experts have decried the destruction of natural creativity by traditional schooling that demands maturity from children. The notion is that creativity requires spontaneous, untutored impulses that may be stifled through too much discipline. The proposed solution has been to approach children's creative work gingerly, in a "child-centered" manner, holding back anything that could sound like criticism or instruction. The idea is that a laissez-faire approach is needed if the child's inborn talents are to be preserved. Fostering creativity, in this view, requires special attention, rewards, and license. Moreover, this romantic idea is accompanied by a determination that children should learn only what intrinsically interests them: extrinsic rewards and other goads are seen as antithetical to the spirit of creative work.
At the present time in our post-modern culture, this is so much the dominant approach to early childhood education that there are few good alternatives to it. In Chapter 5, I discuss how this approach derives from outmoded Rousseauian sentiments and from misinterpretations of complex writings by great psychologists such Piaget and great educators such as Pestalozzi and Montessori. We have been left with watered-down pedagogies based on oversimplified notions. The result is a withholding of the encouragements, incentives, and constructive criticism that children need to develop true talents and skills.
Children need to be engaged not just in activities that seem easy and fun but also in challenging ones that can help them excel. In order to acquire creative skills, children need extrinsic feedback and reward just as much as they need work that is intrinsically interesting. They must learn to sustain their effort even when things get difficult and boring. Children do best in the long run when prepared to cope with the frustration and drudgery that is an inevitable part of creative work.
It seems that just about every parent, teacher, and guidance counselor today is convinced that building self-esteem is the answer to all childhood problems. If a child is unpopular in the playground, it is due to low self-esteem. If a child has a learning problem at school, it is because there is a failure of self-esteem. Even if a child is unruly, overbearing, and arrogant, it is chalked up to deficits in the child's self-esteem. The solution is available almost daily in the popular press: bolster your child's self-esteem. We are to assure children, at all times and regardless of the circumstances, that they are "terrific" in every possible way.
In Chapter 4, I show that self-esteem is a meaningless concept without a firm grounding in substantive achievement. Like happiness, it can be gained only indirectly, not through its own pursuit but through dedication to activities, talents, skills, and purposes beyond the self. This applies as much to children as to adults. It is an especially important principle for communicating to children, since they will quickly come to distrust both their caregivers and themselves if all they are given is empty incantations about how great they always are.
One of the special ironies in our misconceptions about children's development is that the myths often contradict one another. At the same time that we place self-esteem on a privileged pedestal, we communicate to children that they are not mature enough to be given real responsibilities; that it is too much trouble to get them to do something useful; and that they need to spend their free time "cooling out" from the rigors of their busy lives. In this and many other ways, we infantilize our children. This is especially destructive, because it robs them of a chance to acquire useful competence, thereby demolishing any valid claim to self-worth that they might acquire. Perhaps most seriously, the fiction of youth incompetence turns children inward, away from an orientation towards serving others.
In Chapter 8, I discuss how, throughout all the ages and around the world, children traditionally have been asked to help their families in many important ways. They have been given household chores, child-care responsibilities for younger siblings, and duties in attending to the elderly. They perform these services adeptly and benefit greatly from participating in them. Service also brings children into contact with other people, such as the elderly, who have much to teach children.
Our misguided views about what is good for children and about what they are good for have convinced us to let our children roam the shopping malls or lounge in front of the TV rather than ask them to help out. Modern affluence has permitted us the "luxury" of acting on our misconceptions by relieving children of their household obligations. The misconceptions and the affluence have created an unholy combination, to the detriment of our youth.
Affluence and permissiveness often go hand in hand: this is the downside of good fortune as far as children are concerned. It is a common tendency for parents to want "the best of everything" for their children. Unfortunately, too many parents interpret this to mean relieving their children of duties and indulging them with unwarranted privileges. The cultural Zeitgeist does not support the notion that what is really best for a child is the opportunity to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility.
The easy permissiveness extends to one of parenting's core functions, providing a child with discipline. As I discuss in Chapter 8, all young people need discipline in both a positive and a constraining sense. If children are to learn productive skills, they need to develop discipline in order to make the most out of their native talents. They also need to encounter firm and consistent discipline whenever they test the limits of social rules (as every child will do from time to time). The processes of accountability are similar in the two instances. Yet these also are under attack in the contemporary canons of childrearing. The belief is prevalent that children's vitality, their creative gifts, their very senses of self, may be crippled by too much "old-fashioned" discipline. Children, it is now strongly asserted, should be reasoned with, not forced; and all forms of compliance should be internally motivated. We shrink at making a child work to master a skill through laborious practice because we worry that drudgery will dampen the child's inspiration. Similarly, we worry that firm punishment will break the child's spirit. Chapter 5 documents our culture's descent into these permissive beliefs and will show how counterproductive they are to the growth of children's capabilities and character.
In a literal sense, the most dispiriting result of our myths about children is that we withhold spiritual messages from them. Our reticence springs from the myth of childhood incompetence. Many assume that it is an empty exercise to teach religious and moral principles to children, since they won't be able to understand them. In many educational settings today, spiritual instruction for children has become watered down to the point where it is hard to discern any meaningful core. We do not trust the child's intelligence or attention span enough to engage the child in serious consideration of transcendent values. We refrain from communicating other people's high ideals to them or when we do, feel almost apologetic about it. This is justified by misinterpretations of developmental research, which is wrongly read as claiming that children cannot think about abstractions. In fact, children are fascinated by the timeless enigmas of life and death, are not at all threatened by talk of them, and are eager to be drawn into discussion about them. As I will show in Chapter 4, children are openly receptive to spiritual ideas and long for transcendent truths that can nourish their sense of purpose and provide them with a moral mission in life.
Today's children, like children throughout the ages, do best when they grow up within a cultural climate of purpose. There are still many pockets of the modern world that provide such a climate, and there are still young people everywhere who are thriving. But the trends are disturbing, because they have been in the wrong direction for much of the modern era. This is not to say that modernity itself is at fault; nor that cultural progress need be antithetical to the timeless spiritual needs of growing children. Spiritual needs may be fulfilled in a thoroughly modern way. In fact, the only realistic solution is to do precisely this.
The book's last four chapters present guidelines for raising children with an eye to their psychological and spiritual needs as well as to the modern world that they will inherit. I have drawn the guidelines both from traditional practice and from contemporary research in child development. The conceptual foundation for the guidelines extends backwards as well as forwards in time.
The guidelines in this book oppose much conventional wisdom of modern times, but they do not represent a return to a romanticized past. The guidelines do not, for example, advocate a "spare the rod, spoil the child" mentality. They do not suggest returning children to child labor in the town factory or the family farm. They do not suggest ignoring all the valuable things that we have learned during the past century about children's inner thoughts and feelings. Rather, the guidelines present age-old standards in the context of present-day insight and knowledge. They are informed, as they must be, by our most recent knowledge about the children and adolescents who are now struggling to grow up in our society. For it is these particular children who are imperiled today It is to these children that we must speak. It is for their futures that we must help them prepare. In doing so, we must fashion a new approach that is both ancient in its wisdom and youthful in its readiness for changing times.
Copyright © 1995 by William Damon