Ready or Not: Why Treating Children As Small Adults Endangers Their Future--And Ours [NOOK Book]

Overview


"Children today grow up so fast!" How often we hear those words, uttered both in frustrated good humor and in dumbfounded astonishment. Every day the American people hear about kids doing things, both good and bad, that were once thought to be well beyond their scope: flying airplanes, running companies, committing mass murder. Creatures of the information age, today's children sometimes seem to know more than their parents. They surf the Internet rather than read books, they watch South Park instead of The ...
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Ready or Not: Why Treating Children As Small Adults Endangers Their Future--And Ours

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Overview


"Children today grow up so fast!" How often we hear those words, uttered both in frustrated good humor and in dumbfounded astonishment. Every day the American people hear about kids doing things, both good and bad, that were once thought to be well beyond their scope: flying airplanes, running companies, committing mass murder. Creatures of the information age, today's children sometimes seem to know more than their parents. They surf the Internet rather than read books, they watch South Park instead of The Cosby Show, they wear form-fitting capri pants and tank tops instead of sundresses; in short, they are sophisticated beyond their years. These facts lead us to wonder: Is childhood becoming extinct?

In Ready or Not, Kay S. Hymowitz offers a startling new interpretation of what makes our children tick and where the moral anomie of today's children comes from. She reveals how our ideas about childrearing itself have been transformed, perniciously, in reponse to the theories of various "experts" -- educators, psychologists, lawyers, media executives -- who have encouraged us to view children as small adults, autonomous actors who know what is best for themselves and who have no need for adult instruction or supervision. Today's children and teenagers have been encouraged by their parents and teachers to function as individuals to such an extent that they make practically every decision on their own -- what to wear, what to study, and even what values they will adhere to. The idea of childhood as a time of limited competence, in which adults prepare the young for maturity, has fallen into disrepute; independence has become not the reward of time, but rather something that our children have come to expect and demand at increasingly younger ages.

One of the great ironies of turning our children into small adults is that American society has become less successful at producing truly mature men and women. When sophisticated children do grow up, they often find themselves unable to accept real adult responsibilities. Thus we see more people in their twenties and thirties living like children, unwilling to embark on careers or to start families. Until we recognize that children are different from grownups and need to be nurtured as such, Hymowitz argues, our society will be hollow at its core.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Asking how we can raise morally responsible children while nurturing their individuality, Hymowitz critiques the radical individualism that seems to have subsumed concern for the common good, the narrow vocationalism of much education, a vulgar and sensationalized media and the insidious ways in which such natural childhood activities as play and exploration have been channeled toward enhanced cognition and academic achievement. The author, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, advocates somewhat nostalgically for a return to the republican childhood of the 19th century--"a profound moral achievement"--that she believes effectively socialized the young into life as active democratic citizens. In a clear and accessible style, Hymowitz draws on the work of educational and psychological theorists, as well as popular culture, to develop her arguments. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a number of conceptual weaknesses, including the notion of "anticulturalism" (the belief that today's youth are being raised outside the influence of culture) and that we can overcome anomie and nihilism by constructing and transmitting a "common culture" (whose culture this would be remains largely unaddressed). Those readers who believe that contemporary social problems can be solved with a renewed emphasis on old-fashioned family values, back-to-basics schooling and rejuvenated adult authority will find much in this book resonant. Those who question the viability of returning to a romanticized past will find the complex issues addressed here oversimplified and framed in rather tired ideological terms. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Hymnowitz, an editor, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes that America has lost its sense of childhood in recent years. Offering no real solutions, she laments that psychologists, educators, and child advocates have advanced "the idea of children as capable, rational, and autonomous" and that childhood has lost its "traditional purpose as the time set aside for shaping raw human material into a culturally competent adult." She argues that the notion that children develop independently of the culture--which she calls anticulturalism--is at the heart "of what has gone wrong with childhood in America" and suggests that a complete philosophical reordering of the American idea of childhood is needed. A thought-provoking addition to education and psychology course reading lists but probably not a necessary purchase for most public libraries.--Kay L. Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills., MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Mary Eberstadt
This is a book not only for parents but for every psychologist who has pondered the skyrocketing rates of disorder in prepubescent children, every teacher and principal and school-board member who has lost sleep over the vulgarity and violence in even the best public schools, every doctor concerned with teenage medical plagues from eating disorders to STD's
Commentary
Kirkus Reviews
A flawed yet fascinating look at the changing nature of childhood. Hymowitz blames "psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, child advocates, lawmakers, advertisers, marketers, [and] storytellers" for fostering what she dubs an "anticultural" model of child rearing. Rather than view their children as works-in-progress who need to be "inducted by their elders into a pre-existing society" or culture, Hymowitz believes that today's hands-off parents have been encouraged to think of their offspring as "autonomous, independent individuals discovering their own reality." Anticulturalism begins at birth, the author asserts, aided by recent neuroscience-based theories that present babies as "information-organizing individuals," who operate as pint-sized scientists making sense of the world around them, As a result, everything from play to love, from Matisse to Mozart is reduced to "data for the computerized brain" instead of "food for the soul." The process continues with the growing child's exposure to "anticultural education," featuring trendy theme-based learning in which students take the lead, and to the media, whose "teening of childhood" teaches kids to be tough, cool, and ironic before their time. Hymowitz longs for the days of something called "republican childhood," in which parents molded their children into democratic citizens by striking a balance between freedom and restraint. But nostalgia blinds the author to the ironies of her position. Rather than being "anticulture," today's kids are the natural end products of culture. The author's real quarrel lies with the debasement of pop culture itself—a much larger issue. Similarly, Hymowitz gives only cursory attention to rampantconsumerism, television, and peer pressure, all of which fill the void left by parents who lack the time to do the sort of nurturing she envisions. Hymowitz writes gracefully and weaves observations drawn from a variety of fields into an argument that is witty, erudite, and exhaustive. But because the author has used her considerable talents to construct an "anticultural" straw man, this book's parts are greater than its whole.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439136768
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2008
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author


Kay S. Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor at City Journal, and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. She holds degrees from Brandeis, Tufts, and Columbia Universities, and her articles have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Empty Nests

"The twentieth-century," predicted Ellen Key, an early twentieth-century advocate for children, "will be the century of the child." At the time Key was writing, there was reason for such a hope. Building on a long-standing American concern with children, progressive reformers set out to "discover" childhood. They rid the nation of child labor and ensured educational opportunities through much of the teenage years. They instituted a separate justice system intended to protect mischievous or "delinquent" adolescents from overly harsh penalties and adult jails. Yet as the century draws to a close, Key's optimism, one shared by many people of her time, can't help but hold a special poignancy for America. For it appears that the century has discovered childhood only to lose it.

Few Americans are unaware of the profound transformation over the last thirty years in the way children look and act. Indeed, these changes seem connected to some of our most troubling and prominent social problems. Children are committing so many more serious crimes of the sort once thought beyond their capacity that some legal experts are recommending abandoning the juvenile court that was designed to protect them and simply trying them in adult court. Nor are these crimes limited to poor and older adolescents. The city of Indianapolis was forced to expand its gun search policy into its elementary schools after an eight-year-old pointed a gun at a classmate for "teasing him about his ears." And in a crime that left the nation reeling, two gun-wielding youths from well-to-do, two-parent homes killed twelve of their classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999.

Sexual intercourse, once considered a pleasure reserved for adults, has become commonplace among kids and has led to dramatic increases in the rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, welfare dependency, fatherlessness, and abortion. Even though the percentage of teens having sex has decreased somewhat in recent years, sexual activity has trickled down to ever-younger ages. Experts say they are unsurprised by the sexual sophistication of twelve-year-olds. In 1993 the schools in New Haven, Connecticut, began distributing condoms to fifth graders. And according to the New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, experts believe parents should begin teaching girls "how and why to say 'no' and what to do should they say 'yes'" at nine years old, an age that would shock almost any culture.

Signs of the waning of childhood are also evident in the ordinary day-to-day rhythms and symbols of children's lives. Infants now have "lapware" computers with educational programs and work out at baby gyms. It's not uncommon to hear about soccer teams for three-year-olds and tackle football teams complete with shoulder pads and helmets for seven-year-olds. Indeed, by elementary school many children are on the fast track: some educators have damned recess as "a waste of time" and have markedly increased the homework loads even of first graders. No information is off-limits for children today. Third graders recite jokes told by David Letterman the previous night -- and their napping and irritability in class suggest that they heard them firsthand. Nor is the media their only source: kindergartners might be studying the Holocaust or AIDS in school. Marketing expert Faith Popcorn predicts that in the next millennium "we're going to see health clubs for kids, kids as experts on things like the Internet, and new businesses like Kinko's for Kids, to provide professional-quality project presentations."

Perhaps the most noticeable changes, occurring largely during the last decade alone, are among kids between eight and twelve, known to marketers as "tweens." Bruce Friend, vice president of worldwide research and planning for the children's television network Nickelodeon, reports that in the last ten years, kids between ten and twelve have started to act and dress more like yesterdays's twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds. By eleven, Friend says, kids in focus groups say they no longer think of themselves as children. The Nickelodeon-Yankelovich Youth Monitor Survey found that by the time they are twelve, children describe themselves as "flirtatious, sexy, trendy, cool." The cosmetics and fashion industries have introduced lip gloss, "hair mascara," body paint, and scented body oils (with names like Vanilla Vibe and Follow Me Boy) for the ten-year-old sophisticate. By contrast, the toy industry has nothing to celebrate in the twilight of childhood marked by the arrival of the tween; whereas a generation ago the industry could count on those between birth and fourteen as their target market, today that market has diminished to those between birth and ten.

What is it about our contemporary social environment that has made childhood an endangered species? The psychologist David Elkind believes "the hurried child" is the offspring of stressed-out, overambitious parents responding to an increasingly competitive society. Citing the rapidity with which divorce and family breakdown spiraled upward through the seventies, Marie Winn argues that children are "without childhood" because there is now an "end of secrecy"; their parents are no longer protecting them from what was once considered adult, especially sexual, information. Social critic Neil Postman shares Winn's view that the end of secrecy is key to the "disappearance of childhood," but he believes the culprit is television. Because they possess more information, Postman argues, parents have power over children, just as political leaders have power over their subjects. When literacy was a prerequisite for knowledge, children could be kept in the dark. But television, Postman says, is "a total disclosure medium"; it makes formerly taboo knowledge available to the youngest children and puts them on an equal footing with their elders.

While acknowledging the impact of these social realities -- the decline of traditional domestic arrangements, the demands of a meritocratic society, the growing presence of a hypersexualized, violent media -- this book will point to another cause of childhood's present state. The disappearance of childhood is, to a far greater extent than previously understood, a result of conscious human design. It is directly related to the ideas and actions of those who help shape our understanding of children -- psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, child advocates, lawmakers, advertisers, marketers, and storytellers both in print and on the screen. Very rarely have any of them openly rejected the idea of childhood, of course. What they have done is far more subtle. They have helped to advance the idea of children as capable, rational, and autonomous, as beings endowed with all the qualities necessary for their entrance into the adult world -- qualities such as talents, interests, values, conscience, and a conscious sense of themselves. In this view, children need little shaping by adults; they are essentially "finished," and childhood has lost its traditional purpose as the time set aside for shaping raw human material into a culturally competent adult.

The idea that Americans think of children as already complete may seem counterintuitive. Don't we believe that people are products of their environment? Don't we worry about children growing up in poverty for precisely that reason? Well, yes and no. Americans do take it as a given that children need certain fundamentals to thrive -- things like food and shelter, love and stimulation. They assume that in the absence of these things children do poorly in school, take drugs, get pregnant, or commit crimes. What they don't believe, what they no longer articulate, is the idea that children must be inducted by their elders into a preexisting society, into a web of meaning -- in short, into a culture. Instead, it is up to kids to create the world for themselves. As Patricia Hersch writes in her book A Tribe Apart, which chronicles the lives of high schoolers in Reston, Virginia, "Everything is up for debate, from the meaning of calculus to the meaning of life itself." In contemporary America, cultural authorities portray children as solitary and autonomous observers, investigating and judging the world entirely on their own terms. Adults are reduced to personal trainers or mere companions for the child in his or her solitary development. They may have a role in instructing children in some skills and in delivering some unfamiliar information to them, but they have no role in either socializing them or investing the information with meaning and value. Their job is to "empower" children, build their self-esteem, and lovingly wait for the complete individual to sprout into being from inside its bodily husk.

The belief that the child should develop independently of the prevailing culture and even in opposition to it is what I call anticulturalism, and it is at the root of what has gone wrong with childhood in America. Anticulturalism is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into the parenting magazines, into Hollywood, and into our kitchens and family rooms. It is no mere abstraction. The era of anticulturalism is producing a new kind of American personality, one that should give us great pause.

One dominant theory about moral development offers a good overview of what anticulturalism is all about. In most cultures, it is axiomatic that adults civilize children by teaching them the rules of morality and insisting that they restrain their antisocial impulses. But for Carol Gilligan, the most influential American expert on moral development today, adults are the problem; the kids are okay. Gilligan's theory evolved as she studied the students at the Laurel School, a private school in Cleveland. From her observations she concluded that preadolescent girls are more moral than either their older counterparts or their elders. They are "genuine," she claims, and they "speak of their thoughts and feelings about relationships in direct ways." This authenticity is a sign of their "wisdom and generosity" and a product of insights that "constitute the core of moral wisdom." The real problem for children occurs when adults interfere with these abundant natural gifts. Though the girls at the Laurel School might strike some as cliquish and cruel, Gilligan is convinced that her subjects have undergone not too little of the civilizing process but too much. As they mature, the innately moral self of these girls is drowned out by the "foreign voice-overs of adults," "the disembodied lines from parents and teachers." Attempts to make them do such things as complete their homework, wait their turn, and share with their classmates result in "psychological foot-binding." The once lively, honest girls lose their natural and authentic "voice" and succumb to doubt, self-abnegation, and "silence." Here is the anticultural myth resplendent: children are naturally moral creatures who are ruined by the adults who attemp t to civilize them.

A new crop of books, supposedly more realistic about children's need for real guidance from adults, likewise reveal the persistent hold of anticultural thinking. Robert Coles' bestselling The Moral Intelligence of Children at first appears to avoid the anticultural trap, as the author asserts that parents and teachers are not offering enough moral guidance for children. But his claim about "how 'character' develops in the young" is at odds with Coles' conclusion that children are not simply moral, but "morally intelligent." He ponders children's observations as if they were the koans of Zen masters. He cites "the stillness of bodies, the rapt attention" and the "moral vitality" of children during his classroom discussions with them. A treasured anecdote, repeated by Coles in a number of television interviews, demonstrates the wisdom of his nine-year-old son, who tells him to slow down because he might cause an accident when he is racing the injured boy to the hospital. "My son had become my moral instructor," Coles marvels. In the anticultural United States, the child is often father to the man.

It may make sense to suggest, as Gilligan and Coles do, that human beings have an innate capacity for moral behavior. After all, we could not have developed a civilization without some natural orientation toward group feeling and harmony. But it makes equal sense to conclude from history, not to mention children's treatment of their siblings, that there is also a darker side to human nature. Until the middle of the twentieth century, it was considered an obvious fact that children are prone to cruelty, aggression, and boundless egotism and that a major purpose of their upbringing is to restrain and redirect those impulses. Though his contemporaries held back, Freud went so far as to add sexual perversion and patricidal wishes to the gallery of childhood evils.

One sees abundant proof of the existence of this darker side in newspaper headlines and school playgrounds, but rarely is it visible in the tracts of American experts. After perusing books on moral development, the political scientist James Q. Wilson expressed surprise that he could not find one reference to self-restraint. He needn't have been surprised, for in the experts' view, America's children have no urges worth restraining. Children's nature has been whitewashed. The word impulse has been erased from expert tracts, and instinct, which once evoked our animalistic legacy, has been sanitized into constructive drives such as the "language instinct." Even sociobiologists, who seek the sources of human behavior in our distant animal past, seem more inclined to explore the biological tendency toward altruism and empathy than the aggression we usually associate with the life of the beast.

According to the social historian Peter Stearns, while nineteenth-century advice manuals worried about children's cruelty toward animals, by the middle of the twentieth century experts were more likely to fret about their fear of animals. Anne MacLeod, in a comparison of nineteenth- and late-twentieth-century children's literature, has found something similar: Nineteenth-century books contain child characters who frequently misbehave or demonstrate cruelty, such stories dramatizing for children the dangers of their self-centeredness. But by the mid-twentieth century, child heroes seem to have no personal lessons to learn and never require punishment. Judy Blume's highly popular novels, for instance, portray many egotistic children "without comment and certainly without criticism."

Parents, though they have plenty of reason to dispute this sunny thinking, seem to share this strain of expert optimism about their children. One study found that American mothers tend to see their children's positive characteristics as "inborn and stable over time" while their less positive ones are viewed as "transitory and extrinsically caused." A common complaint among educators is the tendency of today's parents to insist, "It wasn't my kid; it must have been the other one," when confronted with evidence of the child's misbehavior. In fact, Americans cling to the idea -- and the hope -- of children's overall mental and emotional competence. In the middle decades of the century, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was confronted so often by experts and parents who wondered whether children could be propelled faster through what he believed to be slowly unfolding developmental stages that he dubbed it "the American Question." It appears to remain so. Thirty years later, David Elkind lectured across the country about the myth of what he called the "Superkid" -- to no avail. On the subject of children's competence, he found, Americans will not be moved.

This sturdy optimism about children's natures should not be confused with romantic and Victorian pieties about childhood innocence. True, the romantic legacy shows signs of life in American culture. Writers like Coles and Jonathan Kozol sometimes recall this tradition at its most bathetic. "This is not God's kingdom," says a Christlike twelve-year-old in Kozol's Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation as he gestures toward his devastated South Bronx neighborhood. "A kingdom is a place of glory. This is a place of pain." A ten-year-old leukemia victim described by Coles ("light shone in his eyes") still manages a prayer for his doctors and nurses. And politicians on both sides of the aisle are also prone to imagine children as Blakean figures of social protest against a selfish and immoral age.

The contemporary competent and self-sufficient child, however, is less the offspring of the romantic tradition than the progeny of unique modern forces, among them science and technology. The child of the computer age is efficient and orderly rather than pure and innocent. The changing view of infancy over the past few decades provides the most dramatic example of this shift. Unlike the behaviorists, who dominated the world of psychology for many decades and who believed that the infant brain was a blank slate upon which parents could write, cognitive scientists, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s with a version of that brain that continues to predominate, view infants as wondrously practical and constructive. "Babies are learning machines," Newsweek announced in 1997. Ceaselessly, automatically learning, children are unperturbed by emotions and irrational needs. They want only information and input. It is little wonder that in just a few years they will display a natural gift for morality.

By adding hip sophistication to the list of child talents, the market has also helped to flesh out the picture of child competence. Sophisticated kids with a knowing smirk on their face are a common motif on the screen and in glossy magazines. These kids are frequently accompanied by clueless adults, most of them men. The following text of a 1994 ad for Time runs above a picture of a worried-looking middle-aged man and a teenager with a "can you believe he's so stupid?" expression: "These days when a father says, 'Son, I think it's time we have a little talk about sex,' the reply is apt to be 'OK, Dad, what did you want to know?'" Though stirring up trouble between the generations has been a media ploy since at least the 1930s, television has insistently summoned children to consider themselves autonomous individuals who have little to learn from their elders. Especially over the past twenty-five years, as women have moved into the workforce in large numbers, the divorce rate has soared, and "home alone" children have come to make more and more decisions about family purchases as well as their own, this image of hip sophistication has topped all others; cuteness, reports one media watcher, is "now considered passé." Kids are more in charge, and marketers, knowing an untapped market when they see one, are not ones to protest. "Power to the people! The Little People that is!" cries an article about advertising to children in the New York Times.


The idea that children are autonomous, independent individuals discovering their own reality is an understandable outcome of the evolution of American political thought. Individual autonomy, the right to live life as we want, to think and judge for ourselves, to make our own decisions, has always been a central dogma in the nation's civic religion. Indeed, self-determination is the founding principle of this country. But children muddy this sacred principle. How can we who value self-determination so highly tell people, even little people, how to think and what to do? "Children are the Achilles heel of liberal ideology," one legal scholar has wisely observed. At some point, most American parents are confronted with a child who upon being told she cannot see a desired movie or go to a certain friend's house cries, "It's a free country!" These words signal the child's discovery that something is amiss, or "not fair," in his social standing. This is a dilemma among parents as well, as Robert Bellah and his cowriters reveal in Habits of the Heart, an analysis of late-twentieth-century American beliefs about individualism. "For highly individuated Americans," they write, "there is something anomalous about the relations between parents and children, for the biologically normal dependence of children on adults is perceived as morally abnormal."

When you add to this moral quandary the giddy chaos of a young, driving, ever-changing immigrant country, you end up with conditions unfriendly toward the conventional arrangement between adults and children. Under ordinary circumstances, children are strangers in a strange land and parents act as their experienced guides into the sacred knowledge of their culture, its language and emotions, its beliefs and rituals. For immigrants, the situation is often painfully reversed: it is the children who quickly come to understand the customs and language of their country, and the parents, tied to old-world ways and slower to absorb a new language, must learn from them. Native-born American parents, however, have not been spared this generational confusion. In a society infatuated with progress and all things new, parents often hesitate before asserting familiar rules; instead, they turn to their children for cues about what the seductive and unpredictable future holds.

But if in deeming the child an autonomous, self-determining individual Americans are holding fast to some of their own ideals, they are turning their backs on other universally understood truths. Even in the most primitive societies, people have believed that the transformation of children into socialized individuals who understand the requirements of their culture is an intensive process lasting years and requiring the active and sustained intervention of mother, father, grandparents, older siblings, and other relatives. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in response to technological and social changes, Western cultures began to lengthen and intensify this process, increasing the number of years children were kept out of the workforce, separated from the adult world, and given more parental devotion.

In America, these Western notions took on their own distinct coloring. By the early 1800s, ministers, intellectuals, and other cultural representatives began the process of framing what I'll be calling a "republican childhood," one in keeping with the ideals of the new country. Republican childhood had one central purpose: to vigorously prepare the young for freedom. In order to shape "self-governing" individuals, its architects rejected what until that time was an almost universal acceptance of corporal punishment and urged parents to appeal to their children's hearts and powers of reason. They encouraged them to awaken their children's minds and stir their interests by giving them time to play freely and by supplying the now recognizably middle-class home with toys and books. Yet republican childhood was still a serious business. Parents had to teach their children to balance personal ambition with a concern for the public good, respect for the law with critical independence, fidelity with entrepreneurial drive. No one believed that the transmission of these complex and highly contradictory cultural values would come naturally. Republican theorists saw it as a mammoth human undertaking, the psychic equivalent of digging a huge, multileveled, interconnected subway system. They believed that successful completion of this project required fifteen or twenty years, the hour-by-hour attentions of a mother, the emotional and financial support of a father, and the respectful attention of an entire society.

Today we cast a dubious eye on the domestic arrangements that supported republican childhood, which, we now understand, are peculiar to the modern Western world and have so often been stifling for women. But that should not prevent us from appreciating many of the goals and methods of this republican tradition, both of which remain highly relevant to us today. For all its problems -- and there were many -- republican childhood was based on a number of seemingly paradoxical truths that anticulturalism ignores: that adults must mold children into free individuals, that children do not naturally know how to shape their lives according to their own vision, and that both democratic government and free enterprise impose especially strong demands on us as citizens and as parents.

Under the reign of anticulturalism, the sense of adult purpose that was inspired by these truths is largely lost. Doubtless this is partly a practical matter. Many Americans simply feel they don't have the time to satisfy the demands of traditional parenting. Financial pressures have led many women out of the home and into the workforce. In 1960, close to 70 percent of American children had the day in, day out attention of stay-at-home mothers. By contrast, today only about 30 percent of kids under eighteen, including only a little over 35 percent of preschoolers, have mothers at home all day. Of course, middle-class women have also moved into the workplace in huge numbers. Regardless of family income, kids are spending less time with their parents and home life has become what the psychologist Kenneth Gergen has called "less a nesting place than a pit stop." "By 8:30 a.m.," writes Patricia Hersch of suburban Reston, Virginia, "neighborhoods stand still and silent -- hollow monuments to family life." In the wealthy county of Westchester, New York, some children go to "homework clubs" that are open from 3 to 8 p.m., where working parents hire surrogates to watch their kids, help them with homework, supervise their violin practice, and occasionally feed them dinner. Other kids are not so fortunate. It has been estimated that some seven million children are in "self-care" after school. Between 1970 and 1990, white children lost an average of ten hours a week of parental time and black children, twelve. In a 1996 study of twenty thousand teenagers, Laurence Steinberg concluded that disengaged parents were the primary reason the schools were seeing a greater number of troubled and indifferent students.

Economic and work pressures may make some of this parenting drain unavoidable, but a good deal of it is related to the anticultural ideas we will explore throughout the following pages. Surrounded by putatively competent and autonomously developing children, parents -- in fact, all adults -- find themselves lacking a clear job description in their relationship with children. In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs evokes the casually assumed role of adults of a previous era. "When Mr. Lacey, the locksmith, bawls out one of my sons for running into the street, and then later reports the transgression to my husband as he passes the locksmith shop, my son gets more than an overt lesson in safety and obedience. He also gets, indirectly, the lesson that Mr. Lacey, with whom we have no ties other than street propinquity, feels responsible for him to a degree." Mr. Lacey would appear to have gone the way of the iceman: A survey published by Public Agenda found that only 39 percent of adults would be comfortable reprimanding kids who are misbehaving in a public area, and only 33 percent would be comfortable telling neighbors if their child was getting into trouble.

Parents too show signs of withdrawing from their role as guides for the inexperienced. According to the same study by Public Agenda, parents feel "tentative and uncertain in matters of discipline and authority." Evelyn Bassoff, a Colorado therapist, reports that when she asks the women in her mothers' groups what happens when they discipline their daughters, they give answers such as "I feel mean," "I feel guilty," "I feel like an old fuddy-duddy," and "I quake all over; it's almost like having dry heaves inside." Wealthy parents trying to avoid encounters that might bring on such feelings have been known to hire tutors to do homework with their kids. Educators around the country report witnessing this anxious confusion. "I'm hearing statements like, 'What can I do? I can't make him read,'" the director of a New York City middle school told me. "And the child is in fifth grade. What does it mean that an adult feels he cannot make a ten-year-old do something?" A rural New York principal concurs: "I used to say to a kid behaving rudely, 'Young man, would you speak that way at home?' and he would hang his head and say, 'No.' Now I ask a kid and he looks surprised and says, 'Yeah.'"

This youthful incivility points to the disturbingly ironic consequences of anticulturalism. Many people today believe that traditional American childhood, which is now misleadingly imagined as an endless repetition of a Father Knows Best episode rather than an arrangement founded on republican ideals, was as stifling and oppressive to children as it was to mothers. The 1998 movie Pleasantville, for instance, depicts a domestic scene of smiling faces and punctual family dinners that belies the small-mindedness and emotional shallowness that gripped the movie's families. But whatever the considerable limitations of American life in the 1950s, it is impossible to conclude that the waning of childhood that has come about because of anticulturalism has added to individual freedom. Quite the opposite. For one thing, because children are not the moral competents psychologist Carol Gilligan has promised us, the adult failure to insist on informal cultural constraints and expectations has made them into prisoners of their own untamed impulses -- and all too often of the law. Although juvenile crime rates have dropped from their peak in the past several years, ever-younger children are in jail in record numbers for having committed crimes much more serious than was the case twenty years ago. Defense lawyers wonder at the change in their clients. "The kids I represented ten, fifteen years ago were so different," says a California attorney interviewed by Edward Humes in No Matter How Loud I Shout. "They were still kids. They knew right from wrong more or less...Now...they seem like they are brain-dead. You can't reach them." Even on college campuses, according to the National Center for the Study of Campus Violence, crime has increased in amount and severity: "Harassment becomes assault," says the director of the center. "Instead of pilfering, you get grand theft auto."

But though the rise in juvenile incivility and crime may be the most glaring result of anticulturalism, other more subtle consequences are in their own way just as disturbing -- and as threatening to individual freedom. The stark lesson children receive from their earliest days -- that they are supposed to be fully rational and self-sufficient -- has carried with it a radical "downsizing" of their emotional lives. Conventional wisdom has it that people today are beneficiaries of the march of emotional progress which began in the 1960s. Where once Americans were forced to repress their emotions, they now have permission to express themselves more freely and openly. This version of history ignores how much value we now place on rationality and independence at the expense of other human emotions. Simply put, the self-sufficient child cannot afford to need others very much.

To get a fuller picture of this downsizing, consider the change in the quality of the American child's home life. Compared to children of the past and in other cultures, our own kids live a remarkably isolated and fragmented existence with fewer strong and reliable attachments. Starting in infancy, they watch people come and go from their lives at nickelodeon speed. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Development found that babies cared for by people other than their parents will typically see those caretakers change twice in their first year of life; one-third of these infants will watch three or more nurturers come and go. In The Time Bind, a study of how employees at a Fortune 500 company balance work and family, Arlie Hochschild writes that "real people -- neighbors, relatives, friends, baby sitters, teachers in after-school programs, and parents with flexible work schedules -- have disappeared, while MTV, the 'new neighbor' for the latchkey child, remains only a press of a button away." Almost half of all American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from a father or mother, which in turn often means not only half as much contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins but the distracted attention of their own custodial parent. Children in joint custody move from mother's house to father's every week or month, turning them into rootless migrants without a sense of place or coherent relationships. Five-year-old frequent fliers traveling alone between mother in California and father in Pennsylvania have become a common sight to airline personnel. According to writer Barbara Whitehead, "even infants are transported between households in cars or ta xis, with frozen breast milk and ear infection medication tucked into their diaper bags." They also have fewer siblings -- as of 1994, the mean number of children under eighteen in households with children was 1.4, compared with 2.4 in 1962 -- and are less likely to know their neighbors or to see their grandparents regularly, though for the first time in history chances are that the elderly are likely to survive throughout their grandchildren's youthful years.

There are even chillier signs of this emotional downsizing. The relationship between adults and children has been infected by the legalistic ethos that so dominates our society. Work Family Directions, a Boston company, has published a booklet titled I Can Take Care of Myself that recommends a pseudolegal agreement between parents and their "self-care" children about what is expected of each of them. Adults working with children are warned by superiors worried about lawsuits against showing too much affection toward their young charges. "Teach but don't touch," a lawyer for the National Education Association told the membership in 1995. "If you hug a child, even a child who is hurt or crying, I will break your arms and legs...If kids need help in the bathroom, take an aide with you, or let them go on the floor." Trained as if they were preparing to enter the opposing counsel's meeting room, camp counselors have become "less relaxed around children," according to one camp consultant, even though youngsters "come to camp with more emotional baggage than they did just five years ago." The prohibition against touching a child affects caretakers, who hold themselves back from comforting or showing affection toward their charges, fearing a misinterpreted pat or hug. Though based on a reasonable concern about accusations of physical and sexual abuse, such a prohibition, when set in the wider context of today's child's lean-and-mean emotional life, seems a sign of something larger: Americans simply do not want their children overly involved with them. In other cultures parents cite things like becoming a good spouse and parent, good citizenship, or kindness and sensitivity as their chief goals for th eir children. What do Americans want for their children? In every study, one stark answer predominates: independence. Hochschild found that latchkey kids were more often than not the children of professional or managerial workers who wanted their kids to be self-sufficient. Evidently, it's never too early. "Of a three-month-old child in nine hour daycare," she writes, "a father assured me, 'I want him to be independent.'"

As children grasp that life in their culture demands that they quickly shed signs of their vulnerability, neediness, or bewilderment, they adopt the "cool" persona of the child sophisticate modeled in the stories they read and the images they see. Hollywood has been particularly ingenuous in helping to shape American children's acceptance of their subsistence diet in the emotions. Television and movies tutor children from the time they are tots in what the historian Peter Stearns has called the "emotional style" of "American cool." As neophytes in the subject, they watch the wisecracking, eye-rolling hipsters on Sesame Street and Rugrats, move on to the novice level with The Simpsons, and then proceed to graduate work with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Bombarded with these models, children adopt a knowing posture that adults frequently mistake for true sophistication. Actually, children are simply responding to the drumbeat of a message: intense emotions and passionate commitments are out (as the dearth of convincing love stories also suggests). Skeptical nonchalance and cool irony are in.

The combination of the relentless and early presence of media images in children's lives and the emptying of the familial nest also portends a loss of individual freedom. For all its problems, the private, sheltering nuclear family that supported republican childhood not only nurtured deep emotional bonds but also protected the vulnerable young from both the market and the crowd. Until the fifties, the child's often weepy entrance into the public world generally came in kindergarten. Today's hardened five-year-old has been around the block a few times. As of 1997, children were spending two hours a day more in preschool and school programs than they did in the early 1980s. In that same period they lost ten hours a week for playtime. And as parents and the home lose some of their hold on their imaginations, senses, and emotions, children naturally turn elsewhere for spiritual and psychic sustenance. They find it in the media and its indomitable infantry, the peer group. Typically, American parents, unlike those from more traditional societies, have shied away from using siblings and peers to socialize their children, precisely because they have been troubled by the bullying and conformity that went along with this approach. But today peer groups are more powerful. They are replacing simple friendships and are invading earlier grades, where they oversee dress and behavior more cruelly and exactingly than adults ever did.

The shrinking of inner life is reinforced by the influence of science on childhood. Science has drawn a picture of a child as an efficient learning machine that needs information and input rather than meaning and values. Play, for instance, was once thought of as a means of exercising and freeing the imagination but is now increasingly described as a way to facilitate achievement. Quasi-scientific thinking has also encouraged Americans to think in terms of transmitting skills rather than knowledge to the young. Young children are supposed to listen to classical music, we are now informed, not because it enriches the spirit by connecting us to a meaningful tradition or by expanding a shared vocabulary of human feeling, but because it advances spatial and temporal reasoning. Families should eat together not because mealtime allows them to partake in the timeless rituals of civilized manners and communal sharing, but because children who listen to mealtime conversation do better on vocabulary and reading tests. "How Love Boosts Brainpower" is the title of a 1997 article in Parents. Machinelike, the child is revved up, tuned up, fueled up -- and cut off from the web of human meaning.

"Our society," the late Christopher Lasch wrote, "far from fostering private life at the expense of public life, has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and lasting marriages increasingly difficult to achieve." The myth of anticulturalism should make it easy to see why. Treating children as autonomous, self-sufficient loners inevitably corrodes their capacity for both strong, trusting connections and for independent individuality. Anticulturalism may have promised freedom -- the competent child could be freed from unnecessary cultural constraint -- but it has not delivered. Its celebration of childhood independence has instead helped to shrink individual possibility.

But the waning of childhood does not merely mean a loss for individuals. It also raises questions about the future of democracy. As liberal philosophers have well understood, there is no way around the paradox that a certain amount of childhood constraint is fundamental to democracy. Freedom is meaningful only when individuals possess the ability to direct their lives and the life of their nation in a deliberate fashion. To achieve this sort of self-governance, individuals must be self-aware, self-controlled, forward-looking, and deliberative, all qualities that must be learned over time and under the proper conditions. In their exaltation of the child's individual autonomy and self-determining choice, Americans run the risk of destroying those conditions and of weakening the self-restraint and sociability which have historically been such a vital counterpoint to the extremes of American individualism.

Social critics like Lasch and Robert Putnam have alerted us to a breakdown in civil society. According to Putnam, Americans are demonstrating less interest in joining organizations, ranging from bowling leagues to parent-teacher associations. "Every year over the last decade or two," he wrote in his essay "Bowling Alone," "millions have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities." In One Nation After All Alan Wolfe describes a similar retreat: "American suburban communities do seem to be chilly places. Devoid of people during the day, they are filled with people sitting behind television or computer screens in the evenings, too self-preoccupied to live a Tocquevillian life of civic engagement."

Throughout the following chapters I will discuss the origins of such a nation. Taught to seek meaning and value only from inside, today's children can't help but absorb the American fantasy of a pure freedom transcending the limits of custom, the constraints of community, and even the burdens of love. They are citizens not so much of a society as of their own undernourished imaginations.

Copyright © 1999 by Kay S. Hymowitz

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: Empty Nests 1
1 The Nature Assumption 21
2 Baby Geniuses 47
3 Anticultural Education 75
4 The Teening of Childhood 103
5 Fourteen-Year-Old Women and Juvenile Men 133
6 Sex and the Anticultural Teenager 163
7 Postmodern Postadolescence 191
Conclusion: Refilling the Nest 217
Notes 225
Index 279
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Introduction

Introduction: Empty Nests "The twentieth-century," predicted Ellen Key, an early twentieth-century advocate for children, "will be the century of the child." At the time Key was writing, there was reason for such a hope. Building on a long-standing American concern with children, progressive reformers set out to "discover" childhood. They rid the nation of child labor and ensured educational opportunities through much of the teenage years. They instituted a separate justice system intended to protect mischievous or "delinquent" adolescents from overly harsh penalties and adult jails. Yet as the century draws to a close, Key's optimism, one shared by many people of her time, can't help but hold a special poignancy for America. For it appears that the century has discovered childhood only to lose it.

Few Americans are unaware of the profound transformation over the last thirty years in the way children look and act. Indeed, these changes seem connected to some of our most troubling and prominent social problems. Children are committing so many more serious crimes of the sort once thought beyond their capacity that some legal experts are recommending abandoning the juvenile court that was designed to protect them and simply trying them in adult court. Nor are these crimes limited to poor and older adolescents. The city of Indianapolis was forced to expand its gun search policy into its elementary schools after an eight-year-old pointed a gun at a classmate for "teasing him about his ears." And in a crime that left the nation reeling, two gun-wielding youths from well-to-do, two-parent homes killed twelve of their classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999.

Sexual intercourse, once considered a pleasure reserved for adults, has become commonplace among kids and has led to dramatic increases in the rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, welfare dependency, fatherlessness, and abortion. Even though the percentage of teens having sex has decreased somewhat in recent years, sexual activity has trickled down to ever-younger ages. Experts say they are unsurprised by the sexual sophistication of twelve-year-olds. In 1993 the schools in New Haven, Connecticut, began distributing condoms to fifth graders. And according to the New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, experts believe parents should begin teaching girls "how and why to say 'no' and what to do should they say 'yes'" at nine years old, an age that would shock almost any culture.

Signs of the waning of childhood are also evident in the ordinary day-to-day rhythms and symbols of children's lives. Infants now have "lapware" computers with educational programs and work out at baby gyms. It's not uncommon to hear about soccer teams for three-year-olds and tackle football teams complete with shoulder pads and helmets for seven-year-olds. Indeed, by elementary school many children are on the fast track: some educators have damned recess as "a waste of time" and have markedly increased the homework loads even of first graders. No information is off-limits for children today. Third graders recite jokes told by David Letterman the previous night -- and their napping and irritability in class suggest that they heard them firsthand. Nor is the media their only source: kindergartners might be studying the Holocaust or AIDS in school. Marketing expert Faith Popcorn predicts that in the next millennium "we're going to see health clubs for kids, kids as experts on things like the Internet, and new businesses like Kinko's for Kids, to provide professional-quality project presentations."

Perhaps the most noticeable changes, occurring largely during the last decade alone, are among kids between eight and twelve, known to marketers as "tweens." Bruce Friend, vice president of worldwide research and planning for the children's television network Nickelodeon, reports that in the last ten years, kids between ten and twelve have started to act and dress more like yesterdays's twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds. By eleven, Friend says, kids in focus groups say they no longer think of themselves as children. The Nickelodeon-Yankelovich Youth Monitor Survey found that by the time they are twelve, children describe themselves as "flirtatious, sexy, trendy, cool." The cosmetics and fashion industries have introduced lip gloss, "hair mascara," body paint, and scented body oils (with names like Vanilla Vibe and Follow Me Boy) for the ten-year-old sophisticate. By contrast, the toy industry has nothing to celebrate in the twilight of childhood marked by the arrival of the tween; whereas a generation ago the industry could count on those between birth and fourteen as their target market, today that market has diminished to those between birth and ten.

What is it about our contemporary social environment that has made childhood an endangered species? The psychologist David Elkind believes "the hurried child" is the offspring of stressed-out, overambitious parents responding to an increasingly competitive society. Citing the rapidity with which divorce and family breakdown spiraled upward through the seventies, Marie Winn argues that children are "without childhood" because there is now an "end of secrecy"; their parents are no longer protecting them from what was once considered adult, especially sexual, information. Social critic Neil Postman shares Winn's view that the end of secrecy is key to the "disappearance of childhood," but he believes the culprit is television. Because they possess more information, Postman argues, parents have power over children, just as political leaders have power over their subjects. When literacy was a prerequisite for knowledge, children could be kept in the dark. But television, Postman says, is "a total disclosure medium"; it makes formerly taboo knowledge available to the youngest children and puts them on an equal footing with their elders.

While acknowledging the impact of these social realities -- the decline of traditional domestic arrangements, the demands of a meritocratic society, the growing presence of a hypersexualized, violent media -- this book will point to another cause of childhood's present state. The disappearance of childhood is, to a far greater extent than previously understood, a result of conscious human design. It is directly related to the ideas and actions of those who help shape our understanding of children -- psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, child advocates, lawmakers, advertisers, marketers, and storytellers both in print and on the screen. Very rarely have any of them openly rejected the idea of childhood, of course. What they have done is far more subtle. They have helped to advance the idea of children as capable, rational, and autonomous, as beings endowed with all the qualities necessary for their entrance into the adult world -- qualities such as talents, interests, values, conscience, and a conscious sense of themselves. In this view, children need little shaping by adults; they are essentially "finished," and childhood has lost its traditional purpose as the time set aside for shaping raw human material into a culturally competent adult.

The idea that Americans think of children as already complete may seem counterintuitive. Don't we believe that people are products of their environment? Don't we worry about children growing up in poverty for precisely that reason? Well, yes and no. Americans do take it as a given that children need certain fundamentals to thrive -- things like food and shelter, love and stimulation. They assume that in the absence of these things children do poorly in school, take drugs, get pregnant, or commit crimes. What they don't believe, what they no longer articulate, is the idea that children must be inducted by their elders into a preexisting society, into a web of meaning -- in short, into a culture. Instead, it is up to kids to create the world for themselves. As Patricia Hersch writes in her book A Tribe Apart, which chronicles the lives of high schoolers in Reston, Virginia, "Everything is up for debate, from the meaning of calculus to the meaning of life itself." In contemporary America, cultural authorities portray children as solitary and autonomous observers, investigating and judging the world entirely on their own terms. Adults are reduced to personal trainers or mere companions for the child in his or her solitary development. They may have a role in instructing children in some skills and in delivering some unfamiliar information to them, but they have no role in either socializing them or investing the information with meaning and value. Their job is to "empower" children, build their self-esteem, and lovingly wait for the complete individual to sprout into being from inside its bodily husk.

The belief that the child should develop independently of the prevailing culture and even in opposition to it is what I call anticulturalism, and it is at the root of what has gone wrong with childhood in America. Anticulturalism is the dominant ideology among child development experts, and it has filtered into the courts, into the schools, into the parenting magazines, into Hollywood, and into our kitchens and family rooms. It is no mere abstraction. The era of anticulturalism is producing a new kind of American personality, one that should give us great pause.

One dominant theory about moral development offers a good overview of what anticulturalism is all about. In most cultures, it is axiomatic that adults civilize children by teaching them the rules of morality and insisting that they restrain their antisocial impulses. But for Carol Gilligan, the most influential American expert on moral development today, adults are the problem; the kids are okay. Gilligan's theory evolved as she studied the students at the Laurel School, a private school in Cleveland. From her observations she concluded that preadolescent girls are more moral than either their older counterparts or their elders. They are "genuine," she claims, and they "speak of their thoughts and feelings about relationships in direct ways." This authenticity is a sign of their "wisdom and generosity" and a product of insights that "constitute the core of moral wisdom." The real problem for children occurs when adults interfere with these abundant natural gifts. Though the girls at the Laurel School might strike some as cliquish and cruel, Gilligan is convinced that her subjects have undergone not too little of the civilizing process but too much. As they mature, the innately moral self of these girls is drowned out by the "foreign voice-overs of adults," "the disembodied lines from parents and teachers." Attempts to make them do such things as complete their homework, wait their turn, and share with their classmates result in "psychological foot-binding." The once lively, honest girls lose their natural and authentic "voice" and succumb to doubt, self-abnegation, and "silence." Here is the anticultural myth resplendent: children are naturally moral creatures who are ruined by the adults who attemp t to civilize them.

A new crop of books, supposedly more realistic about children's need for real guidance from adults, likewise reveal the persistent hold of anticultural thinking. Robert Coles' bestselling The Moral Intelligence of Children at first appears to avoid the anticultural trap, as the author asserts that parents and teachers are not offering enough moral guidance for children. But his claim about "how 'character' develops in the young" is at odds with Coles' conclusion that children are not simply moral, but "morally intelligent." He ponders children's observations as if they were the koans of Zen masters. He cites "the stillness of bodies, the rapt attention" and the "moral vitality" of children during his classroom discussions with them. A treasured anecdote, repeated by Coles in a number of television interviews, demonstrates the wisdom of his nine-year-old son, who tells him to slow down because he might cause an accident when he is racing the injured boy to the hospital. "My son had become my moral instructor," Coles marvels. In the anticultural United States, the child is often father to the man.

It may make sense to suggest, as Gilligan and Coles do, that human beings have an innate capacity for moral behavior. After all, we could not have developed a civilization without some natural orientation toward group feeling and harmony. But it makes equal sense to conclude from history, not to mention children's treatment of their siblings, that there is also a darker side to human nature. Until the middle of the twentieth century, it was considered an obvious fact that children are prone to cruelty, aggression, and boundless egotism and that a major purpose of their upbringing is to restrain and redirect those impulses. Though his contemporaries held back, Freud went so far as to add sexual perversion and patricidal wishes to the gallery of childhood evils.

One sees abundant proof of the existence of this darker side in newspaper headlines and school playgrounds, but rarely is it visible in the tracts of American experts. After perusing books on moral development, the political scientist James Q. Wilson expressed surprise that he could not find one reference to self-restraint. He needn't have been surprised, for in the experts' view, America's children have no urges worth restraining. Children's nature has been whitewashed. The word impulse has been erased from expert tracts, and instinct, which once evoked our animalistic legacy, has been sanitized into constructive drives such as the "language instinct." Even sociobiologists, who seek the sources of human behavior in our distant animal past, seem more inclined to explore the biological tendency toward altruism and empathy than the aggression we usually associate with the life of the beast.

According to the social historian Peter Stearns, while nineteenth-century advice manuals worried about children's cruelty toward animals, by the middle of the twentieth century experts were more likely to fret about their fear of animals. Anne MacLeod, in a comparison of nineteenth- and late-twentieth-century children's literature, has found something similar: Nineteenth-century books contain child characters who frequently misbehave or demonstrate cruelty, such stories dramatizing for children the dangers of their self-centeredness. But by the mid-twentieth century, child heroes seem to have no personal lessons to learn and never require punishment. Judy Blume's highly popular novels, for instance, portray many egotistic children "without comment and certainly without criticism."

Parents, though they have plenty of reason to dispute this sunny thinking, seem to share this strain of expert optimism about their children. One study found that American mothers tend to see their children's positive characteristics as "inborn and stable over time" while their less positive ones are viewed as "transitory and extrinsically caused." A common complaint among educators is the tendency of today's parents to insist, "It wasn't my kid; it must have been the other one," when confronted with evidence of the child's misbehavior. In fact, Americans cling to the idea -- and the hope -- of children's overall mental and emotional competence. In the middle decades of the century, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was confronted so often by experts and parents who wondered whether children could be propelled faster through what he believed to be slowly unfolding developmental stages that he dubbed it "the American Question." It appears to remain so. Thirty years later, David Elkind lectured across the country about the myth of what he called the "Superkid" -- to no avail. On the subject of children's competence, he found, Americans will not be moved.

This sturdy optimism about children's natures should not be confused with romantic and Victorian pieties about childhood innocence. True, the romantic legacy shows signs of life in American culture. Writers like Coles and Jonathan Kozol sometimes recall this tradition at its most bathetic. "This is not God's kingdom," says a Christlike twelve-year-old in Kozol's Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation as he gestures toward his devastated South Bronx neighborhood. "A kingdom is a place of glory. This is a place of pain." A ten-year-old leukemia victim described by Coles ("light shone in his eyes") still manages a prayer for his doctors and nurses. And politicians on both sides of the aisle are also prone to imagine children as Blakean figures of social protest against a selfish and immoral age.

The contemporary competent and self-sufficient child, however, is less the offspring of the romantic tradition than the progeny of unique modern forces, among them science and technology. The child of the computer age is efficient and orderly rather than pure and innocent. The changing view of infancy over the past few decades provides the most dramatic example of this shift. Unlike the behaviorists, who dominated the world of psychology for many decades and who believed that the infant brain was a blank slate upon which parents could write, cognitive scientists, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s with a version of that brain that continues to predominate, view infants as wondrously practical and constructive. "Babies are learning machines," Newsweek announced in 1997. Ceaselessly, automatically learning, children are unperturbed by emotions and irrational needs. They want only information and input. It is little wonder that in just a few years they will display a natural gift for morality.

By adding hip sophistication to the list of child talents, the market has also helped to flesh out the picture of child competence. Sophisticated kids with a knowing smirk on their face are a common motif on the screen and in glossy magazines. These kids are frequently accompanied by clueless adults, most of them men. The following text of a 1994 ad for Time runs above a picture of a worried-looking middle-aged man and a teenager with a "can you believe he's so stupid?" expression: "These days when a father says, 'Son, I think it's time we have a little talk about sex,' the reply is apt to be 'OK, Dad, what did you want to know?'" Though stirring up trouble between the generations has been a media ploy since at least the 1930s, television has insistently summoned children to consider themselves autonomous individuals who have little to learn from their elders. Especially over the past twenty-five years, as women have moved into the workforce in large numbers, the divorce rate has soared, and "home alone" children have come to make more and more decisions about family purchases as well as their own, this image of hip sophistication has topped all others; cuteness, reports one media watcher, is "now considered passé." Kids are more in charge, and marketers, knowing an untapped market when they see one, are not ones to protest. "Power to the people! The Little People that is!" cries an article about advertising to children in the New York Times.


The idea that children are autonomous, independent individuals discovering their own reality is an understandable outcome of the evolution of American political thought. Individual autonomy, the right to live life as we want, to think and judge for ourselves, to make our own decisions, has always been a central dogma in the nation's civic religion. Indeed, self-determination is the founding principle of this country. But children muddy this sacred principle. How can we who value self-determination so highly tell people, even little people, how to think and what to do? "Children are the Achilles heel of liberal ideology," one legal scholar has wisely observed. At some point, most American parents are confronted with a child who upon being told she cannot see a desired movie or go to a certain friend's house cries, "It's a free country!" These words signal the child's discovery that something is amiss, or "not fair," in his social standing. This is a dilemma among parents as well, as Robert Bellah and his cowriters reveal in Habits of the Heart, an analysis of late-twentieth-century American beliefs about individualism. "For highly individuated Americans," they write, "there is something anomalous about the relations between parents and children, for the biologically normal dependence of children on adults is perceived as morally abnormal."

When you add to this moral quandary the giddy chaos of a young, driving, ever-changing immigrant country, you end up with conditions unfriendly toward the conventional arrangement between adults and children. Under ordinary circumstances, children are strangers in a strange land and parents act as their experienced guides into the sacred knowledge of their culture, its language and emotions, its beliefs and rituals. For immigrants, the situation is often painfully reversed: it is the children who quickly come to understand the customs and language of their country, and the parents, tied to old-world ways and slower to absorb a new language, must learn from them. Native-born American parents, however, have not been spared this generational confusion. In a society infatuated with progress and all things new, parents often hesitate before asserting familiar rules; instead, they turn to their children for cues about what the seductive and unpredictable future holds.

But if in deeming the child an autonomous, self-determining individual Americans are holding fast to some of their own ideals, they are turning their backs on other universally understood truths. Even in the most primitive societies, people have believed that the transformation of children into socialized individuals who understand the requirements of their culture is an intensive process lasting years and requiring the active and sustained intervention of mother, father, grandparents, older siblings, and other relatives. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in response to technological and social changes, Western cultures began to lengthen and intensify this process, increasing the number of years children were kept out of the workforce, separated from the adult world, and given more parental devotion.

In America, these Western notions took on their own distinct coloring. By the early 1800s, ministers, intellectuals, and other cultural representatives began the process of framing what I'll be calling a "republican childhood," one in keeping with the ideals of the new country. Republican childhood had one central purpose: to vigorously prepare the young for freedom. In order to shape "self-governing" individuals, its architects rejected what until that time was an almost universal acceptance of corporal punishment and urged parents to appeal to their children's hearts and powers of reason. They encouraged them to awaken their children's minds and stir their interests by giving them time to play freely and by supplying the now recognizably middle-class home with toys and books. Yet republican childhood was still a serious business. Parents had to teach their children to balance personal ambition with a concern for the public good, respect for the law with critical independence, fidelity with entrepreneurial drive. No one believed that the transmission of these complex and highly contradictory cultural values would come naturally. Republican theorists saw it as a mammoth human undertaking, the psychic equivalent of digging a huge, multileveled, interconnected subway system. They believed that successful completion of this project required fifteen or twenty years, the hour-by-hour attentions of a mother, the emotional and financial support of a father, and the respectful attention of an entire society.

Today we cast a dubious eye on the domestic arrangements that supported republican childhood, which, we now understand, are peculiar to the modern Western world and have so often been stifling for women. But that should not prevent us from appreciating many of the goals and methods of this republican tradition, both of which remain highly relevant to us today. For all its problems -- and there were many -- republican childhood was based on a number of seemingly paradoxical truths that anticulturalism ignores: that adults must mold children into free individuals, that children do not naturally know how to shape their lives according to their own vision, and that both democratic government and free enterprise impose especially strong demands on us as citizens and as parents.

Under the reign of anticulturalism, the sense of adult purpose that was inspired by these truths is largely lost. Doubtless this is partly a practical matter. Many Americans simply feel they don't have the time to satisfy the demands of traditional parenting. Financial pressures have led many women out of the home and into the workforce. In 1960, close to 70 percent of American children had the day in, day out attention of stay-at-home mothers. By contrast, today only about 30 percent of kids under eighteen, including only a little over 35 percent of preschoolers, have mothers at home all day. Of course, middle-class women have also moved into the workplace in huge numbers. Regardless of family income, kids are spending less time with their parents and home life has become what the psychologist Kenneth Gergen has called "less a nesting place than a pit stop." "By 8:30 a.m.," writes Patricia Hersch of suburban Reston, Virginia, "neighborhoods stand still and silent -- hollow monuments to family life." In the wealthy county of Westchester, New York, some children go to "homework clubs" that are open from 3 to 8 p.m., where working parents hire surrogates to watch their kids, help them with homework, supervise their violin practice, and occasionally feed them dinner. Other kids are not so fortunate. It has been estimated that some seven million children are in "self-care" after school. Between 1970 and 1990, white children lost an average of ten hours a week of parental time and black children, twelve. In a 1996 study of twenty thousand teenagers, Laurence Steinberg concluded that disengaged parents were the primary reason the schools were seeing a greater number of troubled and indifferent students.

Economic and work pressures may make some of this parenting drain unavoidable, but a good deal of it is related to the anticultural ideas we will explore throughout the following pages. Surrounded by putatively competent and autonomously developing children, parents -- in fact, all adults -- find themselves lacking a clear job description in their relationship with children. In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs evokes the casually assumed role of adults of a previous era. "When Mr. Lacey, the locksmith, bawls out one of my sons for running into the street, and then later reports the transgression to my husband as he passes the locksmith shop, my son gets more than an overt lesson in safety and obedience. He also gets, indirectly, the lesson that Mr. Lacey, with whom we have no ties other than street propinquity, feels responsible for him to a degree." Mr. Lacey would appear to have gone the way of the iceman: A survey published by Public Agenda found that only 39 percent of adults would be comfortable reprimanding kids who are misbehaving in a public area, and only 33 percent would be comfortable telling neighbors if their child was getting into trouble.

Parents too show signs of withdrawing from their role as guides for the inexperienced. According to the same study by Public Agenda, parents feel "tentative and uncertain in matters of discipline and authority." Evelyn Bassoff, a Colorado therapist, reports that when she asks the women in her mothers' groups what happens when they discipline their daughters, they give answers such as "I feel mean," "I feel guilty," "I feel like an old fuddy-duddy," and "I quake all over; it's almost like having dry heaves inside." Wealthy parents trying to avoid encounters that might bring on such feelings have been known to hire tutors to do homework with their kids. Educators around the country report witnessing this anxious confusion. "I'm hearing statements like, 'What can I do? I can't make him read,'" the director of a New York City middle school told me. "And the child is in fifth grade. What does it mean that an adult feels he cannot make a ten-year-old do something?" A rural New York principal concurs: "I used to say to a kid behaving rudely, 'Young man, would you speak that way at home?' and he would hang his head and say, 'No.' Now I ask a kid and he looks surprised and says, 'Yeah.'"

This youthful incivility points to the disturbingly ironic consequences of anticulturalism. Many people today believe that traditional American childhood, which is now misleadingly imagined as an endless repetition of a Father Knows Best episode rather than an arrangement founded on republican ideals, was as stifling and oppressive to children as it was to mothers. The 1998 movie Pleasantville, for instance, depicts a domestic scene of smiling faces and punctual family dinners that belies the small-mindedness and emotional shallowness that gripped the movie's families. But whatever the considerable limitations of American life in the 1950s, it is impossible to conclude that the waning of childhood that has come about because of anticulturalism has added to individual freedom. Quite the opposite. For one thing, because children are not the moral competents psychologist Carol Gilligan has promised us, the adult failure to insist on informal cultural constraints and expectations has made them into prisoners of their own untamed impulses -- and all too often of the law. Although juvenile crime rates have dropped from their peak in the past several years, ever-younger children are in jail in record numbers for having committed crimes much more serious than was the case twenty years ago. Defense lawyers wonder at the change in their clients. "The kids I represented ten, fifteen years ago were so different," says a California attorney interviewed by Edward Humes in No Matter How Loud I Shout. "They were still kids. They knew right from wrong more or less...Now...they seem like they are brain-dead. You can't reach them." Even on college campuses, according to the National Center for the Study of Campus Violence, crime has increased in amount and severity: "Harassment becomes assault," says the director of the center. "Instead of pilfering, you get grand theft auto."

But though the rise in juvenile incivility and crime may be the most glaring result of anticulturalism, other more subtle consequences are in their own way just as disturbing -- and as threatening to individual freedom. The stark lesson children receive from their earliest days -- that they are supposed to be fully rational and self-sufficient -- has carried with it a radical "downsizing" of their emotional lives. Conventional wisdom has it that people today are beneficiaries of the march of emotional progress which began in the 1960s. Where once Americans were forced to repress their emotions, they now have permission to express themselves more freely and openly. This version of history ignores how much value we now place on rationality and independence at the expense of other human emotions. Simply put, the self-sufficient child cannot afford to need others very much.

To get a fuller picture of this downsizing, consider the change in the quality of the American child's home life. Compared to children of the past and in other cultures, our own kids live a remarkably isolated and fragmented existence with fewer strong and reliable attachments. Starting in infancy, they watch people come and go from their lives at nickelodeon speed. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Development found that babies cared for by people other than their parents will typically see those caretakers change twice in their first year of life; one-third of these infants will watch three or more nurturers come and go. In The Time Bind, a study of how employees at a Fortune 500 company balance work and family, Arlie Hochschild writes that "real people -- neighbors, relatives, friends, baby sitters, teachers in after-school programs, and parents with flexible work schedules -- have disappeared, while MTV, the 'new neighbor' for the latchkey child, remains only a press of a button away." Almost half of all American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from a father or mother, which in turn often means not only half as much contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins but the distracted attention of their own custodial parent. Children in joint custody move from mother's house to father's every week or month, turning them into rootless migrants without a sense of place or coherent relationships. Five-year-old frequent fliers traveling alone between mother in California and father in Pennsylvania have become a common sight to airline personnel. According to writer Barbara Whitehead, "even infants are transported between households in cars or ta xis, with frozen breast milk and ear infection medication tucked into their diaper bags." They also have fewer siblings -- as of 1994, the mean number of children under eighteen in households with children was 1.4, compared with 2.4 in 1962 -- and are less likely to know their neighbors or to see their grandparents regularly, though for the first time in history chances are that the elderly are likely to survive throughout their grandchildren's youthful years.

There are even chillier signs of this emotional downsizing. The relationship between adults and children has been infected by the legalistic ethos that so dominates our society. Work Family Directions, a Boston company, has published a booklet titled I Can Take Care of Myself that recommends a pseudolegal agreement between parents and their "self-care" children about what is expected of each of them. Adults working with children are warned by superiors worried about lawsuits against showing too much affection toward their young charges. "Teach but don't touch," a lawyer for the National Education Association told the membership in 1995. "If you hug a child, even a child who is hurt or crying, I will break your arms and legs...If kids need help in the bathroom, take an aide with you, or let them go on the floor." Trained as if they were preparing to enter the opposing counsel's meeting room, camp counselors have become "less relaxed around children," according to one camp consultant, even though youngsters "come to camp with more emotional baggage than they did just five years ago." The prohibition against touching a child affects caretakers, who hold themselves back from comforting or showing affection toward their charges, fearing a misinterpreted pat or hug. Though based on a reasonable concern about accusations of physical and sexual abuse, such a prohibition, when set in the wider context of today's child's lean-and-mean emotional life, seems a sign of something larger: Americans simply do not want their children overly involved with them. In other cultures parents cite things like becoming a good spouse and parent, good citizenship, or kindness and sensitivity as their chief goals for th eir children. What do Americans want for their children? In every study, one stark answer predominates: independence. Hochschild found that latchkey kids were more often than not the children of professional or managerial workers who wanted their kids to be self-sufficient. Evidently, it's never too early. "Of a three-month-old child in nine hour daycare," she writes, "a father assured me, 'I want him to be independent.'"

As children grasp that life in their culture demands that they quickly shed signs of their vulnerability, neediness, or bewilderment, they adopt the "cool" persona of the child sophisticate modeled in the stories they read and the images they see. Hollywood has been particularly ingenuous in helping to shape American children's acceptance of their subsistence diet in the emotions. Television and movies tutor children from the time they are tots in what the historian Peter Stearns has called the "emotional style" of "American cool." As neophytes in the subject, they watch the wisecracking, eye-rolling hipsters on Sesame Street and Rugrats, move on to the novice level with The Simpsons, and then proceed to graduate work with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Bombarded with these models, children adopt a knowing posture that adults frequently mistake for true sophistication. Actually, children are simply responding to the drumbeat of a message: intense emotions and passionate commitments are out (as the dearth of convincing love stories also suggests). Skeptical nonchalance and cool irony are in.

The combination of the relentless and early presence of media images in children's lives and the emptying of the familial nest also portends a loss of individual freedom. For all its problems, the private, sheltering nuclear family that supported republican childhood not only nurtured deep emotional bonds but also protected the vulnerable young from both the market and the crowd. Until the fifties, the child's often weepy entrance into the public world generally came in kindergarten. Today's hardened five-year-old has been around the block a few times. As of 1997, children were spending two hours a day more in preschool and school programs than they did in the early 1980s. In that same period they lost ten hours a week for playtime. And as parents and the home lose some of their hold on their imaginations, senses, and emotions, children naturally turn elsewhere for spiritual and psychic sustenance. They find it in the media and its indomitable infantry, the peer group. Typically, American parents, unlike those from more traditional societies, have shied away from using siblings and peers to socialize their children, precisely because they have been troubled by the bullying and conformity that went along with this approach. But today peer groups are more powerful. They are replacing simple friendships and are invading earlier grades, where they oversee dress and behavior more cruelly and exactingly than adults ever did.

The shrinking of inner life is reinforced by the influence of science on childhood. Science has drawn a picture of a child as an efficient learning machine that needs information and input rather than meaning and values. Play, for instance, was once thought of as a means of exercising and freeing the imagination but is now increasingly described as a way to facilitate achievement. Quasi-scientific thinking has also encouraged Americans to think in terms of transmitting skills rather than knowledge to the young. Young children are supposed to listen to classical music, we are now informed, not because it enriches the spirit by connecting us to a meaningful tradition or by expanding a shared vocabulary of human feeling, but because it advances spatial and temporal reasoning. Families should eat together not because mealtime allows them to partake in the timeless rituals of civilized manners and communal sharing, but because children who listen to mealtime conversation do better on vocabulary and reading tests. "How Love Boosts Brainpower" is the title of a 1997 article in Parents. Machinelike, the child is revved up, tuned up, fueled up -- and cut off from the web of human meaning.

"Our society," the late Christopher Lasch wrote, "far from fostering private life at the expense of public life, has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and lasting marriages increasingly difficult to achieve." The myth of anticulturalism should make it easy to see why. Treating children as autonomous, self-sufficient loners inevitably corrodes their capacity for both strong, trusting connections and for independent individuality. Anticulturalism may have promised freedom -- the competent child could be freed from unnecessary cultural constraint -- but it has not delivered. Its celebration of childhood independence has instead helped to shrink individual possibility.

But the waning of childhood does not merely mean a loss for individuals. It also raises questions about the future of democracy. As liberal philosophers have well understood, there is no way around the paradox that a certain amount of childhood constraint is fundamental to democracy. Freedom is meaningful only when individuals possess the ability to direct their lives and the life of their nation in a deliberate fashion. To achieve this sort of self-governance, individuals must be self-aware, self-controlled, forward-looking, and deliberative, all qualities that must be learned over time and under the proper conditions. In their exaltation of the child's individual autonomy and self-determining choice, Americans run the risk of destroying those conditions and of weakening the self-restraint and sociability which have historically been such a vital counterpoint to the extremes of American individualism.

Social critics like Lasch and Robert Putnam have alerted us to a breakdown in civil society. According to Putnam, Americans are demonstrating less interest in joining organizations, ranging from bowling leagues to parent-teacher associations. "Every year over the last decade or two," he wrote in his essay "Bowling Alone," "millions have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities." In One Nation After All Alan Wolfe describes a similar retreat: "American suburban communities do seem to be chilly places. Devoid of people during the day, they are filled with people sitting behind television or computer screens in the evenings, too self-preoccupied to live a Tocquevillian life of civic engagement."

Throughout the following chapters I will discuss the origins of such a nation. Taught to seek meaning and value only from inside, today's children can't help but absorb the American fantasy of a pure freedom transcending the limits of custom, the constraints of community, and even the burdens of love. They are citizens not so much of a society as of their own undernourished imaginations.

Copyright © 1999 by Kay S. Hymowitz

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