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Childhood Crashed and Burned
To Frighten and Corrupt
In every corner of contemporary culture, childhood innocence is under assault. The very idea of parental protectiveness has been overwhelmed by relentless pressure from a society that seems determined to expose its young to every perversion and peril in an effort to "prepare" them for a harsh, dangerous future.
From the bleakest ghettos to the most privileged suburbs, families face the same fears. We worry not only about what might happen to our kids 'on the way to school, but about what values they will learn once they get there. We're concerned not only with the threat of physical assault, but with the emotional and moral battering that our children endure from peers and the media. In short, we feel powerless to counteract the implacable social forces that push our own flesh and blood to grow up too soon-and too cynical. We may shower youngsters with every sort of material blessing and glitzy diversion, but we can't seem to give them the greatest gift of all -- a secure, optimistic, and reasonably sheltered childhood.
Nihilistic messages that frighten and corrupt now come at our kids from so many directions at once that childhood innocence barely stands a chance. Consider.
In Philadelphia, a four-year-old keeps squirming away when embraced by a favorite uncle who'd come for his weekly visit. When asked by her puzzled relative what's wrong, she tells him that her nursery school teacher warned her against any adults who "touch her too hard." If he persists in squeezing her, she tearfully informs him, she'll have to call the police.
In New YorkCity, a ten-year-old kisses his parents good-bye in the morning and goes off to his exclusive (and outrageously expensive) private school. When he comes home that evening following some after-school adventures with his best friends, he proudly displays a small silver ring inserted into his newly pierced nose.
In Dallas, a three-year-old returns from play group to regale his disbelieving parents with an earnest, straight-faced singing and dancing rendition of "Mama's Got a Great Big Butt."
In Salt Lake City, a first grader begins compulsively throwing away her previously cherished dolls, much to the horror of her parents. It takes several hours to get an explanation: her teacher showed the class that the world was so bad-and so crowded that nobody should have children. The sensitive and solemn little girl didn't even want to pretend to raise babies of her own.
In suburban Kansas, the local school board abruptly terminates an elderly and popular crossing guard who's worked without complaint at the same intersection for nearly twenty years. A few suspicious parents had expressed their worries about his affectionate attitude, and occasional hugs, to his favorite children. The officials can hardly risk the threat of scandal or a lawsuit.
And in our own home, in the winter of '94, our younger daughter, Shayna, joins her excited kindergarten classmates for an after school field trip to the botanical gardens. As these neatly uniformed parochial school kids squeal and giggle in the backseat of a van, the adults listen to the hourly news on the radio -- which includes a graphic description of Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband's penis and throwing it out the window of her car. Hearing this, our daughter covers her ears in horror and begins sobbing uncontrollably, soon joined by two of her frightened classmates.
Admittedly, these anecdotes represent relatively minor upsets in a world scarred by youth violence, widespread substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and adolescent suicide. Nevertheless, such small examples illustrate the depth-and breadth-of the problem: today, even the most conscientious and protective parents feel helpless when it comes to shielding the innocence of their children. Moreover, this careless cultural assault on the innocence of small children can be directly connected to the development of more dangerous behavior in maturing adolescents. An abundance of evidence suggests that one of the reasons today's teenagers are more frequently troubled and tormented than young people of previous generations is that their parents, teachers, peers-and even the shapers of popular culture-adopted a novel and radical approach to child-rearing in their earliest years.
In her prophetic 1981 book Children Without Childhood, Marie Winn powerfully develops the argument that civilization has recently shifted its fundamental attitude toward nurturing the young. She writes that "the change has occurred so swiftly that most adults are hardly aware that a true conceptual and behavioral revolution is under way, one that has yet to be clearly defined and understood.... Once parents struggled to preserve children's innocence, to keep childhood a carefree golden age, and to shelter children from life's vicissitudes. The new era operates on the belief that children must be exposed early to adult experience in order to survive in an increasingly complex and uncontrollable world. The Age of Protection has ended. An Age of Preparation has set in."
In 1981, that "Age of Preparation" remained too new to properly analyze its impact on real-world kids. Seventeen years later, however, it should be possible to determine whether this fresh dispensation has succeeded in its own terms. Has this revolutionary, and purportedly realistic, approach to childhood helped children cope with the challenges of contemporary life? For all the current emphasis on preparation, are today's kids actually well prepared?
Statistical indications are hardly encouraging.
Item: Since 1960, the rate at which teenagers take their own lives has more than tripled; by 1995, 14 percent of all those who died between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four died at their own hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1993 a horrifying 8.6 percent of high school students had attempted suicide in the twelve months preceding the survey. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports more than 500,000 such attempts each year-or nearly 1,400 every day.
Item "The fastest growing segment of the criminal population is made up of children," notes former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Since 1965, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has tripled (with more than 100,000 annual arrests). Approximately seven teenagers die each day as murder victims; more than 20 percent of all high school students carry a knife, razor, firearm, or other weapon to school on a regular basis.Saving Childhood. Copyright © by Michael Medved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.