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For the past year, this columnist has been considering how to write a book about what has gone wrong with childrearing in the United States. So it is with a twinge of envy, yet great respect, that I recommend the wisest piece of social criticism to be published in many years, "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours" by Kay Hymowitz. Mrs. Hymowitz has written the book I was thinking of and done it far better than I could have.
Pulling together disparate threads—from our failed education fads to precocious sexualization and many other straws in the wind—she analyzes our approach to childhood as "anticulturalism." Most societies throughout history have reared children in the belief that adults must pass along the accumulated wisdom of the ages to the young. Until recently, Americans believed this, too—though Americans modified this recipe slightly to create "republican childhood," a careful balancing of individual freedom with communal responsibility.
But in the past generation or so, Mrs. Hymowitz argues, we have abandoned the idea that adults have anything of importance to teach children. The baby boomers who did not "trust anyone over 30" when they were young themselves have raised their own children as if each one were born with all of the intelligence, maturity, scope and reason of an adult. The worship of youth did not die when the baby boomers reached middle age, it was merely transferred to their children.
But the gift of autonomy to those too young to take advantage of it has proved no gift at all. In fact, as Mrs. Hymowitz shows, the failure to provide guidance for children and adolescents has led to execrable educational outcomes, unjust legal decisions, the tyranny of the marketplace, and drifting, unhappy young adults. Sometimes, as at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., it has led to terrible tragedy.
Anticulturalism starts earIy, with the infant. Experts on child development, parenting magazines and the media all agree that infants are expert little learning machines, "Smarter than you think" to quote the title of a popular book. And they're not just smart, but naturally kind and civilized. One manual encourages parents to let their children decide when to be potty trained. Another discourages nagging about manners, arguing that this will make the child resentful and will backfire.
Upon reaching toddlerhood, the youngest children are encouraged to identify with the youth culture and not with their families. "Families suck!" the hero in "Home Alone" famously cried. And that message is delivered tirelessly, from "The Simpsons" to "Rugrats." Even "Sesame Street," with its anti-fairy tales, schools the youngest viewers in the preferred stance of anticulturalism—ironic distance.
As parents have retreated from imparting our tradition to the young, marketers have seized children's imaginations for their own purposes. The introduction of Barbie 40 years ago marked a turning point—a bold declaration by business that they were no longer going to support parents' efforts to shield their young children from consumerism and sexuality. Mothers initially detested Barbie. Today, marketers are shameless and explicit in marketing teen glamour to "tweens," the 8- to 12-year-old set. They hawk make-up and scented body oils with suggestive names like "Follow Me Boy," as well as tank tops and platform shoes to girls who only a year or two ago were still clutching their blankies.
But in no area of life did anticulturalism do more damage than in education. Quoting one educator who "loves a noisy classroom," Mrs. Hymowitz laments the naive faith in children's innate capacity to educate themselves. "What seems to be sensitivity to children's energy and creativity turns out to be surrender to their restless, excitable natures and to the superficial pleasures they already know so well."
Keen to instill self-esteem but contemptuous of mere facts, our schools have turned out ignoramuses by the millions. And, an ironic fillip, these products of anticultural education are more bored and less in love with education for its own sake, and have lower selfesteem than their predecessors, who survived old-fashioned instruction.
This is a sad, but extremely important book—a plea for adults to reclaim their adulthood, that is, their natural leadership, in order to restore American childhood.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.
©1999 The Washington Times
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