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The Washington Times
October 19, 1999, Tuesday

Author decries abbreviated childhood: Treating youngsters as 'small adults' said to endanger their future, ours

Liz Trotta

NEW YORK—Kay S. Hymowitz, a petite brunette and mother of three, reduced a chatty luncheon crowd at the Harvard Club to rapt silence recently as she outlined what Americans are doing to their own children. It is not a pretty picture.

To make her point, she recalls an ad that appeared in Time magazine several years back. It depicted a puzzled-looking middle-aged man sitting beside his son, who wore a look that seemed to ask if anyone could imagine his father was so stupid. The text read:

"Son, it's time we had a talk abut sex. "

"Yeah, Dad, what do you want to know?"

The ad's message captures the essence of the knowing cynical teen mocking the parent as fool, the adult child viewing the father as son. An exaggeration? Not in the minds of those inclined to agree with Mrs. Hymowitz, who believes that dire consequences have already arrived for the countless parents and their children who practice role reversal.

Somewhere around the middle of this century, she argues, Americans began to lose sight of the meaning of childhood—the traditional belief that children should be shaped by those around them, especially parents. This approach was overtaken by the now-fashionable theory that the child is born complete, a sort of small noble savage with little need for adult advice. She calls this notion "anti-culturalism. "

Mrs. Hymowitz, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, summarizes what many frustrated parents already know: that the most noticeable changes in children occur between the ages of 8 and 12, referred to by mass marketers as "tweens. " They are a bonanza for commercial interests, who have led ever-younger consumers to replace pigtails and sneakers with lip gloss and halter tops—all in the name of being "cool. " The toy industry, which used to court children between birth and age 14, now targets those between birth and age 10.

In her new book, "Ready or Not, Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours," she writes: "In true anti-cultural fashion, educators insist that the only thing that prevents children from learning is adults—or, more generally, culture. "

Mrs. Hymowitz argues that leaving children on their own—the first phase in developing the "small adult"—starts in the crib. Babies "want to fit into the family's way of doing things, with only a minimum of guidance from you," the author writes, reprising the remarks of the late Dr. Benjamin Spock, the revered child expert of the anti-authoritarian '60s. In this philosophical framework, the parent is conveniently eliminated. The approach is sustained later on in the educational system, where the child is autonomous and the teacher—often referred to as "co-learner" or "facilitator"—merely witnesses the child's decisions.

As she surveys the social and sexual influences on the so-called independent child, Mrs. Hymowitz takes no prisoners. Robert Coles and Carol Gilligan of Harvard University's department of education are among the many revered child-psychology experts she examines.

The idea they promulgate, according to the author, is that, left on their own, the "intrinsic motivation" of children will lead them to success, as opposed to "extrinsic motivation," such as carrying out required assignments and getting good grades.

Mr. Coles would not respond to Mrs. Hymowitz's assertions and Miss Gilligan's assistant said that the well-known writer on the moral development of children was unavailable for comment: "It's not where she wants her energy to be going. "

Mrs. Hymowitz's energy, however, is going into discrediting the experts and child-oriented interest groups that sustain the debate over children. One of them, Planned Parenthood, is, according to the author, one of the paramount examples of promoting "healthy sex" and the idea that pregnant children—as rational and independent creatures—should not involve their parents if they want an abortion.

In response, Alexander Sanger, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, cited the value of a rich home life, but added, "She bemoans the reduced age of sexual activity, but it's undisputed that the age of menarche has declined from 16 or 17 in the mid-19th century to 11 1/2 now. I'm for facing up to this, rather than getting lost in the nostalgia of the 1850s. "

And Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the grandmotherly goddess of sex advice, was quick to recommend her own book, "The Value of Family," in which she basically sides with the it-takes-a-village approach to rearing children. Recalling that she put her own daughter in day care and nursery school, she cautioned against making parents feel guilty. "After all, some fathers who are at home all day play computers and the wives play mahjong. "

Mrs. Hymowitz marshals an array of statistics to make her case:

  • In 1960, about 70 percent of American children had the daily attention of stay-at-home mothers. Today, 30 percent of the preschool children of working mothers are in day care.
  • An estimated 7 million are in "self-care" after school.
  • In the last decade, verbal Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores have fallen, even as the proportion of test takers with an "A" average has risen from 28 percent to 38 percent.
  • The number of children diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder has doubled in the last five years.
  • A study by the Public Agenda research group found that only 7 percent of education professors think teachers should be conveyors of knowledge. Ninety-two percent believe teachers should just "enable students to learn on their own. "

Mrs. Hymowitz cites evidence of children masquerading as adults across the social spectrum. She speaks of the "competent infant" who is regarded as a baby Einstein; the super-independent "tween" who seeks hipness; the educator's "learning machine," who prizes information instead of knowledge; the "child citizen," who, because of court decisions, is more protected by due process than by his parents; the "media child" who embraces ironic detachment and emotional coolness, and finally the 14-year-old "woman" who settles for "healthy" sex—without desire.

Even "Sesame Street," the iconic children's TV program, draws her fire for its dogged pursuit of irony and detachment. As for the viewers themselves, they live on to become characters out of "Seinfeld," or "postmodern post-adolescents," whose aimlessness is summed up by one word—"whatever. "

Small wonder that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a reign of terror at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. , she observes, when they had been given free rein to indulge their obsessions with murder and Gothic horror.

Dr. Edward Sheridan, a child psychiatrist in the District, is familiar with the "adultmorphizing" of the child, a condition he says he observes regularly. "In the last 30 years, we've abandoned children by giving them plastic money and letting them go off to the malls and buy all the garbage," he says. "Then we call it love because they've run up big bills. "

© 1999 The Washington Times

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