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Kids 'R' Us
October 18, 1999

Kay Hymowitz reports on America's failure to treat children as children

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Don't be put off by the book's opaque title: Kay S. Hymowitz's Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours is a fresh and grimly convincing look at what we're doing wrong in the way we socialize the young.

Hymowitz's subject is the strange abdication that has left adults unwilling to perform the task of passing on a cultural inheritance. Americans, she says, no longer believe—as virtually all previous cultures have—that "children must be inducted by their elders into a preexisting society, into a web of meaning." Instead, we have come to embrace, or at least are consenting to live under, a new set of assumptions that she sums up as "anticulturalism."

This is "the belief that the child should develop independently of the prevailing culture and even in opposition to it." It begins with a "white-washed" view of children's nature, which blithely discounts the egotism and casual cruelty that are part of childhood and instead exalts what Robert Coles, in a 1997 bestseller, called "the moral intelligence of children." Children are conceived of as "capable, rational, and autonomous, as beings endowed with all the qualities necessary for their entrance into the adult world."

It's an illusion Hymowitz shows at work in contemporary American views of every stage of youthful development, from infancy through "postmodern postadolescence," the prolonged period of rootlessness exhibited by our increasingly numerous twenty- and thirtysomething singles. It is perhaps most familiar in the field of education, where actual knowledge is out and children are invited to be creative without a solid grounding in traditional disciplines. (A tenth-grader I know has a teacher who says she "doesn't believe in grammar"—which is a bit like saying, in an elevator, that one doesn't believe in engineering. We're confusing our kids about the nature of reality.)

Or consider the theory of "sexuality education" that informs instruction in many schools. This view holds that adults' role is never to guide young people in their choices, but only to equip them with the information and skills to make their own choices about how to "express their sexuality."

Hymowitz illuminates the operation of the anticultural fallacy in other aspects of child-rearing, as well. There is the transformation of children into consumers. By 1957, American kids were already watching an hour and a half of TV a day. As households acquired second TVs, specialized programming proliferated, and advertisers saw their chance. Mattel Toys led the way with its "burp gun" and then, in 1959, its Barbie doll. As the market for toys exploded, advertisers bypassed parents and dangled directly before child viewers products that instilled the cult of the teenager and a taste for the hip.

Market research, Hymowitz says, reveals that mothers universally hated Barbie, which they saw as too grown-up and vulgar for its target audience of four- to twelve-year-olds. But the mothers lost. It is through this direct relationship between vendors and young potential buyers—not only through the depraved content of TV programming, with its contempt for geeky adults and glamorization of prematurely knowing, independent, and sexy kids—that television has helped subvert the proper roles of parent and child.

In each area she discusses, Hymowitz shows how liberationist notions espoused in the name of respect for children have actually worked to short-change them, depriving them of the shaping influence of their elders. The more children are allowed to shed the constraints of good manners, for example, the less they are able to navigate comfortably and confidently among people, especially those outside their peer groups. Adults' failure of nerve thus reinforces the age segregation that isolates and impoverishes American youths. Or again, the more that children are invited to "express their sexuality," the less they seem capable of deep and committed love.

Perhaps most pathetically of all, the transformation of school discipline—matters like whether a student may wear Nazi insignia to school or may present in class a story about murdering the principal—into questions of free speech to be settled in court "ultimately has the effect of bestowing high moral purpose on adolescent obsessions and making the already difficult tasks of training teenagers' judgment and refining their sensibilities seem quaintly irrelevant."

The foil for this disquieting view of contemporary customs is what Hymowitz sees as the best tradition of "republican childhood." In the early years of American independence, she says, the clergy and secular intellectuals debated the education necessary to prepare the young for freedom.

Unlike older theories of child-rearing, theirs frowned on corporal punishment and the use of humiliation as a teaching device and embraced, instead, the appeal to reason and to an educated heart as befitting young people destined for self-government. Republican childhood affirmed the duty of parents—indeed of all adults—to show children how to cultivate a balance between personal ambition and the public good, self-reliance and respect for law.

Can America rediscover this revolutionary wisdom? Hymowitz detects a scrap of hope in the worry parents express about their own and their neighbors' children and in young people's tenacious longing to marry and form stable families. "Human nature," she says—echoing writers like James Q. Wilson and Francis Fukuyama—"can be stretched only so far."

But Hymowitz may be wrong. There is nothing automatic about cultural recovery. The Romans left Europe strewn with their roads and amphitheaters, baths and soaring aqueducts, but the Romans' successors for centuries forgot how to build out of stone. It is not obvious where our children, reared on the gospel of self-fulfillment, will go to learn self-sacrifice or how the next generation of teachers—well intentioned, no doubt, but themselves the products of anticultural education—will acquire respect for the architecture of reason.

Kay Hymowitz's book is a fine addition to the bulging shelves of volumes analyzing what troubles our kids. In recent years, we've heard from writers who locate the cause of our children's current dismal situation in working mothers, day care, and fatherlessness, in gender stereotyping, Hollywood, and guns, in promiscuity, poor schools, and consumerism. What we really need now is equal ingenuity applied to the challenge of getting ourselves out of this fix.

©1999 The Weekly Standard

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