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The Wall Street Journal.

Young, Foolish and Filled With Self-Esteem
October 20, 1999


Anyone who finds himself dealing directly with children, whether as parent, coach, teacher or scoutmaster -- or in any other role that once called for "authority" -- has experienced the feeling of being alone, outnumbered and outgunned. It is you against the world of experts, the law, the big engines of commerce and the culture at large. Custer and his boys faced better odds at the Bighorn.

Where it was once assumed that you had at least some of the answers and a serious role to play in the molding of the child into a passably useful adult and citizen, the fixed belief of the day is that the child has the answers and that you are, at best, a facilitator but more likely an impediment on his road to self-discovery. Your job is to nourish the child's "self-esteem." Self-restraint is out. The "kids" do not learn from you and your example; you learn from them as they reveal the truths about themselves and the world to you.

So we have children who express themselves by self-mutilation; who communicate in like, you know, subliterate fashion; to whom love is alien and sex is commonplace; who attempt suicide at a rate that is 95% higher than it was 20 years ago; and who, when things go really bad, take up guns and slaughter their classmates and themselves.

The question that seems to ask itself is: Are we on the wrong track here?

Or have we perhaps jumped the tracks entirely? Kay S. Hymowitz ponders the question in "Ready or Not," and her answers are not comforting.  Ms. Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where they seem to specialize in thoughtful, scholarly analysis that cuts through the cant and the cultural smog and brings the real world and its truths into clear view. She writes lucidly and she thinks rigorously and her conclusions are neatly summed up in her subtitle: "Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future -- and Ours."

The prevailing belief that children "already own the materials out of which to build their individuality and autonomy and that adults, or 'society,' must beware of disturbing them" has old and deep roots. Rousseau and Dewey, among others, laid the foundation upon which others have been able to build. Thus in law we have Hillary Rodham (in the days before she added the "Clinton") writing that "the legal status of infancy, or minority, should be abolished and the presumption of incompetency reversed." And the Clintons' favorite constitutional scholar, Lawrence Tribe, asserting that childhood should be considered "a semi-suspect classification." This was legal theory going where social critics like R.D. Laing had already gone in their conclusion that children were an oppressed class. Isn't everyone?

To believe that children were legally competent and had the same rights as adults it was necessary to demonstrate, empirically, that they were born with the requisite equipment. Which "experts" were happy to do. Dr. Benjamin Spock, for example, would assert that, to the child, "good manners come naturally." Which, to anyone who has spent any time around small children, was conclusive proof that, while he might know earaches, on the big questions America's favorite pediatrician was a fool.

But Dr. Spock was not alone in his belief that children had it in them to be good and that adults needed to be on their guard against, above all, being "arbitrary." "Rules," writes one specialist, "are very useful in keeping a small child safe, but they don't really play much part in teaching him how to behave."

Nor, according to some educators cited by Ms. Hymowitz, in teaching them how to spell or do multiplication. Self-expression, you see, is more important than slavish adherence to the rules. So students write about their experiences in journals that are not, in any sense, literate. One student, at a school where this theory is ascendant, reports: "You can do whatever you want here. ... You can be a scholar or a total idiot." So one-third of the students at the nation's colleges require remedial instruction in reading, writing or math.

Kids do, however, get first-rate sex education, and they are able learners. Ms. Hymowitz's accounts of the sex lives of American children are drearily familiar but no less alarming for that. Kids "do it," with lots of skill and all the emotional ardor of field animals. It would be unthinkable to tell them not to.

In the end, a society gets the children it deserves. An American society that has, essentially, decided to let kids raise themselves gets an MTV and Gap generation. If it is an adolescent's right to wear his Nazi regalia to high school, then we will get Columbine. Those for whom the autonomous child is an article of faith will say that the solution is gun control, but there were schools, two generations ago, where boys were allowed to bring guns to school during hunting season. The guns haven't changed; the kids have.

Ms. Hymowitz finds reason, in her concluding chapter, for some optimism. Certainly, there is plenty of windy political commitment to "our children." Every issue is twisted around until it can be made crucial to "our children's future." But the best, if somewhat forlorn, evidence that the tide may be ebbing, if not turning, is just how miserable the kids themselves are. At some colleges, according to a recent New York Times article, students are asking for "an updated and subtler version of 'in loco parentis.'" In the end, this may be the one way in which there is no difference between children and adults. Both understand that what we've got now just isn't working.

Mr. Norman is editor-at-large of Forbes FYI.

©1999 The Wall Street Journal

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