Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bring Back Childhood!

When a nine-year-old boy was charged with sexual harassment and suspended from school for calling his fourth grade teacher “cute” earlier this month, it made me wonder about other signs of the times. Is childhood itself in danger of disappearing?

What does it mean when twelve and thirteen-year-old girls are among the most highly paid models in America, turned into sex objects to sell everything from blue jeans to breath mints?

Why does the age of puberty keep dropping, from sixteen a century ago to eleven for girls today, with some starting to menstruate at the age of six? 

What does it mean when Newt Gingrich, a top presidential contender, can propose putting elementary school children (especially those in “the poorest neighborhoods”)  to work as janitors and cafeteria workers, and receive applause for the line?  My wife’s great-uncle perished in an accident at age fourteen, digging coal in Pennsylvania.  Is that the vision for our children’s futures?

Childhood is such a fragile and fleeting period between infancy and adolescence: a narrow window of curiosity and playfulness and unbroken trust.  But that window now seems to be closing.

What does it mean when millions of school kids take Ritalin just to get through the day, and when diagnoses of bipolar disorder, once unheard of among children, have seen a 4000% spike the past decade?  An optimist might say that medical science is now just much better at spotting and treating mood disorders.  But then why are youngsters committing suicide in record numbers?  Are children more depressed because they are less sheltered, more vulnerable than ever?  I have more questions than answers.

What does it mean that children’s games are being forgotten?  Hopscotch and hide-and-go-seek aren’t much in evidence among today’s kids, who can recite dialogue from re-runs of the Simpsons word for word, but have never heard of Mother Goose.  Did you realize that the words to “Ring-Around-The-Rosy” are over 600-years-old, not transmitted by parents but handed down among children themselves, passed from playmate to friend?  Now rhymes and songs that persisted for centuries are in danger of extinction.  It’s like the story of the little girl who said to her mother, “Did you tell me that blue vase in the front room had been handed down from one generation to another in your family?”  “Yes dear, why do you ask?” the mother replied. The little girl answered, “Because, Mommy, I’m very sorry, but this generation has dropped it!”

More questions.  Why are children criminalized for acting like kids?  A father recently visited my office distraught about his son.  When the second-grader broke another child’s crayon and tore his classmate’s picture, police were called.  Social workers and school psychologists organized a task force.  What had gotten into his child, the father wondered?  The incident made me ask, if Tom and Huck, those icons of American boyhood, were to pop off the page and come to life today, would they be identified as “youth at risk” and assigned probation officers?  I worry when so many youngsters are labeled deviant and even prosecuted for getting into ordinary mischief.  Aren’t we, as a society, “at risk” of eliminating childhood altogether?

Perhaps the best gift parents can give their offspring this holiday season are the ones money can’t buy.  Spend time with your kids.  Play a game, have a sing-along, or enjoy a family dinner.  Above all, turn off the TV.  Neilson, the ratings company, shows that 2-5 year olds are now spending an average of 32 hours per week parked in front of the tube!   Say “No” to a culture that wants to brand your children before they can think for themselves.  Share lessons in discipline and self-control that will enable them to resist the blandishments of growing up too fast.  Read them a story.  Instead of racing to the mall shopping for stocking stuffers, use your energy making this a warm and wondrous moment in their lives. 

Before the moment slips away, give them the gift of childhood itself.