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Thursday, August 7, 2008

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Special Commentary--What Happened to Childhood? Conclusion

So, in accessing how our children have gone from simply being kids—representing a stage of life that was supposed to be a whole other world away from knowing the complexities of being adults and shouldering adult burdens—to adults in pre-adult bodies, we should all look back at the difference between our own childhood experiences and those of today’s young people. We should measure the costs of what we as adults have taken away from children compared to the benefits of what they have received over the last 20 years or so and wonder. In some school districts across the country, past childhood staples such as kickball, dodge ball, and tag have been removed in the name of protecting our children from being hurt, physically from the roughhousing that’s involved in such activities, and emotionally from being taunted, “left out” and the like. So, to spare the feelings of the few children who are inherently sensitive—and swell the egos of New Age sociologists, psychologists, and other proponents of such psychobabble—we have removed lessons of teamwork, the benefits of physical exercise and social interaction, and the sense of accomplishment from winning in favor of…creating more sensitivity? And even in the few enlightened school districts where such notions have not taken root, removing these and other physical activities are a matter of dollars and cents, not dogma. The fact that children today are now exhibiting health problems such as obesity and diabetes, issues that were once consigned solely to adults is reason alone to shift priorities, both fiscal and philosophical.
The political acronym KISS (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) works not in just the political arena. Thinking back on my own childhood, I can hear the slogan from those old Chuck E. Cheese commercials, “…where a kid can be a kid.” That’s as simple as one can get. At the risk of sounding authoritarian, kids no longer know their place. We need to start with making them feel like kids again…cater to their interests.
We adults can start with something as simple as our taste in entertainment. We need to understand that what we consider “harmless entertainment” is not so harmless, especially when we adults lack the sense impressionability that kids have. When we as kids were tying bed sheets around our necks and pretending to be able to fly, hyped-up from just watching “Shazam” on Saturday morning, is it too far-fetched to think that today’s kids are parroting the structured chaos and resulting brawls seen on “Springer?” From greed-driven sponsors to parents, we all need to take some responsibility in what kids see on television, and stop with the “it’s the parents’ responsibility” cop-out; its every adult’s responsibility! And while we’re at it, let’s interject some artistic merit in television programming. “Reality” television shows may be cheap to produce, but they lack the artistry that it takes to create and produce quality television (one but can’t help but wonder whatever happened to television script writers, directors, and other artists typically associated with making responsible and substantively creative works like PBS’s “The Electric Company”). What’s the big motivation for producing such cheap (both fiscally and ethically) programming anyway? It’s not as if we are in competition with the Chinese or Mexicans for cheaper import entertainment (or are we?). Just maybe if we appeal more to a child’s sense of entertainment, more kids wouldn’t be so quick to let go of their sense of youth.
And PTA types, let’s stop interfering in every little thing our kids do in the name “protecting them.” I can remember back in 2001, my ex-wife vehemently opposing my wanting to buy my then-stepsons motorized two-wheeled scooters, as they were the hot commodity in playthings back then. Her concern was that they “might fall off and hurt themselves,” to which I responded, “…and your point is…?” Before the horseless carriage kids fell off horses. Later in the 1970's, they fell off tricycles and Big Wheels, and in the 80s, they fell off BMX racers. When we grow up, as adults we fall off motorcycles. Its how kids—and human beings—learn the most enduring lesson of our existence…how to overcome tumbles, ignore the bruises that often come with them, and learn to ride again…on their own! Risk-taking is a part of life. Overparenting creates its own issues, including social akwardness (e.g., shyness), rebellion, anxiety, lack of maturity, and a sense-of self. Many psychologists agree.
Direct parental supervison is a necessity. We can no longer afford to allow our children to fend for themselves for the sake of fiscal household stability. If employers would be more open to looking at the big picture, and seeing the need for greater sympathy toward working parents, we would not have to allow X-Boxes, I-Pods, and Internets to substitute distraction for structure. And a natural extension of direct parental supervision is (here comes thay nasty word) discipline. We cannot be afraid to either adopt it or dish it...without interference from judgemental types and their subjective interpretations of what constitutes "old fashioned" or "abuse."
Every little smack on an unruly child's backside (or similar actions that are more involved) does not constitute a crime; most of us Generation-Xer's as well as our elders were reared by the hickory switch, and are better individuals for it. And by the same token, turning away from our children momentarily to see who tapped us on the shoulder does not constitutes neglect (like the Chicago-area mother who was arrested in March 2008 by an over-zealous police officer for "neglect"--stepping 20 feet away from her daughter to drop money in a Salvation Army kettle). Such an old school approach has substantive merit. Dr. Robert Larzelere, Ph.D. of Oklahoma State University concluded in his April 2007 published research that "There is no sound evidence scientific evidence to support anti-spanking bans." In fact, his research goes on to reveal that corporal punishment "compares unfavorably with alternatives only when used too severely or as the primary disciplinary action." Stern disciplining of children, with spanking as an option has been the standard (until recently) for nigh a thousand years and civilization has still managed to flourish, despite New Age opinions to the contrary. Anecdotal granted, but a proven truth.
Yes, children need supervision, but not over-doting. I’ve seen instances of parents driving their (obese) children a couple of blocks to school daily, reflexively defend their children whenever an frustrated teacher calls for a parent-teacher conference, and defend their unquestionably indefensible actions…all in the name of protecting them. Allow them to explore the world, both physically and philosophically. As a child, I remember some summer mornings where I and a group of neighborhood kids would gather together with some snacks, and ride out on our bikes, exploring areas of our town and surroundings that we were curious about, but had never had the opportunity to see, sometimes not arriving back home till the early evening…and this was before cell phones mind you. We were allowed to explore, and accept the consequences of our curiosities. We walked to school (in groups) in distances far beyond what today’s kids are permitted to do so, and despite the oft-heard dangers of strange men offering us candy from their cars, nothing happened. We knew and recognized the authority of teachers and administrators, who were professional, but not so much that they wouldn’t often adopt a paternal role in dealing with the more difficult among us…without trying to bed us down. And our parents recognized the obvious; that we as children lied, did stupid things, and were far from perfect…notions that seem not to resonate with today’s parents, who seem to think their children are not like “others” (yes…YOUR child/children as well as my own nieces/nephews).
Today, we have more gun control laws, and more school shootings. Less discipline and coporal punishment and less control over our children (just check out the latest episode of “Maury” to see just how seemingly out of control children are). Children have a more informal relationship with adults, and less respect for them (we’d rather be their “friends” as opposed to their mentors). It may seem a bitter pill to swallow among some, but the only way for childhood to begin to retake root in today’s children is if we as adults adopt a stance of benevolent tough love toward them, and develop a sense of shared responsibility among ourselves, no matter our particular station, and without the politicking and moral sanctimony. A chief tenet among Buddhist philosophy suggests that all of our earthly actions are interrelated, and that we do nothing in a vacuum. The practical application of this belief is that when we take from one area, we deprive another. Seemingly metaphysical, this outlook would seem to explain a great deal insofar as what’s happened to childhood in America. And until we as individuals—in spite of the American credo that we alone are solely responsible for our own actions—are able to grasp a firm hold of this spiritual principle, we will continue to see childhood in America go the way of the “good old days.”

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