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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

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Special Commentary--What Happened To Childhood? Part 1

I have something of a daily ritual which I all-but automatically perform in the small town here in Michigan where I reside. It consists of driving around to one of the newspaper boxes that pepper our small town to pick up a copy get a local daily paper. A simple enough activity, I habitually locate a box, jump out and drop a couple of quarters in the coin slot, pull out a single copy—sometimes scanning the front page for any news of particular note—and fetch the paper home for thorough reading through. Every so often during these daily treks, a particular news item will catch and hold my interests enough that find my eyes and mind focused on the item of note as I inch-by-inch my way back to the car. Recently, one of those news items held my attention enough that I didn’t even make it home to read the article, compelled instead to sit in my car and read the article played itself out recently as I went to fetch the paper.
On the front page, there was an article citing the sobering conclusions of a report released by the Michigan Department of Health (June 2008). According to the report, new HIV/AIDS diagnoses “among 13-to 24-year-olds almost doubled from 2002-2006, rising from 5.7 to 9.7 cases” per every 100,000 people. For a social crusader such as myself, these statistics were fairly alarming. I was forced to contemplate not just the immediate but the overall implications for everyone involved, especially children and young people. This appalling finding is just another in an ever-growing series of miseries that today’s youth find themselves forced to deal with. So as I sat in my car taking in the findings of the report, I began to make the inevitable comparisons to my own childhood. While kids nowadays have to deal with issues such as HIV/AIDS and increasing poverty within their ranks, at 13, the most I had to about was whether or not I had had the Chicken Pox before, or where to get the money to buy the next issue of my favorite comic book, the X-Men worry (this is not to say my formative years were a picnic…far from it)
Children nowadays face so many more complex problems that they seem to be literally pushed out of the birth canal and into the unforgiving arms of adulthood. As for the period in between—that important part where childhood once took place—it no longer seems to be relevant in a world where adults have just about driven it to the brink of extinction. And since the symbolic end of my own childhood back in 1985, the year I graduated high school, I’ve observed so many changes in the lives of American children that I find myself what has happened to childhood in America? I would think that the answer was rather obvious. Since its sure bet that—when it was around—children themselves never voted to eliminate the innocence of their own childhoods, that adults are responsible for the destruction of childhood in America.
Only as recently as the 20-something years since the end of my own childhood, adult-controlled pop culture still had the built-in measures which firmly reinforced childhood. For example, back then we had the weekly ritual of Saturday Morning Children’s Television, whereby we would sit glued to the family TV for hours at a time, with commercial breaks showcasing products geared toward us. And in between the many cartoons and occasional live-action programs we enjoyed, there were subconscious reminders that we were kids. There was the smooth, yet authoritative voice of the late Christopher Glen recapping the weeks’ major newsworthy events on the 60-second newsmagazine “In the News,” which reminded us that there was a world beyond the fiction of Saturday morning TV that grown-ups controlled. We also received supplemental lessons to the Three “R’s” we got in school in the form of the animated teachings of Schoolhouse Rock, which stressed that as kids we still had things to learn (and many of us Generation Xers can still recite most, if not all of the familiar tunes that carried these lessons). As an added bonus, sometimes, these children shows spilled over into the less exciting, but still cherished Sunday morning television. These programs entertained our young minds in ways that appealed to the kid in us.
Today, that particular childhood custom is gone. Now, as if the many 24-hour cable news channels weren’t enough, Saturday (and Sunday) morning television is nothing more than more adult-geared news…an addendum to the saturation of doom-n-gloom reporting of the week that tattles on adults to children of how painfully real a place the world is. In most television markets, the weekend network news is just a chaser; today’s children are given a snoot full of local news before the shot of network news programming. And then there are the various syndicated specialty programs that deal with adult-world issues such as finances, sports, community forums, even hunting and fishing have their own have time slots that were once occupied by children programming. Furthermore, back in the day during weekday mornings and afternoons, there were also animated programs that had moral and/or object lessons embedded within or at the end of the shows; He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Super Friends come to mind, despite the conflicts that evolved during the storylines. Now, such responsible programming has been replaced with a torrent of shows centering on adult conflict (e.g., Divorce Court, Judges Brown/Hatchett/Judy/Christina/Mathis/Whoever), meaningless gossip (“Entertainment [using the term loosely] Tonight”), or—you guessed it—more news. And let us not forget the king of “instructional” television, The Jerry Springer Show, that catering-to-the-lowest-denominator masterpiece which instructs children that the best way to solve any “adult” dispute is through sponsor-loving, ratings-inflating foul language and physical confrontation…the final 30 seconds he dedicates to rational thought notwithstanding.
Now, if I were reading this rant rather than writing it, I would probably be thinking along the same lines as you are probably at this moment: “It’s just harmless television.” “It’s a matter of personal responsibility.” Etc. However, having been a full time substitute teacher in our public schools for a couple of years, I witnessed firsthand the effects of such “harmless” television has on impressionable children. On more than one occasion during a lull in classroom work, some of my middle school students would begin making use of their unexpected free time by shouting, “Let’s play ‘Jerry Springer’…you be the cheating boyfriend!” On yet another occasion, a group of female students in the same general age group wanted to “play” The Flavor of Love; they would pretend to argue and fight over one of the boys in the class, who would portray ex-rapper slash faux celebrity Flavor Flav...was thus resolving in an “adult” manner which woman would get her man.
We adults have only ourselves to blame for this distorted view that children have of what it means to be an adult. Because of our changing definition of what constitutes “entertainment,” along with our warped desire for notoriety, is it any surprise that today’s youth can’t appreciate the seriousness of their graver actions, such as the mass shootings at Columbine…actions that were once carried out exclusively by some adult social deviant in an otherwise sane society? We televise no-holds-barred tough men contests, people devouring live (and repulsive-looking) insects for the chance at a million dollars, and the latest celebrity sex-tape (which always seem to manage to somehow find it way into the waiting hands of media outlets) and wonder why teenagers post criminal assaults on You Tube, risk their lives engaging in stunts of horseplay (also sometimes posted on the ‘Tube), and engage in alarming amounts of casual sex that results in further televising of the answer to the question, Who’s My Baby’s Daddy?” Furthermore, the sometimes sanctimonious ideologies of some adults don’t help spur childhood interest in what few remaining children’s programming that remains; whether its criticism of Harry Potter’s “promotion” of witchcraft, or of a purse-toting “gay” Teletubbie looking to convert children over to the “Homosexual Agenda.”


To Be Continued...

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