Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Ready or not
FOR THE PAST YEAR, this columnist has been considering how to write a book
about what has gone wrong with child-rearing in America. So it is with a
twinge of envy, yet great respect, that I recommend the wisest piece of
social criticism to be published in many years, "Ready or Not: Why Treating
Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future -- and Ours" by Kay
Hymowitz. Hymowitz has written the book I was thinking of and done it far
better than I could have.
Pulling together disparate threads -- from our failed education fads to
precocious sexualization and many other straws in the wind -- Hymowitz
analyzes our approach to childhood as "anticulturalism." Most societies
throughout history have reared children in the belief that adults must pass
along the accumulated wisdom of the ages to the young. Until recently,
Americans believed this, too -- though Americans modified this recipe
slightly to create "republican childhood," a careful balancing of individual
freedom with communal responsibility.
But in the past generation or so, Hymowitz argues, we have abandoned the
idea that adults have anything of importance to teach children. The baby
boomers who didn't "trust anyone over 30" when they were young themselves
have raised their own children as if each one were born with all of the
intelligence, maturity, scope and reason of an adult. The worship of youth
did not die when the baby boomers reached middle age, it was merely
transferred to their children.
But the gift of autonomy to those too young to take advantage of it has
proved no gift at all. In fact, as Hymowitz shows, the failure to provide
guidance for children and adolescents has led to execrable educational
outcomes, unjust legal decisions, the tyranny of the marketplace and
drifting, unhappy young adults. Sometimes, as at Columbine High, it has led
to terrible tragedy.
Anticulturalism starts early, with the infant. Experts on child
development, parenting magazines and the media all agree that infants are
expert little learning machines, "Smarter than you think" to quote the title
of a popular book. And they're not just smart, but naturally kind and
civilized. One manual encourages parents to let their children decide when
to be potty trained. Another discourages nagging about manners, arguing that
this will make the child resentful and will backfire.
Upon reaching toddlerhood, the youngest children are encouraged to identify
with the youth culture and not with their families. "Families suck!" "Home
Alone's" hero famously cried. And that message is delivered tirelessly, from
"The Simpsons" to "Rugrats." Even "Sesame Street," with its anti-fairy
tales, schools the youngest viewers in the preferred stance of
anticulturalism -- ironic distance.
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As parents have retreated from imparting our tradition to the young,
marketers have seized children's imaginations for their own purposes. The
introduction of Barbie 40 years ago marked a turning point -- a bold
declaration by business that they were no longer going to support parents'
efforts to shield their young children from consumerism and sexuality.
Mothers initially detested Barbie. Today, marketers are shameless and
explicit in marketing teen glamour to "tweens," the 8- to 12-year-old set.
They hawk make-up and scented body oils with suggestive names like "Follow
Me Boy," as well as tank tops and platform shoes to girls who only a year or
two ago were still clutching their blankies.
But in no area of life did anticulturalism do more damage than in
education. Quoting one educator who "loves a noisy classroom," Hymowitz
laments the naive faith in children's innate capacity to educate themselves.
"What seems to be sensitivity to children's energy and creativity turns out
to be surrender to their restless, excitable natures and to the superficial
pleasures they already know so well."
Keen to instill self-esteem but contemptuous of mere facts, our schools
have turned out ignoramuses by the millions. And, an ironic fillip, these
products of anticultural education are more bored and less in love with
education for its own sake, and have lower self-esteem than their
predecessors, who survived old-fashioned instruction.
This is a sad, but extremely important book -- a plea for adults to reclaim
their adulthood, that is, their natural leadership, in order to restore
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©1999, Creators Syndicate