Part Two

Most parents prefer kids to Corvettes. If one magazine is correct, though, the same does not apply for the population in general. Behavior Today has declared that “children are now running behind automobiles as a consumer preference.” Overlooking the regrettable presumption that children are items of “consumer preference,” the magazine has a point.

Prognosticators in the 1950s, who feared a national population of 350 million by 1980, overshot the mark by 100 million. Doomsday headlines no longer chant about overpopulation in the Western nations. The U.S. birth rate, for one, hovers at replacement level.

Married women who have children are having them later. Both motherhood and the joys of child rearing have been demythologized. In the 1950s, gleeful children were supposed to make a complete, happy family. In the 1980s, we are reminded that caring for a baby through infancy means changing at least 3,500 diapers, and that the same child, seen from crib through college, will cost $85,000. Children require self-sacrifice—and in an age of narcissism, of preening and indulging and admiring one’s individual self, nothing could more quickly render them suspect. They cost parents more than money and time: they puncture illusions of self-perfection. “The raising of children … brings each of us breathtaking vistas of our inadequacy,” writes philosopher Michael Novak.

Realism about raising children is not all bad. Improved birth control and feminism are just two factors that have contributed to the slowed birth rates. (Statistics, as we all know by now, are tricky. We should remember that the vast majority of married couples—over 90 percent—still have children. Their choice is to have fewer children, not to forgo children altogether.) Vance Packard observes that we could be entering the Era of the Wanted Child. Some truly responsible, and not merely selfish, married couples are choosing not to have children and to channel their limited time and energy into other important tasks. Those who do want children can now make a very conscious, deliberate choice of it. They can, in other words, be genuinely, not accidentally, committed to their children.

But if we are entering the Era of the Wanted Child, we are entering it with doubts. The concept of childhood is eroding. Children are increasingly banned from rental apartments—a full fourth of apartment complexes in the United States now deny housing to young human beings of every race and sex. Children are pressured to grow up sooner. In their language, dress, and sexual manners they act more and more like adults. Things are happening in our society that could mean adults generally like children less. Abortion and, yes, infanticide are again practiced. People openly describe children as brats, eels, piranhas. Motherhood is no longer charged with mythological dimensions, and the desire to be “a happy mother of children” (Ps. 113:9) is scorned. In books and films supposed to amuse adults, children are kidnaped, burned, murdered. Ours is an iconoclastic society, addicted to change, to the new and the novel. We seem to believe that attacking cultural institutions such as the church, education, or childhood will never really hurt anything, that we are only taking icepicks to an iceberg.

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But the cavalier attitude alternates with insecurity. Occasionally we see that what we half-thought was a law of nature—our idea of childhood, for example—is dramatically changing. Then we panic and cry that the icepicks were really jackhammers, that the iceberg has exploded and a hundred pieces are adrift in every direction. We realize that, to a real degree, we are responsible for our institutions, and what we do to them matters. Responsibility has weight.

Some may flee responsibility, but Christian awareness is a centripetal force whirling toward it. To be created in God’s image means, above all and uniquely among his creation, to be a responsible creature. It means to be capable of choice and to be held liable for our decisions and the actions that flow from them. It means, in Saint Paul’s words, to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” So central is responsibility that to remove it results, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, in the abolition of man.

Since Christians are called to claim responsibility, we have deep and essential reasons—radiating from the center of the faith—not only for concern for our own children, but for concern about all children. What, then, can be done about the erosion of childhood?

The Need For Profound Encouragment

Everyone is an expert on one subject. No one, as the tirelessly offered wisdom of my mother-in-law demonstrates, is without a comprehensive theory of child raising. All these theories, furthermore, are foolproof as long as they are (1) applied to another family’s children or (2) espoused by someone who does not have any children. Actual, practicing parents universally testify that it is only when these theories are tried that they sink as fast as a submarine made of Swiss cheese. Freud was not baffled by much, but he called three professions impossible: psychoanalysis, government—and parenthood.

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Parenthood is not getting any easier with the erosion of childhood. There are many causes, and Marie Winn neatly summarizes them: “The great social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s—the so-called sexual revolution, the women’s movement, the proliferation of television in American homes and its larger role in child rearing and family life, the rampant increase in divorce and single parenthood, political disillusionment in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era, a deteriorating economic situation that propels more mothers into the work force—all these brought about changes in adult life that necessitated new ways of dealing with children.” It was this peculiar conjunction of events that especially assailed the traditional idea of childhood. The rise of two-career families, rocketing divorce rates, and television’s employment as the electronic babysitter all coincided. “Suddenly the idea of childhood,” Winn writes in Children Without Childhood, “as a special and protected condition came to seem inadvisable if not actually dangerous, and in any event, quite impossible to maintain.”

The operative word in Winn’s concluding statement is “seem.” The idea of childhood as a “special and protected condition” may seem inadvisable or impossible. Yet it was always difficult to maintain. Parents in the past were encouraged because the constant emphasis was not on the inadvisability or impossibilities of raising children, but on the wonder of it all. The ancient Egyptians thought youngsters could foresee the future, and listened to child babblings for a hint of the world to come. There was a truth, of course, hidden in that superstition. Children do not merely foretell the future, they are the future. And so parenthood, comprehended, means not only shaping individual children, it means shaping tomorrow. Today this sounds so hopelessly corny that no one says it aloud. Fashionable conversation about child raising tends to calculations of how much the kid costs, the contemporary imagination (such as it is) stretching to tallies reminiscent of automobile repair records.

Slowing and stopping the erosion of childhood may, then, depend on encouragement, and with it a rekindling of the collective imagination about children.

Our cultural malaise and discouragment is, in part, a reaction to the shattering of ill-founded myths. With Watergate and Vietnam went blind trust in government. Among others, the Horatio Alger myth is gone. Not every man can go from rags to riches; not every woman will grow up to be a queen (or a business executive). Yet such myths, stories, and legends—imagination, in a word—fuel everything from businesses (see the latest book that executives have made a best seller, Search for Excellence) to entire societies.

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The trouble with the ill-founded myths was that they did not answer reality. To last, imagination must not be shallow or illusory. Disillusionment is the father to cynicism, and no flesh-and-blood fathers and mothers will be helped by starry-eyed preachments that parenthood is always joyous and lovely. The encouragement called for is profound encouragement: an encouragement that rests on consistent realism rather than blind optimism, and an encouragement that goes beyond the individual level to the levels of government and mass media.

Experts And Parents

We might begin to encourage beleaguered contemporary parents by returning to the subject of experts. Freud recognized surprising secrets in children: they were, after all, seething with sexuality. He saw the awesome, irrevocable importance of the first five or six years of life. A traumatic experience—witnessing the “primal scene” or poor toilet training—could scar a child once and for all. Before Freud, raising children was thought a matter of common sense. After Freud, and with his filtering into popular consciousness through Spock, Fraiberg, and others, child raising was seen to be complex and intimidating. Who knew what time bombs might accidentally be set to explode years later in the adult child?

The self-consciousness of modern parenthood is illustrated by a Bedford, New York, father who spoke frankly to Marie Winn. “It’s as if our family were one big group-therapy session,” he said. “Sometimes we’re so self-conscious about it all that we spend as much time talking to the kids about what we’ve done with them as we actually spend doing things with them.” The parent becomes psychoanalyst, and since he or she is untrained, the trained expert becomes the all-important consultant.

Surely modern parents are right to be concerned, careful, and informed. But not paralyzed. Writing in In Defense of the Family, Rita Kramer declares, “The perniciousness of so much advice from experts that pervades the media is that it undermines the confidence of parents in their own abilities and their own values, overemphasizes the significance of child-rearing techniques, and grossly misrepresents the contribution the expert in psychiatry or education can make to the conduct of ordinary family life.”

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Child-raising techniques—though I doubt it is very much the fault of the experts—do tend to be overrated. (One of the first child-raising experts was Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, a German doctor who believed in total control of a child’s mind and actions. Schreber’s technique was distinguished by its failure: his son became one of the most celebrated mental cases of the nineteenth century, complete with a paper on his case by Freud.) For Christians, it may be telling that Scripture, which often addresses the subject of child raising, offers not particular techniques, but broad and solid principles. Raising children remains an art. It contains more than a dash of mystery, uncertainty, and, in the happy cases, serendipity. The true experts are there to support parents and provide them helpful resources, but never to pretend they offer a perfect, comprehensive technique. Such techniques are like fad diets: if any one of them works so fantastically, why are there so many?

The central responsibility remains with parents (who, after all, pay the expert and must live under the same roof as the unruly child). And over the parents looms the devastating specter of divorce. Nearly half of the children born in recent years will spend a portion of their lives before age 18 in a one-parent household, according to projections from Census Bureau figures. We have already noted (see part one; CT, May 18) that children of divorce are more likely to be depressed, commit crimes, fail in school, and experiment with alcohol and drugs. Some studies indicate these children are more likely to follow the lead of media violence and act destructively. Without a doubt, they are often forced to act beyond the wisdom and experience of their years.

Beyond continuing church efforts at building solid marriages and preventing divorces, it may help to expose some persistent, widely accepted assumptions. Divorce, in part, results from the stress of contradictory expectations. Who will not support the couple that wants a career for both husband and wife? But must parenthood be seen to be a trap for such a couple? And if we see that children bear on parents’ career goals, should we not also see that career pursuits—far from always leading to personal Edens—breed ulcers, alcoholism, loneliness? If we are going to be realistic, shouldn’t we be realistic across the board?

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Rita Kramer is refreshingly level-headed on the topic of the much-maligned housewife. Housework is often dismissed as a “wretched job,” she notes. But: “Compared to what? To factory work on an assembly line? To clerking in an office? To a high-level position in a policy-making organization, perhaps. But not every woman, for whatever reasons of nature or nurture, wants that particular life. Even some well-educated women enjoy cultivating the arts of domesticity, and technology has made housework a matter of relative ease and convenience. The picture of the average American housewife’s life painted by militant feminists is as distorted as their view of the average working woman’s world is romanticized.”

Government And Media

In our world, much of the Christian influence for children will necessarily be pressed in two arenas, government and the mass media. Government, with everything from child labor laws to tax breaks, can play an important role in making a society hospitable to children. And it is the mass media, of course, that not only disseminate, but shape and influence fashions of thought and behavior.

In both forums, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians can unwittingly hasten the erosion of childhood. Take one instance. Lobbying for the abolition of juvenile codes (so that teenage offenders may be more harshly punished) plays into the hands of those children’s rights advocates who say children should be treated just as adults.

Some political conservatives (including many Christians) regard any additional governmental attention to children as insidious. Yet, as Neil Postman observes in The Disappearing Child, the movement toward “a humane conception of childhood was due, in part, to a heightened sense of government responsibility for the welfare of children.” It was government that passed child labor laws and juvenile codes.

Of course, government is never utopian. If it can help to make a society hospitable to children, it can also make a society inhospitable to them. In a mass society such as modern America, then, the question is not whether or not government will have anything to do with children. It is what government will have to do with children. Lobbyists and congressmen favoring protective rights for children, called “child savers” by the New York Times, press for a kind of children’s rights Christians can support. (Even the staunchest New Right Christian, for example, will not want to dismiss government as a tool to stop abortion and infanticide. Likewise, the same Christians must use government in their commendable battle to restore the so-called squeal rule, the regulation that would would require parents to be informed when their minor children receive contraceptives from public agencies.)

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In the realm of the mass media, there are more unintended effects. Conservative Christian literature sometimes betrays a penchant for alarmism, for interpreting current events only in the darkest and most frightening fashion. In a society jaded and desensitized by pervasive images of sex and casual violence, much can be said for the personal sensibility that can still be shocked and will react with justifiable outrage. But we must take care not to overstate our concern, to respond with an outrage that distorts reality and, in the process, has a strange boomeranging effect.

Consider, for example, teenage sex. Few things worry parents or confuse Christian adolescents more. On the one hand, we have a host of studies “proving” teenagers are very promiscuous. On the other, an avalanche of Christian literature and broadcasting echoes the allegation of this terrible promiscuity and warning of judgment.

Now, it is true that Zelnick and Kantner’s 1980 study found that 35 percent of America’s 15- to 19-year-olds are sexually active. But such statistics lend themselves to wide and varied interpretation. The picture changes when we note that Zelnick and Kantner defined as “sexually active” those who had simply had sexual intercourse at least once. (A married man or woman who had only had intercourse once would hardly be considered sexually active.) In fact, over half the teenagers dubbed “sexually active” had not had sexual intercourse in the month prior to the survey. Make no mistake: sexual behavior has changed. But teenagers remain more or less human and have hardly turned into raging sex maniacs. Exaggerating the problem demoralizes parents and burdens celibate teenagers with additional “evidence” that they are awesomely odd and unusual. Peer pressure intensifies. The boomerang effect, of course, happens in other areas besides sexual behavior.

And beyond the boomerang effect is our careless adoption of loaded language. Handy catch phrases shade opinions on many subjects. The words we use affect the way we think. Accordingly, what used to be called “childless” couples are becoming “childfree,” implying a positive liberation. People in favor of having children are called “pronatalist,” and having children becomes an ideological preference, as debatable as whether one should affiliate with the Democratic or the Republican party. These terms are fairly obvious in their offensiveness. More subtle ones have already crept into Christian vocabularies. Nearly everyone refers to traditional homemakers as “unemployed mothers,” as if they don’t work. And what is the message sent by the widely accepted formulation that homemakers spend “quantity time” with children, whereas busy professionals spend “quality time” with them?

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Understanding Media

These crucial phrases and impressions leaven society through the powerful, but woefully misunderstood, mass media. Basic to this misunderstanding is a misperception of the nature of news. We seem compelled to base our understanding of life (our world view or philosophy) almost solely on what we watch on television, hear on the radio, or read in newspapers and magazines. Yet “news,” by its very definition, will always be the novel, the bizarre, the unusual. If a dog bites a man, the homely apothegm has it, that’s not news. If a man bites the dog, that’s news. Television and newspapers, if they do their jobs, will look for and emphasize the atypical. In this sense, the mass media do not reflect reality at all. But they are relied on for the authoritative depiction of reality. On the night of a lunar eclipse, essayist E. B. White notices that his neighbors close their curtains and switch on their television sets. None of them simply look out the window. If an eclipse is real, really real, it must be on television.

We no longer trust our immediate experience, but solely our mediated experience. The application to childhood is obvious. Children are changing, no doubt. But are they as burdensome as it might appear to one who knows what he knows of children only from what he reads in the newspaper? The child we meet in the newspaper is the violent or troubled child. And well we should, for the violent child is news. He is not our nephew, who committed the most violent act of his life when he accidentally cracked his father’s car window with a BB gun. Of course, none of us is exempt from violence or, for that matter, from committing violence. But an entire year of our personal lives is not interrupted by as much violence as we witness on 15 minutes of the evening news.

Besides being atypically violent, the world seen through the news camera is excessively narrow. It looks for the new but rarely reminds us of the old. And so we court the conceit that our time is, in all respects, uniquely bleak. Again, our view of children is affected. The classrooms, we suspect when we put down the morning paper, are peopled with the most aggressive and menacing students of all time. The paper does not remind us that 5-year-olds once wore swords and knew how to use them. It says nothing about a seventeenth-century rebellion in France where students barricaded themselves in school, fired pistols, threw benches out the windows, tore up books, and attacked passersby. Some of our classrooms are surely more dangerous than they ought to be, but so far no 11-year-olds have seceded en masse, as they did in eighteenth-century England. Nor have older students occupied an island only to be routed by the army, as did some of their eighteeth-century English predecessors. That would make a news story.

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It is television, of course, that looms as the most significant medium and so merits more attention. It took printers 60 years to happen across the innovation of numbering the pages of books; the first television signal was broadcast between New York and Philadelphia scarcely that long ago. Yet its impact has already been enormous. Nearly all commentators are concerned about its effect on children. Again, Rita Kramer speaks with bracing clarity. Extreme television watching, she writes, is a “totally destructive activity” for children. It is not the content of programs, but the nature of television watching, that she decries. “It works against every important need of the young child: to be interacting with the members of his family, learning about them and himself, to practice skills not only relating to people but in the active use of his own body and his own imagination; to learn to organize and express his own ideas verbally, first in thought and then in speech and writing; to create his own fantasies in order to work out solutions to his problems.”

Television erodes the line between childhood and adulthood because it requires no instruction for understanding. Children must learn to read, so a pornographic book is nothing but undecipherable symbols to a three-year-old. The same three-year-old, however, can switch on cable television’s movie channels and witness sexual intercourse. Television does not segregate its audience: it is open and ready for the youngest child or the oldest adult. Sadly, as philosopher Michael Novak writes, media children “become sophisticated about everything but the essentials: love, fidelity, childrearing, mutual help, care of parents and the elderly.” To be concerned for childhood and a society’s impression of childhood is to be concerned about television and the limiting of its significance in the lives of children.

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In addition to the obvious step of curtailing children’s viewing, Christians might recognize that the cable movie channels’ wholesale pandering of sex and violence is not an open-and-shut legal privilege. The broadcast media have been more heavily regulated than print media because broadcasters use airwaves said to belong to the public. So far, cable companies have successfully argued that they do not use the public airwaves. But the cable companies are dependent on government-launched and -leased satellites. And some, in fact, do broadcast signals. At the least, there are arguments for increased cable regulation.

Children And Subversion

In the end, the course of history is not decided only by government or only by mass media. It is decided by the activity of spirited, imaginative people in the church, school, and other spheres. And what is there about raising a family that will attract such people if raising a family is seen to be stagnating? Who can argue that the American dream—two cars, a house, a lawn to mow, three kids, a dog, and a very predictable (if financially rewarding) nine-to-five job—is tired and uninspiring?

But an irony is afoot. Just as a painting can appear more or less attractive because of its frame or position on the wall, children are gaining a new allure because of the shifting background of our culture.

The recent generation of married men and women are the first to make conscious, careful decisions for or against having children. Not only is birth control available, but arguments against children and a family are openly stated. If there is a stigma, it no longer rests so heavily on childless couples. In fact, it is shifting to those who choose to have children. Thus the recent generation of parents—forced to an especially conscious choice to be parents—is refreshingly aware of the sheer wonder of children.

In this connection, one friend springs to my mind. David began a family while he and Anna were still in college. Today they have four children. It has not been easy. David is finishing graduate school and will soon enter seminary. Financial demands have Anna working part-time; David holds down a full-time job and a burgeoning piano tuning service on the side. Their life is intense and often exhausting. But I have never found David without enthusiasm for his children.

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He calls children “exciting and intoxicating.” They are “extremely creative and innovative and unpredictable,” he says. “The freshness is what I really enjoy the most. There’s also a purity, an innocence, that you cannot duplicate once it’s lost. Children are really children for parents. Their lives are a gift for parents.” For David, children are not stultifying, but a vein leading straight to the heart of life. “They keep me in tune with the very important issues of life—the real values—not just making more money, or whatever. They teach the value of the individual for the individual’s sake. Children aren’t impressed with whether or not their daddy is famous. Children love people for who they are. I wake up in the morning with fishbowl mouth, but my daughter kisses me. She appreciates who I am without dressing up.”

David tells (and retells, I can testify) a story of Josh, his oldest, at age four. David jumped into Josh’s room and growled, “I am the terrible green Hulk!”

“No you’re not,” the boy replied. “You’re just a plain old daddy.” To David, being a “plain old daddy” is not so plain.

The wonder David and other parents of his generation now know is a rediscovery. Unique to them is the irony of challenging the status quo by the act of having children. “To marry, to have children, is to make a political statement …,” Michael Novak writes. “It is a statement of flesh, intelligence, and courage.” Childbearing and protective child-raising verge, in our culture, on being subversive activities. To stop the erosion of childhood, to preserve it, will require energy and sacrifice. It will require energy of all Christians—not simply parents—who use the public media, determine government, and live and work and play, affecting the thoughts and actions of neighbors in a hundred small ways. The cost, counted, is great. And so we come to the final question, and to anyone of sensitivity it must be a plea. Is there help?

Help And Hope

In answer to that question, the Christian is bound to look to Jesus. “Brothers, have you found our king?” asked George MacDonald. “There He is, kissing little children and saying they are like God.”

Jesus’ astonishing sympathy with the helpless or despised is so complete that it translates to identification. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, aid the sick, visit the prisoner, Christ said, we do it not only to them, but to the Lord himself. Significantly, he says the same of children, themselves powerless and dependent: “Whoever receives one of these children in my name receives me” (Mark 9:37).

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It is a testament to the triumph of Christ’s attitude that even now, with childhood corroding, it stretches the imagination to think of children as an oppressed group. In this world, Christ’s kingdom is only realized partially, in fits and starts, in glimpses and glimmers. But would it be too much to say that in this way, perhaps more than any other, Christ’s kingdom has been realized on earth? In the poor and the prisoner dwells Christ, and yet how sadly far many are from accepting him there. But in a child—there Christ is embraced and wept over and kissed a trillion times daily.

Parenthood is an impossible profession. But hope comes. It comes not merely because we realize that, somehow, children are durable and strong beyond the weakness of adults, that adults need not be perfect to raise whole, healthy children. It comes because in the children who need our help, is our help: is, in fact, the God of whom it was said nothing is impossible.

We can teach the children courage, faith, endurance. They can teach us how laugh, how to love, how to sing. The weary world is turning, turning; but in a child’s eyes, tomorrow is a new day.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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