The End of Childhood?

The late educator and cultural critic Neil Postman, wrote a book he called “The Disappearance of Childhood.”  In it he described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy.  Prior to modern times, children were considered little adults and were not distinguished from adults in terms of dress, behavior, or activities, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. “Childhood . . . was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be  ways they could assimilate psychologically.    The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”

Postman was concerned about the growing impact of the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – and made the point that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.”  He made the further point that the visual media erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible.  It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience.  He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

“The Disappearance of Childhood” was written in 1994 and using Postman’s analysis we would have to conclude that childhood has actually already disappeared.  What he attributed to the prevalence of television has multiplied a thousand-fold with the advent of new technology and the viewing – rather than reading – of previously unimaginable information available to children.

Now, the word is that the Disney Channel, with ratings that are declining as children reach puberty earlier, and have had access early on to “adult” media, is joining the fray with a new drama dealing with complex, emotional issues.  Aimed at children ages 6 to 14, the story involves a thirteen-year-old girl raised by her grandmother who learns that the woman she thought was her sister is actually her mother.  Aside from the issue raised about teen age pregnancy, the drama apparently also raises questions about sexuality and gender.  

The point has been made that these are more authentic issues and apparently, the thought is that parents will watch with their children to interpret and answer questions that may arise.  An immediate question relates to the designated age range of the targeted viewers.  Are parents ready to have six-year-olds and teen-agers exposed to the same material?  How will six-year-olds process these kinds of many faceted emotional issues?  

Many years ago, at a conference on censorship, the late anthropologist Margaret Mead told a personal anecdote about her mother prohibiting certain books when she was growing up because she didn’t want her children exposed to bad grammar.  Mead recalled that she would read those books at night by flashlight under the blanket.  She contrasted that to the kinds of magazine covers and headlines children now see at the corner newsstands as they go to school.

Mead’s point was that there is a difference between surreptitiously reading prohibited material and having such material publicly available.  The difference lies in the message being delivered and received.  In one case, children know what is disapproved of by the adult world, in the other, the message received is that anything goes.   

 We are far from the idea that childhood means withholding secrets – meaning  complex, emotional subjects – until children are ready to process them emotionally and psychologically.  Parents are the ones best able to assess where their children are in that process and to impart their own values accordingly.

As in many other areas, parents confront the challenge of a social world moving in a different direction.