Saturday, August 8, 2009

Childhood in America

Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Kids edited by Sharna Olfman

I had marked a number of passages and planned a long post including a bit on each chapter, but then I set it aside for a few weeks after reading it and now I'm having trouble putting it all together. (It doesn't help that Second Daughter attacked my post-it notes.) I apologize in advance for the rambling of this post.

I think it's safe to say I disagree with the politics of each and every one of the contributors. It seemed every chapter first blamed Republicans and then demanded more laws to address the chapter's issue. I think each chapter had its important insights into a part of American culture that damages our children, but when I think of politics (which I try to do rarely unless I'm actually making a voting decision), I tend to believe all politicians led us into this mess, regardless of party. I'm also inclined to think laws are not the answer. As a result, I felt frustrated throughout the book.

That aside, this book is a great introduction to many challenges facing parents, children and families today. The authors point out repeated attempts by the popular press to diminish or hide the results of current research that show our culture damages children and their ability to grow into thoughtful, loving adults prepared to contribute to society. I've read enough on these sorts of topics to already have a grasp of the overall themes, but the statistics continue to shock me.

I wanted to write about every chapter in this book. I find, as I flip through it again, that each one could be a post in itself and to briefly summarize or quote them might lead to misunderstanding, getting stuck on a small point rather than seeing the overall danger. For example, the first chapter, "The Natural History of Childhood," addresses parenting styles with infants, touching on some experts who recommend letting children cry, the debate on co-sleeping, attachment parenting, and a whole host of other "hot topics" in parenting. These are areas for great debate and no one should feel pressured to follow one parenting style to the exclusion of all others. I am not confident that my strategy is perfect every time, but life as a family is about balancing each person's needs. What I believe Meredith Small was addressing in the chapter is the preponderance of parenting advice in this country that tells parents they can still be selfish, and that it is in fact good for the children if we are.

Dr. Small attempts to describe the parenting styles of other less-modern cultures in an attempt to convince us that because it's always been done that way and we in the West are in the minority, we must be wrong. I'm not swayed entirely by her arguments, but I do think parents in the West are often told what we want to hear. "It's good to let your babies cry." "You have to let them learn to entertain themselves." These are good sentiments, in balance with many hugs and interactions with adults and siblings, but when they become the backbone of a parenting style for infants, something has gone awry.

That's just a taste of the first chapter. Ensuing contributions include: Why Parenting Matters; The War against Parents; The Impact of Media Violence on Developing Minds and Hearts; The Commercialization of Childhood; Big Food, Big Money, Big Children; So Se*y, So Soon: The Se*ualization of Childhood; Techno-Environmental Assaults on Childhood in America; "No Child Left": What Are Schools for in a Democratic Society? and Where Do the Children Play?.

I won't subject you to long comments from all the chapters, but there are a few quotes I wanted to share.

The problem here is that there are real conflicts between adult rights to freedom of choice and a child's well-being. -- Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West in "The War against Parents"

The moment we become parents, the moment we partake in actions that could end in parenthood, we relinquish some of our freedom.

At the heart of the matter is time, huge amounts of it, freely given. Whatever the child-raising technique, a child simply does better with loving, committed, long-term attention from both mom and dad. -- Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West in "The War against Parents"

Apparently, research has shown "quality time" does not compensate for quantity.

[C]hildren are, by far, the most vulnerable to environmental hazards. Pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults do. Because they are smaller and closer to the ground, because they play outdoors more and don't practice the same level of hygiene as adults, their exposure to all environmental pollutants is greater than that of adults. In addition, their bodies are still works in progress, incomplete and more susceptible to developmental disruptions. -- Varda Burstyn and Gary Sampson in "Techno-Environmental Assaults on Childhood in America"

I don't know why I keep reading about all the toxins in the world. I'm coming to believe I cannot protect my children from them, even here in the country raising our own food (because pesticides are used by the farms around us, because there are chemical plants within a hundred miles, because we can't afford to buy organic produce at the supermarket and then toss the peels in our compost pile). That frightens me. We do the best we can, which we know isn't enough, and then just pray.

Upon rereading several classic children's novels to my own children recently, I was struck by a common feature among them. The children who populate Little Women, Secret Garden, All of a Kind Family, The Railway Children, and National Velvet, to name a few, play make-believe games well into mid-adolescence. -- Sharna Olfman in "Where Do the Children Play?" (emphasis by the author)

This book is not an easy read. It is written by educational and psychological professionals and has many references to statistics and studies, but it is written primarily for parents, teachers and politicians. Within the chapters are often lists or bullet points of very specific tactics parents can take to benefit their families. I do not agree with everything in this book, but I think it can help us recognize some of the threats to the well-being of our children. I highly recommend it to all parents and teachers. (Given its price tag, I suggest checking it out from your local library.)


  1. Thanks for another fascinating review, KM!

    I was struck by the parenting-methodolgy portion. I let my oldest cry too much, I think, because I was influenced by such thinking (that it was good for them to cry, to learn to go to sleep on their own, etc.) at the time. My method with subsequent children melted into principle: meeting each child's actual needs. So while some children might need to learn to play on their own, others might need company and affection, and my job was to discern the root rather than take one predetermined route every single time.

    Sorry to hear someone ate your post-it notes... ;)

  2. Exactly. I think there's a lot of attacks on parents who go out of their way for their kids, but it seems to me that's how it should be. I think Danielle Bean's philosophy is a good one: You must do what works for your family and accept that others will do what works for their families.

    However, I find it extremely disturbing that "experts" spout things in the media, including parenting magazines where I see it again and again, that are simply not supported by research. If you're going to get an "expert", at least get someone who knows what they're talking about. They pretend they are scientists, but they're just telling us what they think is true despite the research.

    I try not to listen to them anymore with lesser or greater success.

    And, at least she just ate my post-it notes. I think she also chewed up some of Kansas Dad's actual work papers. Can you imagine what they would have said if he showed up and said the baby ate his homework?

  3. Thanks for this post. It is hard to constantly read about all the negatives out there, but if they really provide some good strategies for dealing with them, that would be nice.
    I, too, get a little overwhelmed with all the worries about pollutants out there and feeling like I can never do enough. I remember glancing at a post somewhere about trusting in prayer to cover what "the best we can do" doesn't. Do you happen to know where that was? (Don't worry if you don't know - I may have starred it.) I didn't read it all at the time, but this made me think of it again.

    I finally got A Landscape With Dragons from inter-library loan this week. I'm really enjoying it, though the book list at the end is a little overwhelming. So many books! I'm deep into planning for Caitlyn this year and I'm feeling a bit inundated with all the possibilities!

  4. Sorry, Tiffany, I don't remember that other post. Send me a link if you find it!

    I must admit I photocopied the book list from A Landscape with Dragons. I figured that would be ok since I had to give it back to inter-library loan but do intend to own it one day. I glanced at the list recently because I'm reaching the end of the ones I picked from Honey for a Child's Heart and a great many of them we've already read, but you'll have to let me know if you find any real gems in there. I'll be going through that list this year, I think.

    I'm still planning for the year, which is a little frightening since I want to start in a couple of weeks. I have most of the materials,'s really just a matter of putting it all together. At least, that's what I tell myself. I'll be posting about it a lot in the next couple of weeks because it's just about all I can think about!


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