Photo: Glenn Matsumura
In his book The Rise and Fall of Childhood, John Sommerville paraphrases what might be a common lament among modern-day pessimists. “Our earth is degenerate. . . . Children no longer obey their parents. . . . the end of the world is evidently approaching.” But those aren’t the words of a radio talk show host about defiant, addled teens—they were written by a scribe in ancient Mesopotamia.
For as long as there have been civil societies, adults have worried about children. Are they being properly cared for? Can we depend on them to perpetuate our values? Why do they act so strangely? Whether the concern is homelessness, moral training or too much TV, each generation frets about the next.
The old problems are still with us—disproportionate numbers of children still die from disease and malnourishment. Meanwhile, affluent industrialized countries are dealing with new behavioral concerns. We invited half a dozen Stanford faculty members to analyze and help us understand what childhood is like today, and what we should be doing to make it better. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Stanford: Let’s begin with the premise, based on popular belief, that childhood today is too short, too stressful and potentially poisonous. How close is that to reality?
Wald: I actually think childhood is getting longer. As more and more children go on to higher education, they are more dependent upon their families for longer periods of time. They live with their families well into their 20s. And most outcomes that we measure to gauge children’s well-being have improved in recent years. On the whole, there’s more education, there’s better health; delinquency is as low as it has been in the last 30 years and teen pregnancy has dropped in half over the last 10 to 15 years.
Mendoza: We need to clarify what children we’re talking about. California, for example, no longer has a white majority population of children, but a mixture of Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians who speak many different languages. So to understand children one has to understand the environment that they’re growing up in. I think that the dependency issue is really a social-class issue. A quarter to a half of Latinos are not graduating from high school; they’re going directly into the workforce. In immigrant families that don’t get access to services like day care, older children often take care of younger siblings. It’s not unusual to see that the main caretaker in some families is a teenager. So there’s a tremendous range in the experiences of children.
Malkki: Perhaps in certain classes in the United States and to a lesser degree in Europe, childhood is extending. But in many other parts of the world, childhood is shrinking temporally. Look what is happening in places like Africa and much of the Third World. There are now, what is it, 13 million AIDS orphans? Just in Africa. And that’s not a force of nature. It’s a practical problem of tragic proportions. International organizations like UNICEF and others dealing with child issues have a certain ideal of what childhood is, and it’s a very middle-class ideal—transnational but still very middle class. So of course when you’re dealing with children who become child soldiers, or orphans who are single-parenting siblings, these seem very aberrant. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why people worry that childhood is dying.
Damon: I’m interpreting your question as meaning that kids today have a shorter period of years in which to be kids in the traditional sense; that is, to play, enjoy themselves, not worry about the future. And Michael’s right, if anything the opposite has happened; there is a far more extended period of time all over the world now in which kids don’t have to make commitments that traditionally they’ve had to make. People are getting married much later. That’s happening everywhere—Japan, Europe. They’re creating their own families as much as a decade later than historical norms. And work commitments are being postponed beyond what any economy has ever tolerated in history. It creates a kind of moratorium where people can discover themselves and play out a lot of different possibilities, but the downside is that it creates uncertainty about what you’re going to end up doing in life. If you go back even a generation or two in our own society, when more kids were living on farms or helping their parents run delicatessens or whatever, they were taking responsibility early. I mean there were 14-year-old kids driving tractors all over this country and helping bring home the bacon. We’re not giving kids those kinds of responsibilities, even in disadvantaged families. Sometimes kids go out and get jobs at McDonald’s, but that’s different. They’re not running a little family business or preparing for a vocation, becoming a fisherman like Dad. A lot of kids are drifting, and are not so happy about it.
Reich: If you begin at a conceptual level about what constitutes a child, as opposed to an adult, there are two very broad views that give some credence to the notion that childhood is dying. One view is that childhood is a predicament. It’s a predicament because children are dependent, morally and otherwise, on other people. Society’s task is to get the child as quickly as possible to independence, making him or her responsible for his or her own decisions. You have a second philosophical tradition that views childhood not as a predicament to be overcome but as an intrinsically valuable period of life. Rousseau was the best example of this; when society gets its tentacles into a child, it corrupts her. The thing is, in either of those views, it looks like childhood is dying. If the task is to rush them to moral independence as quickly as possible, childhood is always threatened, by definition. The second one—when childhood is really just a time for play—is threatened as well because so much of the financial dependence and extended childhood that we’ve been discussing is really to allow for more time to prepare for adulthood. It’s not to allow children a longer period of time to enjoy the intrinsic pleasures of being a child. The rat race begins in preschool for children in the middle and upper classes. Parents whose children are 3, 4, 5 years old, are angling for competitive advantage.
Stanford: Would you agree or disagree that childhood—and school, in particular—has become more competitive?
Mendoza: If we’re talking about Palo Alto kids, yes, they have competition to get into preschool. It gets to the level that, as a pediatrician, I would say is unhealthy. When everything is so competitive, the child doesn’t have a chance to explore, to have a fantasy life. I don’t think we understand the long-term effects of that kind of competition on a child’s development. Certainly there are children who do well when they’re pushed, and others who don’t. But there are a lot of poor kids who aren’t competing in the same way because they don’t have that option, nor the support to compete.
Malkki: There are significant differences in the more wealthy countries in this regard, particularly the sort of temporal shrinkage that Rob is talking about. It’s a tremendous competitive process that has everything to do with adults, and that’s where this competition shows its teeth, at the expense of children. Curiously, in a place like Finland where I’m from, people don’t go to school until they’re 7, and yet the population is incredibly highly educated. The literacy rate is 99.5, something like that, and it’s a very bookish society. My husband, when we go there in the summer, says, “My God, this is a nation of graduate students!”
Shulman: I’m a bit ambivalent about the proposal in California that we extend compulsory preschool down to much earlier ages. It lengthens the institutionalization of the life of a child. The United States already has the oldest compulsory schooling age in most of the Western world. In most European countries you don’t have to go to school past the 16th birthday. So we have an interesting paradox. On the one hand, we are extending schooling at the same time we are narrowing the focus of what children study.
Damon: I would agree that for a lot of parents, school is seen as a more competitive situation. They want their kids to shine and they communicate that to them, but a lot of kids are not buying it. Our studies show that kids feel loved and appreciated, but they are not particularly well directed in terms of their futures, their vocation, and especially in any domain that has to do with the broader society. We surveyed 444 12- to-22-year-olds, and exactly one, a male from Tennessee, said that he hoped to have a career in politics. One out of 444. I can remember when being president was the dream of half the kids I knew.
Mendoza: Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to minority students down to the high school level. Quite often they don’t have any dreams about their future. They never think about going into medicine. We have to create that image, the role models. I’m sure that many of them don’t even think about going to college.
Wald: I’m interested in what Bill says about kids’ lacking initiative. Self-reported data gives one picture, but if you look at behavior, you get a different picture. For example, we’re not getting fewer kids applying to college, we’re not getting declines in test scores, we’re not getting declines in average performance in school. So even though they say they’re not committed, most children are behaving in ways that look like they’re trying to get ahead.
Damon: The positive thing is that there are some truly amazing kids who are taking advantage of the wealth of resources and activities that the society has to offer. We see them in every corner of society, including in very disadvantaged places. The area of concern is that there are an awfully large number of kids who are not motivated. They haven’t found any commitments that they believe are meaningful, and there are a lot of these kids in almost every industrialized country. It is the great youth problem of our time.
Stanford: We hear so much about negative cultural influences, whether it’s toxic media messages or the perils of consumerism. What effects do these influences have, and what should we be doing about it?
Reich: The way I think about this is not unlike the way I think about what a teacher does in the classroom. Part of a teacher’s job is to consciously select a curriculum that engages and exposes students to some things and not others. You put things in because they are positive influences and you leave things out because they don’t contribute to the educational development you want in the classroom. But partly because of globalization and partly because of the widespread access to media, even at early ages, that filtering process is far more difficult than it used to be. That’s the source of a lot of the angst parents feel; they aren’t really in control of what their children see and hear.
Damon: If you turn on the television, or listen to some of the song lyrics, you understand why parents wish they could shelter the kids or screen it out. But I don’t think that these influences themselves have a very strong effect on kids. They’re mostly stylistic and superficial, and don’t change behavior except if kids already are marginal. What worries me is not the mass media; it’s the vanishing number of positive opportunities for constructive engagement that traditionally kids have had in our society. Everything from local playgrounds where parents used to let their kids go out and play stick ball to apprenticeships where kids would tag along with the neighborhood cop or show up at the newspaper and learn about reporting. A lot of after-school programs—clubs and sports—have been dropped for budget reasons. The disadvantaged populations are in a much worse situation than highly advantaged kids in that regard. If you get a kid involved in something positive, whether it’s sports or academics or art, that kid is not going to get in trouble.
Mendoza: In my clinical experience, when you have parents engaged with kids, the kids can deal with a lot of negative influences. When parents, for whatever reason, don’t have the time or take the time to engage their kids, the chances are greater that media and other influences can sway kids. The obesity issue is one example. Kids have always loved hamburgers, Slurpees, Cokes, but now our culture has convinced children that bigger is better. When parents are busy, and unable to mediate this external influence, when there are fewer after-school activities, and when most kids by the time they reach high school aren’t involved in sports or regular exercise anymore, what happens? You get our national epidemic of obesity.
Damon: If there’s one thing we’ve learned in developmental psychology over the last 30 years it is that the peer world of kids is not in opposition to the adult world. This idea that kids create a counterculture that takes them a direction different than what grownups want is just simply wrong. In every segment of society there’s a very tight connection between what the adults in that section of society want for the kids, and what the kids value. We know this. It has been studied and studied, starting back in the ’70s. So the problem is what the adults are saying, and what kind of guidance the adults are giving. What tone are they setting? And are there adults available to kids who can give them proper guidance? That influences the entire nature of the child’s social world, including the peer networks.
Stanford: Are there any absolutes that might define in some way what is good for a child and what is bad for a child at various stages of development?
Shulman: Well, asking that of Stanford professors is quite different than asking it of a group of Baptist ministers. I make that point simply to say that it’s one thing to ask what do we know empirically about the consequences of various acts based on studies, and another thing to consider how a Baptist minister would think about it, not on the basis of empirical data but on a particular moral argument. Maybe there are certain things that kids simply ought not do.
Wald: Here’s one absolute: It is absolutely bad for a kid to contract a fatal sexually transmitted disease. Usually when people talk about kids growing up too fast, they mean sexually. And it is clear that children have sexual relationships earlier than they did, say, 30 years ago. In the United States, although the age varies by income and by ethnicity, a majority of kids have had sex by age 16. However, unlike in Europe, much more of it is unprotected and so the chances of pregnancy or contracting disease are much, much greater. And the context in which that sexual activity takes place makes a difference. Is it pressured, unwanted—the amount of dating violence in this country is alarming.
Mendoza: Biologically, most kids will be sexually mature at 14 or 15. The question is are they prepared to deal with their sexuality? And do they understand the consequences? My grandmother had kids at 16. In Latin cultures, there’s a rite of passage for girls at age 15, known as quinceañera, which means that you’re now a woman. So the culture plays a role in what is or is not considered “too young.” If women are not offered the opportunity to go to high school, let alone college, adulthood begins sooner than it might otherwise—you might get married, have a family and that’s your life.
Damon: I guess I’ll take the position of traditionalist. I think it’s wise for young people to postpone sexual relations until they can do it in a way that isn’t going to endanger their health, or end up creating a family that they’re not ready to raise.
Stanford: Access to technology has broadened children’s capabilities, but it also can supplant imagination and resourcefulness. What are the likely effects of technology on children’s socialization and learning?
Damon: Young people have gravitated toward this with vigor and imagination and that may be part of the solution to what I put on the table as one of the great problems of this generation, lack of motivation. I’m not saying technology is the answer for every kid, but there’s an intrinsic fascination, both in how it works and in the worlds that it opens up—entertainment, knowledge, vistas that get them beyond their own little worlds and offer a path to meaningful engagement. That’s a hopeful vision of technology.
Mendoza: I see a couple of risks. One is that it’s a sedentary activity, which becomes a health concern. But I think the more concerning thing for me is the social isolation that technology presents, the tendency to concentrate on activities that don’t require teams or taking turns or really any social interaction at all. A child’s development depends on learning values, building self-esteem, understanding how to deal with frustration, delayed gratification, all those things that are essential for us as human beings to figure out. The question is, does technology add or subtract to that?
Wald: You could say the same thing about books. If you’re sitting in your room reading all of the time, it’s not social intercourse.
Mendoza: But think about how many people spend their time doing that. I don’t have the data to support it, but I have a sense that there are a lot more kids watching television in their room than reading books. It’s a passive process of thinking.
Damon: I agree with you. I would hate to see a world where kids stop reading books, but there are some data that show a positive correlation between the numbers of hours that children partake in technology, and how much they read. Up to a point. As they move up from zero to 10 hours of TV time each week, their reading achievement improves, and when they get above 10 hours, the amount of time they spend reading begins to decline. So there is a point at which there’s a synergy and a positive contribution between technology and traditional reading.
Stanford: At a societal level, where and how are we failing children?
Damon: It’s a tremendous problem when institutionally we have not made available to kids the kinds of adult resources that can help kids sort out their futures—and I want to triple-underline this—it’s especially a problem when kids aren’t fortunate enough to have a family that has the time and resources themselves, and families that do have such resources are increasingly rare. Extended families have almost vanished, and nuclear families are in the minority. Only something like 25 percent of kids are raised in a traditional two-parent family. It’s a myth that single parents can’t raise good kids, but they really need those extra resources. They rely on people in the neighborhood, people in the schools to support them and to add the time and caring that a single parent with a lot of economic pressures may not be able to provide.
Wald: The central problem for childhood in this society is that there is an inverse relationship between availability of resources and to particular children and the children’s needs—those who have the greatest need receive the least help. The children from families with the highest income are in the schools with the most counselors, the most qualified teachers and the most opportunities. It is in heavily concentrated poverty areas where parents are working very hard, may not speak English, know little about the school system, that there is the least amount in the way of guidance counselors, extra school activities, a whole range of things that kids need. When they turn 18, these youth often are without medical care, access to housing, career counseling or job training. They have the greatest need and the least help.
Shulman: We are simply not providing the resources in our schools to help kids develop, and I’m not just talking about in the classroom. In North Carolina, which we think of as a poor Southern state, there are school nurses and counselors in every elementary school. I talk to those school nurses; they know all the kids in a family coming through a school. They have the flexibility to make a home visit if there is some problem. It is remarkably different to the situation we have in California, where both of those roles have disappeared. In many places, everything related to filling children’s needs has fallen to the teachers. But they don’t have the time or the resources to respond to all the kids’ developmental needs.
Wald: I think the problem is not just resources but that the resources are not reaching the right children. Per pupil spending, using an index for inflation, is probably higher than it was 25 years ago, but we are not allocating it well.
Damon: Whether the dollars are not there or they’re being misspent, the situation that Lee describes is happening. All of those extra folks who historically have given kids guidance are disappearing from schools.
Malkki: It seems to me that education in the United States has become much too instrumental. It isn’t teaching children how to think well, but how to do well on a test.
Shulman: Yes. The belief, for example, that if you’ve been an engineer all your life, you can go in and teach mathematics to 12-year-olds suggests that the content of what is taught is the only thing that matters. School is also about the general development of a youngster, the development of moral values, the development of a sense of one’s place in the world. But when we say that a teacher ought to understand human development in some deep and rich way, critics will argue, “Ah, there’s that touchy-feely progressive nonsense again. School is supposed to teach kids the subject matter they need.” We are educating generations of mathematical idiots, and that’s unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean that teaching math is all the schools are about. The notion that a teacher can help a child become a whole person begins to disappear as the definition of teaching focuses on the content of what is tested.
Mendoza: We ought to look at resources not just as dollars, but also as a social milieu. Latinos have godparents, patrinos, who extend a child’s social network. Immigrants, even if they’re single parents, tend to have extended family members who help out. This has been labeled the immigrant paradox: it reaffirms that, both in health and education, at the end of the day it’s not the dollars that make the difference. It’s the social milieu that can be constructed around children to nurture them, to give them vision, to have an identity and a heritage that is meaningful. I grew up poor—my father had a sixth-grade education, my mother had a high school education, so I’m not supposed to be here. But my parents talked about my grandfather being an officer in the Mexican revolution, and that provided the kind of perspective that said I could do that, too; I could be a leader. Is the poverty that we see among immigrants different than the poverty we see among third- or fourth-generation Americans? I would argue that it’s quite different, because the real poverty occurs when a child loses that concept of family structure and family history, and it imprints on them the idea that being poor means you’re stupid, you’re no good, you’re a burden to society and, if you happen to be of color, you also get all the racial overtones.
Malkki: Social mechanisms that nurture and respect children’s friendships are very important as well. Children learn a lot through friendships. I would say other children help form a child’s ethics—a sense of fairness and loyalty—maybe more than adults. So creating environments where there are respectful ways of enabling interaction among people of the same age is so important.
Damon: The poverty issue is really important and it’s a moral issue for the whole society. But there are two mistakes that we can make if we think about poverty in this context. One is to think that kids who are growing up in disadvantaged circumstances are somehow destined to end up on the wrong track. A lot of these kids end up doing very well, even though they’ve been challenged beyond belief by deprivation. So the poverty is not determinative. Secondly, it is important to emphasize that there are a whole lot of kids growing up in affluent circumstances who are drifting and worse, and who are not getting the kind of guidance they need; or if they are, they’re not taking advantage of it.
Mendoza: I agree 100 percent. In our outreach programs at the Medical School, we’ve looked down to sixth and seventh grade to make sure that we explain to all kids, even in poor neighborhoods, that they can be a doctor, they can be whatever they want to be. We have to give them examples of how to do that.
Wald: I wouldn’t disagree with that, but I would not want a message to come across that a child’s circumstances don’t make a difference. The data show that there’s less mobility now for people in the bottom quartile of income than there was 30 or 40 years ago. Horatio Alger myths need to be cabined with the reality that resources make a big difference. If you’re going to a really cruddy elementary school and a really cruddy high school, your family may help you a lot and some kids will emerge from that, but most kids will be pulled down significantly. They will not get close to fulfilling their potential.
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