Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Disrespecting Childhood: Although Americans See Ours as a Child-Loving Nation, the Authors Present Evidence of Policies and Practices That Are Not Respectful of Children or Childhood. They Call on Us to Question the Assumptions about Our Young People That Form the Basis for Our Teaching, Research, and Policies

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Disrespecting Childhood: Although Americans See Ours as a Child-Loving Nation, the Authors Present Evidence of Policies and Practices That Are Not Respectful of Children or Childhood. They Call on Us to Question the Assumptions about Our Young People That Form the Basis for Our Teaching, Research, and Policies

Article excerpt

What I discovered in Spain was a culture that held children to be its meringues and eclairs. My own culture ... tended to regard children as a sort of toxic waste. (1)

IN THE POPULAR imagination, Americans are a child-loving people. Across the land, selfless parents take classes, read books, create playgroups, and exchange the latest information about how to ensure safe, contented, and productive childhoods. Thousands of contemporary American families indulge their children materially to a degree that may be unparalleled in the world and in our own history. As a society, we have enacted a range of laws designed to protect children from physical and psychological abuse and economic and sexual exploitation. We have legions of pediatricians specially trained to attend to the physical and mental well-being of our children. Even the presence of metal detectors at the entrances of our schools can be taken as emblematic of our collective desire to protect the nation's children.

The range of public programs and policies benefiting children, directly or indirectly, offers further evidence of the high regard Americans have for their children. Tax credits for children and child care, child nutrition and health-care programs, preschool programs like Head Start, and billions of dollars spent each year to support elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education all demonstrate the desire of federal, state, and local governments to look after the physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being of the young. The prominence we give to educational issues in local, state, and federal elections further supports the assertion that children are indeed a high priority for Americans.

While these commonly held beliefs communicate a consistent and shared regard for children, when we dig beneath the platitudes, we find a far messier and more complex set of assumptions, beliefs, and challenges to this inspiring image of the United States as a child-loving society. Writing over 20 years ago, Letty Pogrebin argued that "America is a nation fundamentally ambivalent about its children, often afraid of its children, and frequently punitive towards its children." (2) Pogrebin cited attacks on the cost of public education and child health and nutrition programs, along with an inclination to pathologize an entire period in children's lives--that is, adolescence--to support her contention that the country was afflicted by what she called "an epidemic of pedophobia." (3)

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver has observed that children have come to hold an increasingly negative position in the economy. (4) Children are spoken of as a responsibility, a legal liability, and an encumbrance (5)--or they are seen in terms of potential profits. Today's children and adolescents, weaned on images of McDonald's and toy companies, are targeted as a ripe segment of the market for building powerful brand loyalty for everything from video games to prescriptions for drugs to treat attention deficit disorders. (6) And, if Pogrebin, writing in the early Reagan years, saw child-focused government programs under attack, then Kingsolver, writing 14 years later, had seen many of these same programs ravaged. Funding for virtually every program that benefits children in this country, Kingsolver writes--from "Sesame Street" to free school lunches--has been cut back in the past decade, in many cases cut to nothing. (7) Indeed, programs that support children in the U.S. are, in Kingsolver's words, the hands-down worst in the industrialized world. (8)

The Kingsolver quote that serves as epigraph to this article is disturbing. After all, it is a rare parent who does not put the needs of his or her children first, and Americans generally do care about their own children. But the evidence suggests that Americans are not consistent in caring for other people's children, especially children from marginalized populations. …

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