Magazine article Insight on the News

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Article excerpt

On a beautiful morning in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal in 1986, I found myself following a group of 13- or 14-year-old girls across the ancient city of Patan, taking photo after photo of them as they skipped and sang their way to a Buddhist temple. They were lovely: My favorite slide shows their coppery skin and long black braids, set off with big saffron bows. They wore knee socks and jumpers, all the same light blue, identifying their school and village. They giggled and held hands, bright and skittish as birds. I clicked off frame after frame, unsure why they fascinated me so much.

A year later, back in the United States, I passed a group of 14-year-olds in a Harrisburg, Pa., mall and then I understood the charm of those Nepali school-girls. They were -- well, they were girls. Remember girls? The 14-year-olds I passed in the Harrisburg mall by contrast wore low-cut silk blouses and skin-tight jeans. Heavily made up, their hair was dyed and styled. They all smoked cigarettes and seemed to be working on a look that was simultaneously bored and wired: Their eyes were heavy-lidded, but their gestures -- flicking ashes, shifting from one heel to the other -- were nervous, quick. Seeing them, the words "girl" and "child" did not come to mind.

I was reminded of reading Neil Postman's grim and penetrating book, The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman argues that childhood itself, as a human developmental stage, is disappearing.

At first this sounds odd. We certainly still have children. Or do we? "Childhood" after all is an idea, a concept. It did not always exist. In the Middle Ages, for instance, children were regarded simply as small, somewhat incapable adults. In paintings by the medieval master Pieter Brueghel (the elder), for instance, we see children working along with grown-ups, although the loads of wood they carry are smaller. Most strikingly, we notice that their anatomical proportions -- the ratio of head size to total body height, for instance -- is exactly the same as the adults in the painting. We know, however, that the body proportions of children are different from those of adults -- heads of children are relatively much larger, for example. But because there was no idea of childhood in the Middle Ages, people then did not even see such differences and therefore did not represent them in paintings.

Right now American society once again is drifting away from the clear sense of childhood as a separate and special developmental stage. The idea of childhood is becoming unclear because children so often are seen in situations and behaviors considered adult!' So many children work, for instance, that teens and preteens comprise a multibillion-dollar consumer group that has been targeted by advertisers -- including tobacco companies. Children commit "adult" crimes in record numbers -- assaults, robberies, murders, even rapes. Rapes by 9- and 10-year-olds no longer are unheard of; on May 1, 1994, the New York Times cited a case in which two 7-year-old boys raped a 6-year-old girl in the school lavatory.

Recently, Calvin Klein's advertisements featuring boys and girls in various stages of undress and in sexually provocative poses (a girl, for example, in underpants with her legs open) drew fire, but the fact of the criticism misleadingly -- and in a sense comfortingly -- suggests an aberrational phenomenon. The harder truth is that we can find children as sex objects everywhere in advertisements, in movies and on television.

If you look carefully, even the seemingly bright parts of the picture of American childhood fade into images of adulthood. …

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