About a year ago, early on a Saturday morning, I walked out into the courtyard of my apartment building in Los Angeles to pick up the newspaper and received an impromptu education about contemporary childhood. My 11-year-old neighbor was getting set to embark on a quintessential kid activity: riding his bike. I waved hello and stared transfixed at the boy's elaborate preparations. First, he shimmied a set of hard-plastic and soft- cushion pads over his sneakers. He worked them up his shins and positioned them carefully over his knees for maximum protection. He did the same with a pair of elbow pads, flexing his arms to make sure the fit was right. Then came the gloves, thickly padded on the palms and across the knuckles. Finally, he picked up the helmet, adjusted it on his head, strapped it down across his chin, and rapped on it once (for luck, I suppose).
As he peddled off in his body armor, his father appeared, coffee mug in one hand. "You be careful," he called after his son. And then the father, who like me is in his 30s, turned my way and added, somewhat sheepishly, "I remember riding my bike barefoot in the rain. Things sure are different nowadays with the kids."
About six months ago, I received another unscheduled lesson in contemporary childhood (or, more precisely, contemporary parenting). My wife and I had moved to a small town in southeast Texas, and I was dropping our 3-year-old son off for the first time at his new day care center. As I started out of the U-shaped driveway, I saw something that made me hit the brakes so hard I almost cracked my head against the windshield: A car pulled into the driveway with a toddler jumping up and down in the passenger seat of the automobile; in the back seat, I saw another unbelted child climbing the upholstery. What the hell kind of parent would allow such a thing? I wondered for a second before the answer came to me: my mother, my father, and every other parent I knew growing up during the '60s, '70s, and early '80s.
Things sure are different nowadays with the kids, and in a most puzzling way. By most standards, the vast, overwhelming majority of American children are doing better than ever. With some notable, insistent, and tragic exceptions, indicators such as mortality and accident rates, life expectancy, and educational attainment all suggest that the kids are more than all right. In fact, they are flourishing, brimming over with the potential to live longer, to live better, and to be smarter than their parents (just as their parents outstripped their parents).
And yet, the national discourse on children--the way we talk about "the kids" and their future--describes a tableau of unremitting fear and trembling, a landscape marked by relentless risk and deprivation. Although apocalyptic rhetoric in general has diminished in recent years--overpopulation, nuclear war, global warming, and the like just don't pack the same wallop they did in years past--the air remains thick with stories of how children must be protected from a world that is conceived largely as a malevolent presence that seeks only to hurt them, a sort of Mad Max environment for the younger set.
While not exactly new, this trend has been intensifying over the past two decades or so, lurching from isolated scares about poisoned Halloween candy in the 1970s and child abduction in the 1980s to a generalized calculus that places perceived harm to children at the center of seemingly every discussion. The tendency is ubiquitous enough to be fair game for parody. On The Simpsons, for instance, one character routinely asks at any public gathering, "What about the children?" It is not coincidental that the rise of such attitudes to cultural dominance occurred as the baby boom generation--that gargantuan cohort born between 1946 and 1964--shifted into parenting mode and started to grapple with the most unfamiliar role of authority figure. While it is unclear what effect this may have on the kids themselves--Will they respond to doomsday scenarios by shrinking from the world or by becoming what-the-fuck nihilists?--one result has been a gradual shifting of the costs of raising children onto wider and wider swatches of society, and not merely in dollars: If kids have access to TV, for instance, then all programs must be made child-safe.
The threats are everywhere, we are told: If children are not hounded by ritual satanic child abusers at day care or by perverts on the Internet, then they're sucking in too much asbestos at school, or chewing on too much lead at home; if television, purportedly the babysitter of choice in the overwhelming majority of American homes, hasn't transformed kids into underperforming, slackjawed dullards, it has overstimulated them into feral children who must be tamed with Ritalin and Prozac; if we haven't failed the kids by not spending unlimited amounts of tax money on them, then we have transformed them into shallow consumers who can only measure affection in terms of dollars spent; if they're not at elevated risks of brain cancer from eating hot dogs, then they're likely to become punch- drunk from heading soccer balls; and on and on.
Interestingly, such stories tend not to focus on the kids who may truly be most at risk, such as impoverished children in the inner city or rural outposts. Instead, the tendency is to paint with a broad brush, to talk about that great hypothetical abstraction, "middle-class America." As Hillary Clinton put it in last year's It Takes A Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, "Like many parents, I feel there is much to worry about when it comes to raising children in America today....Against this bleak backdrop, the struggle to raise strong children and to support families, emotionally as well as practically, has become more fierce." It doesn't matter if you're in the first income quintile or the fifth: We're all in this bleak backdrop together.
This is hardly a hobby horse the First Lady rides alone. Judging from national polls and random conversations, her feelings are widely shared. "Yeah, I'm really worried about raising my kids," a college friend with two pre-teen girls tells me. "Everything's out of control: drugs, schools, college costs." I try reminding him that he himself first smoked dope at age 15 and that his and his wife's combined income--somewhere around the $100,000 mark--should let them be good providers, but he cuts me off: "No way, it's totally different now. Do you know how much college costs? Have you seen the kids today? Do you hear the music? They're out of control," he says, forgetting for the moment his early-'80s penchant for humming Sex Pistols lyrics such as, "I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist, don't know what I want, but I know how to get it" and "God save the Queen, she ain't no human being....No future for you!"
We are suckers for tales of decline. Most of the fears and worries regarding children, however, are less based on shared experience and more the result of relative affluence, indiscriminate risk assessment, and a generational solipsism that seems particularly acute in baby boomers. The first generation to "discover" alienation, rebellion, sex, and drugs has been painfully slow to recognize recurrent truths: that parenting is an awesome and fearsome experience, that your children grow up speaking a foreign language, that youth culture is always precisely calculated to maximize disgust in parents.
It is, of course, always worth paying attention to the particular ways in which children and childhood are discussed. That's because on one level, children simultaneously incarnate both vulnerability and the future--they are, in that most threadbare of clichés, the "leaders of tomorrow." More than that, they are relatively clean slates that must be etched in properly. As such, they are the repository of parental and societal aspirations and anxieties; they function as a sort of communal ink-blot test upon which adults project their own hopes and fears. On another level, kids represent the cutting edge of public policy. As concerns about children get translated into policy, the tendency almost invariably is to centralize and to consolidate power in fewer hands in hopes of eliminating all risk, of sweeping away broken glass from any place where small feet might tread: If something can hurt (or help) one child, it makes sense to ban (or extend) it to all children. A parallel impulse is to expand the reach of policy (how else to child-proof the world?), even while trying to place it beyond the scrutiny of reasoned analysis. Invoking "the children" is the rhetorical equivalent of zipping yourself into a Kevlar suit: Only a heartless bastard would dare question the efficacy or efficiency of programs for the kids.
Welcome to what might be called the Buddhafication of American children. Not long after the birth of my son a few years back, I realized that the legend of the Buddha was, in a very real way, about parental anxiety. Siddartha--the Buddha--is born to a wealthy, doting king who seeks to keep his son from experiencing the world as it actually is in it all its variety, its richness, and its poverty. To that end, the father builds a huge, extravagant walled palace around the child and never lets him leave the grounds. "The king was anxious to see his son happy," goes one telling of the tale. "All sorrowful sights, all misery, and all knowledge of misery were kept away from Siddartha, for the king desired that no troubles should come nigh to him."
One doesn't need to be a parent to sympathize with the king and understand his motivation: He only wants his child to be untroubled by the harshness, the difficulties, the indifference of the wide, wide world. As a society, we are following his lead. We, too, are wealthy and, we, too, desperately (and understandably) try to wall our children off from everything that is harsh and ugly in life. We, too, are raising little Buddhas whom we believe face unprecedented and ubiquitous threats.
Risks that were once taken for granted have now become plainly intolerable and have fueled any number of "common-sense" policies passed during the past decade or so. Hence, the removal of asbestos from school buildings (more than $10 billion spent over the past decade, with $20 billion more already in the pipeline); more and more efforts to educate school kids about drugs; mandatory bicycle helmet laws for kids (adopted by more than a dozen states); the V-Chip and television ratings; increasingly elaborate sports safety equipment; proposed Federal Aviation Agency guidelines requiring separate seats for children under 2 (who can currently share an adult's seat); and government plans for a "universal" child's car-seat attachment harness that, as White House spokesman Mike McCurry put it, will at last ensure that parents can "get the little thingy in through the back and get it stuck into the little deal that goes in the side."
Such policies are of a piece with discussions that see environmental, sociological, and even neurophysiological dangers everywhere. Redbook warns about "Bullies: The Big New Problem You Must Know About." "There have always been tough boys and girls who pick on other kids," reads the story. "But it's the '90s, and the bullies have become more dangerous." (Despite the threat-filled language, the piece is pointedly not about gun- or knife-wielding teens; rather, it focuses on a child taunted about his ears.) The subtitle of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's The Divorce Culture, a book based on her widely discussed 1993 Atlantic article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," indicates "how divorce became an entitlement and how it is blighting the lives of our children." In a "special report" on "How a Child's Brain Develops," Time frets, "Too many children today live in conditions that threaten their brain development. What can we do?"