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?"
As the Time reference suggests, the endpoint of these discussions is often an implicit call to public action: What can we do? "Is your playground safe?" asks Parents magazine in a recent article that notes, "More than 267,000 children will sustain playground-equipment- related injuries this year....A number of children will even die as a result." Later, the story suggests that "one reason for the safety problem is that there are no federally mandated playground-safety standards."
Other times, the call to arms is explicit. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services proclaimed lead the top "environmental disease of children, affecting at least 10 percent of preschoolers" and responsible for behavioral problems ranging from attention deficit disorder to juvenile delinquency. The Centers for Disease Control, which has called lead poisoning the "most common and societally devastating environmental disease of young children," has issued guidelines supporting universal lead testing of all children, regardless of risk factors. (The threat from lead was a truly unprecedented risk. As Ellen Ruppel Shell pointed out in The Atlantic, "To get to the 'one out of ten preschoolers' figure, regulatory agencies now deem as 'poisoned' children whose lead-to-blood ratios fall between 10 and 25 micrograms per deciliter"-- levels considered acceptable in 1990. Children in the 1960s, Shell notes, averaged more than 20 micrograms.)
Less-journalistic analyses are no less hyperbolic and wide-ranging. "The present state of children and families in the United States represents the greatest domestic problem our nation has faced since the founding of the Republic," warns Cornell University psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. "Childhood is beginning to seem downright grim," write Joanne Barbara Koch and Dr. Linda Nancy Freeman in Good Parents for Hard Times: Raising Responsible Kids in the Age of Drug Use and Early Sexual Activity (1992). "In the back of every parent's mind is the realization that one mistake made by their children can be fatal....One impulsive sexual encounter with a person with AIDS can lead to death. One 'experiment' with highly addictive crack can suddenly pull a young person into committing desperate crimes--a way of life that is a living death. One vehicle accident under the influence of alcohol...."
There is, of course, some truth in such statements: One mistake can end a child's life--a thought that is indeed ever-present in parents' minds. But, in a common move, Koch and Freeman discover potential mortality as an ominous new development. What actually is different today is the decreasing likelihood of such an event, as the author's own examples suggest. Between 1980 and 1989, for instance, arrests for 16- and 17-year-olds for driving under the influence dropped 24.7 percent. It is extremely rare for kids to "experiment" with crack at all, much less become regular users. Indeed, according to government statistics, in 1995, only 0.8 percent of kids between 12 and 17 reported past-month use of the far-larger category of cocaine (compared with 1.5 percent in 1985). The rate of increase of AIDS cases among children has been slowing; as important, unlike child-killing diseases of the past, AIDS can be largely prevented through relatively simple behavior modification.
Such trends might be cause for celebration, or at least a brief sigh of relief. But reductions in risks to children seem only to fire the imaginations of those who see ruin as imminent. In the 1992 revised edition of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, by far the most influential child-rearing manual over the past 50 years, Spock and co-author Michael B. Rothenberg see the unprecedented sadness and malaise they claim is affecting children as part of a larger assault on civilization itself. The roots of this assault are only hinted at, but seem to encompass almost every social trend since the Industrial Revolution allowed people the luxury of worrying about their quality of life.
In a section called "Raising Children in a Troubled Society," they write, "American society in the 1990s is extraordinarily stressful. Normal family tensions are heightened in many ways: Our society is excessively competitive and materialistic; many working parents find less satisfaction and pleasure at their jobs while the good day care they depend on becomes harder to find; there is less spiritual and moral direction compared to the past; the traditional supports of the extended family and community are breaking up; and a growing number of people are concerned about the deterioration of the environment and international relations." This vague jeremiad (what does it mean to be "excessively" competitive or materialistic?) has a timeless air about it: When hasn't the world been running down, becoming more secular, less traditional, or been anything other than "extraordinarily stressful" compared to an implied golden age? "We live in a disenchanted, disillusioned age," they write elsewhere, rounding out a list of grievances that have been perennial since the dawn of history by invoking an ostensibly contemporary trend that dates back to 1960s-era "black humor": "Even greeting cards, instead of wishing invalids and relatives well, jeer at them."
Not surprisingly, such sentiments get even more overheated when expressed by lobbyists and policy makers. The introduction to Baby and Child Care, for instance, contains a plug for the Children's Defense Fund, perhaps the most influential child advocacy group in the country. In Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations on Loving and Working for Children, CDF head Marian Wright Edelman speaks the language of crisis and emergency--and, by implication, ever-greater collective action--to salvage that ultimate public good: children. She invokes a biblical king remembered for his proclivity toward infanticide: "Herod is searching for and destroying our children, pillaging their houses, corrupting their minds, killing and imprisoning the sons, orphaning the daughters, widowing the mothers," writes Edelman. "Herod's soldiers are everywhere, in government, on Wall Street, in the church house, schoolhouse, and moviehouse. Lead us and our children to safety." Drastic times call for drastic measures.
Although Edelman has reportedly had a falling out with the Clinton administration over last year's welfare bill, it's clear that at least one resident of the White House still thinks along similar lines. In arguing that "everywhere we look, children are under assault," Hillary Clinton outlines the culprits: "from violence and neglect, from the breakup of families, from the temptations of alcohol, tobacco, and sex, and drug abuse, from greed, materialism, and spiritual emptiness." These problems, the First Lady suggests, "are not new, but in our time they have skyrocketed." It is an interesting progression--from conceivably measurable social facts to long-standing human urges to unprovable commentary on contemporary mores. Given that the end of the century looms large, we can perhaps forgive such millenarian fervor--problems are skyrocketing!--but we need not embrace it as a basis of public policy.
Indeed, such notions are wrong on two very basic counts: First, despite a nod to historical context, they ignore the tremendous progress in child well-being over the past 100 years. Second, they generalize risks for specific subgroups to children writ large.
Consider a fairly representative family history: When my grandparents were born in Europe near the end of the 19th century, a fair question was whether they would survive their first few years of life. By the time my parents were born in America a quarter-century later, the question was whether (or when) they would contract polio or some other life-threatening, debilitating disease. When my siblings and I were born toward the end of the baby boom, the question was whether we'd have our own bedrooms. When my own child was born a few years ago, the question was which college he would attend.
Encoded in the sharply diminishing seriousness of such questions is one of the century's great self-erasing success stories. In 1900, about 186 out of 1,000 children died before their 15th birthday. In 1950, that figure had been cut to about 35 per 1,000. By 1990, the number had dropped to about 10 per 1,000. Life expectancy at birth has risen from 47 years in 1900 to 68 years in 1950 to 75 years in 1990 (to a projected 77 years in 2000).
Educational attainment--which correlates strongly with income and other living-standard measures--has similarly booted upward. In 1970, about 52 percent of the population had completed four years of high school or more; in 1993, the figure was about 80 percent. In 1970, about 11 percent of the population had a bachelor's degree or more. Twenty-three years later, 14.5 percent had at least a B.A. The rate is higher still for younger age ranges--18.6 percent of people ages 25 to 34 had a college diploma.
These indicators track consistently across all racial and ethnic groups as well. In fact, despite lower absolute percentages, the rate of increase in life expectancy and educational attainment for black children--who are disproportionately poor--actually outstrips that of whites. In these very important ways, things are, on the whole, getting better for the overwhelming majority of children.
Even the one apparent major counter-trend of the past few decades--the percentage of children living below the poverty level--appears to have more or less stabilized during the past 15 years. In 1970, roughly 15 percent of children under 18 lived below the official poverty line. By the early 1980s, the rate had increased to about 20 percent, where it has remained, within a relatively narrow band of fluctuation. Of course, having one in five kids in poverty--or 1970's one in six--is nothing short of tragic. But there are also reasons to believe that the official statistics overstate the extent of poverty in the country. As Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis has suggested, official poverty statistics tend to "obscure the true condition" of the poor not only by excluding non-cash benefits such as food stamps, school-meal programs, and housing allowances, but by failing to account for the poor's consumption levels, which are more than double their reported income.
Perhaps more important, the Consumer Price Index's overstatement of inflation has a huge effect on official poverty statistics. As the editors of The American Enterprise have pointed out, if the CPI has overstated inflation by 1.5 percentage points annually since 1967 (within the variance suggested by the recent Boskin Commission), there were 15 million poor--about 6 million of them children--in 1996, rather than the 38 million counted in official statistics. While poverty exists, it has at least been heavily mitigated and is not indicative of the typical child's lot.
Similarly, risks for children are in no way distributed evenly across the population. For instance, lead poisoning--rarer than ever today--is confined almost exclusively to poor children living in old housing stock. For all the talk of a crime wave perpetrated by and against juveniles, most of the increase in criminal behavior is focused on a relatively small section of the youth population: black males between the ages of 12 and 19. As Boston University's Glenn Loury has documented, black males are at least 25 percent more likely to be victims of crime than white males of the same age. The murder rate for black youths, already three times that of whites, doubled between 1986 and 1991. That such disturbing trends affect relatively few children is not a reason for us to breathe easy, but neither is it a reason to generalize or exaggerate risk.
By implying that the typical child is understimulated--and, hence, at risk of underdeveloped brain functions--Time suggests a widespread problem where there is none, says Jerome Kagan, a psychology professor at Harvard University who has done groundbreaking work on developmental issues. "If babies are not played with at all, if no one talks to them at all, they will not develop well. If they just lie in their cribs, with a bottle propped up, they will not develop well. That's a fact. Everybody knows that and no one denies it," says Kagan. "However, most infants--certainly most middle-class infants--get plenty of stimulation." Lack of interaction, according to Kagan, to the extent it is a problem at all, is generally concentrated among "poor women and adolescents who are having infants, the mother who doesn't read Time."
Talking about specific matters as broad-based trends compounds the often tragic nature of such problems by diverting attention, time, and resources from where they are most needed. Such "democratization of risk," however, is a common rhetorical strategy when it comes to competing for attention in the "social problems marketplace," says sociologist Joel Best of Southern Illinois University. In Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims (1990), Best documents how advocates for missing-children groups promoted broader and broader definitions of child abduction, despite weaker and weaker evidence for the phenomenon. That's a tendency shared by most activists, regardless of issue or political persuasion. "Social problems claims-making is rarely static," writes Best. "Claims-makers are likely to offer a new definition, extending the problem's domain or boundaries, and find new examples to typify just what is at issue."
Perhaps the one trend that has significant negative effects on children is divorce. Divorce, like marriage, is an evolving institution. In the late 1960s and early '70s, many states liberalized their divorce laws, making it easier to dissolve marriages. There is a growing consensus that such legislation has failed to adequately protect the interests of the children involved, and it is likely divorce laws, at least where children are concerned, will be toughened.
Between 1970 and 1992, the divorce rate per 1,000 people climbed from 3.5 to 4.8, where it has roughly stabilized. About 60 percent of divorces involve children. The economic effects of divorce are unambiguous, especially when the mother becomes the primary caretaker: somewhere between a 30 percent and 50 percent drop in income in the first year of divorce. It takes most divorced women and children at least five years to regain their predivorce standard of living (if they ever do), often through remarriage. Such divorce- driven dislocation ripples throughout children's lives: Compared with kids in two-parent marriages, they are one-third more likely to move (and they tend to move more often), they are three times as likely to be in poverty, and their mothers are likely to have increased their work hours significantly.
Depending on the level of animosity between parents, the psychological impact of divorce may well outstrip economic issues, especially in the short run. Adjustment patterns vary widely for both parents and children; not surprisingly, problems tend to be worse in ugly divorces. Problems are most intense for parents and children alike during the first two years following separation (psychologists speak of a "crisis period"). In response to divorce, children often become anti-social, disruptive, depressed, or withdrawn. "You lose a lot more than money when your parents split up," says a friend whose parents went through a particularly rancorous divorce when she was a teenager. "You lose a sense of connection, of security, of stability. It isn't easy to get that back. It sets you back years. That's what you lose ultimately: years of your childhood."
But, says the friend, "you end up working through it or moving on, more out of necessity than anything else." Most research confirms that, after the "crisis period," once routines are re-established, children from divorced parents tend to return to more or less normal development. It is hard to gauge the effects of divorce on children partly because it's virtually impossible to identify and study an appropriate control group of conflicted but intact families (some research indicates that children in highly conflicted but intact two- parent families fare worst of all children).
"Divorce, or the conflict that is usually a prelude to it, increases the risk to children of encountering problems later in life: dropping out of school, marrying and having children in the teenage years, and becoming divorced themselves. And whether or not they avoid long-term effects, children are likely to endure a wrenching period of upset and adjustment," write sociologists Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. and Andrew J. Cherlin in Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part (1991). Some solace can be taken from the fact that, despite heightened risks, "Studies based on nationally representative samples...suggest that the long-term harmful effects of divorce...occur only to a minority."
If things are not so bad for so many children, where do the stories come from? Harvard's Kagan sees the impulse as part of human nature. Today, he says, "there's less stress in a real, serious sense. But every generation of parents is anxious about their children. Every single one. And you always think yours is the most stressed."
Kagan is at least partly right. Parenting is inherently anxiety inducing: Children are impossibly soft, the world indifferently hard. And, despite knowledge transmitted from generation to generation, parenting is always learned anew. It's different when it's your child, and the urge is to emphasize both the softness of the child and the hardness of the world. It is hard to strike a balance between protection and isolation, to clear a play space of sharp edges for your charges without sliding into the excesses of the Buddha's father. The tendency is to compare the responsibilities of being a parent to your own experience as a child--a misleading comparison. Things were different when you were a kid. First and foremost, you were a child, not an adult. Similarly, it is easy to forget that being a child and especially an adolescent is often intrinsically a difficult, frustrating experience.
But there are also a number of reasons why attitudes toward "the kids" have been intensifying over the past 15 years or so. These break down into three basic categories-- economic, demographic, and psychological--all of which are related to developments in postwar America and all of which incline us to heightened concerns and fears about children.
In any generally wealthy society, it is common for each generation to tolerate less risk than the one before it. Hence, the progression from automobile safety belts to three-point harnesses, which are supplemented by driver-side airbags, then passenger-side airbags, then side-panel airbags, and so on. (The example of airbags underscores it is no simple march from absolute risk to absolute safety.) Economist W. Kip Viscusi and others have suggested that safety is essentially a "good" that we purchase. In general, the more money we have, the more safety we can buy. In this sense, the overall rise in income, compensation, and wealth over the past half-century allows and perhaps even predisposes us to buy more safety: We worry more about our children because we can afford to.
But it is not simply that we can buy more safety for our children. Not to put too fine a point on it, or to slip into unnuanced nostalgia for the good old days of nickel sodas and whooping cough epidemics, but kids cost more these days. Or, more precisely, we spend more on them--and not simply in terms of CD players, designer clothing, and sports equipment. Consider education, the importance of which has never been greater. As U.S. News & World Report noted in its 1996 college guide, "nearly 2 out of 3 of June's 2.5 million high school graduates are enrolling in some form of post-secondary education." To paraphrase Bacon, knowledge is opportunity, but in what U.S. News calls "The K-16 Era," such opportunities do not come cheap.
Kids have become more expensive in another way, too: There are fewer of them. The rate of births per 1,000 people was 24.1 in 1950 and 23.7 in 1960. By 1970, it had dropped to 18.4, reaching a low of 14.6 in 1975 and 1976. Throughout the 1980s, the rate crept up, averaging 15.8 and peaking at 16.7 in 1990 before subsiding once again (it was 16.0 in 1992). The trend toward fewer children--another correlate of increased wealth--will apparently be a long-term one. In 1995, children 17 years and under made up 26 percent of the overall U.S. population. The Census Bureau projects that figure to be 24.6 percent in 2010 and 23.9 percent in 2025 (the downward trend holds true at different levels for whites, blacks, Hispanics, and all other minority groups). Almost literally, we are putting fewer eggs in our basket. Psychologically and economically, we expect more from fewer children. And at the same time, we guard them all the more closely.
The trend toward fewer children intersects with baby boom demographics in an interesting way. What has led to "all these fears about kids was the aging of the baby boomers," says Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at the University of Georgia who has studied risk attitudes toward children. As the boomers started becoming parents in force, their attention naturally focused on child-related issues. "Because it is such a large generation," says Fine, "the problems of the boomers have been taken to be the problems of society."
The boomers are anomalous for a number of reasons besides their sheer numbers: They tend to be better-educated and wealthier than their parents, predisposing them to greater interest in safety issues. Even more important, says Fine, the boomers grew up with an ideal of home life they found themselves hard-pressed to replicate as they became parents. The 1950s and '60s, he argues, represent a "unique" period in American cultural history because the model--if not necessarily the lived reality--was a relatively isolated suburban household in which the mother was a near-constant presence during childhood. A generation later, he notes, not simply dual-worker but dual-career households had become the new model. Because our parenting ideals come largely from our own childhood experiences, the difference in circumstances leads to heightened anxieties; we are uncomfortable with what we don't know. As parents choose to devote themselves to careers, at the expense of their ideals of childhood, the urge to child-proof the world makes more and more sense.
Another element of the boomers' upbringing that predisposes them to be particularly anxious about their children is what psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey has called the "malignant effect" of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, particularly its emphasis on how early childhood experiences irrevocably shape (or warp) an individual. "I doubt there's been a time in history where there has been the obsession with child rearing that we have now," says Torrey. "Especially from the World War II era on, parents have had an inordinate fear that any little thing they do may permanently misshape their child's psyche." This fear is particularly intense in the boomers, the first generation fully raised under such a supposition.
In his 1992 book, Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture, Torrey attributes this fear in large part to Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care. Spock, writes Torrey, "did more than any single individual to disseminate the theory of Sigmund Freud in America." Through the sale of over 40 million copies of his baby book and his writings in popular magazines, says Torrey, "Spock persuaded two generations of American mothers that nursing, weaning, tickling, playing, toilet training, and other activities inherent in childhood are not the innocuous behaviors they appear to be on first glance. Such activities, according to Spock, are psychic minefields that determine a child's lifelong personality traits, and maternal missteps on such terrain can result in disabling and irrevocable oral, anal, or Oedipal scars. Throughout his career Spock was deeply imbued with Freudian doctrine and in a 1989 interview he acknowledged, 'I'm still basically a Freudian.'"
Spock's vision of parenting, says Torrey, sends a disabling double message. Even as Baby and Child Care famously exhorts the parent to "Trust yourself--you know more than you think," it suggests that any parental misstep will have long-lasting, disastrous effects. The rise of such Freudian-inflected thought has, says Torrey, "made parenting much more difficult because of the generally accepted theory that--to exaggerate it a little bit--if you look at your child cross-eyed, your child will never be the same again."
Where Freudian-inflected thought stresses how "fragile" the psyche is, Torrey argues for its resiliency. Where Freudian-inflected thought stresses the parental role in personality development, Torrey makes a case for inborn temperament and a wider-ranging array of influences. An appendix to Freudian Fraud summarizes more than two dozen studies that attempt to substantiate a link between toilet training and personality traits and finds none (Freud hypothesized that botched toilet training leads to a number of possible "problems," ranging from homosexual orientation to paranoia to a fixation with order). Twin and adoption studies, says Torrey, suggest that "parents have much less effect on their children than we have been led to believe--or would like to believe."
Despite their lack of descriptive or predictive powers--Torrey notes that "except for grossly aberrant events, there is no evidence that the normal developmental events of childhood shape personality traits to any significant degree"--Freudian ideas have become deeply embedded into our culture, "integrated in a very general way." Indeed, we can read much of contemporary popular discourse on children as a sort of mass merchandising of Freudian theory: Since one incident--a bike accident, smoking a joint, a violent TV show--can have such deleterious effects on long-term development, we must be ever-vigilant. As with the young Buddha, "all sorrowful sights, all misery, and all knowledge of misery" must be avoided: The stakes are simply too high.
So, what if the concern for children today is less the product of actual threats and dangers and more an artifact of various unarticulated social forces? What if we are mistaking the inherent difficulties of parenting and childhood for an unprecedented assault upon all that is good, decent, and optimistic in the world? Where's the harm in waging total war on every possible risk facing children, real or imagined? After all, as a society, we are relatively rich, with the time and the energy to devote to making life safer for our charges.
One thing to recognize is that the law of unintended consequences is not repealed when it comes to kids; there is often a huge chasm yawning between stated goals and actual effects. Perhaps, then, it is not at all surprising that most experts agree that removing asbestos exposes students to higher risks than simply covering the stuff up. Or that past-month drug use among adolescents, still well below levels of 20 years ago, began its increase only after a decade of DARE and "Just Say No!" Or that the added cost of a plane ticket for an infant--representing a 50 percent fare increase for a family of three--might cause some parents to travel by car, a far riskier alternative to flying. Or that "soft" baseballs recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission actually weigh more than traditional hardballs, and according to sports doctors, apparently increase injuries. (See "Play [Regulated] Ball!," December 1996.)
Children--perhaps more than any other group--represent the no man's land where the private sphere blurs into the public, with all the attendant problems centralized decision making brings. Examples such as car seats and bike helmets suggest that what may be a good idea in the former is likely to become a mandate in the latter. Examples such as airbags and separate seats for infants on airplanes suggest that this is not always such a good thing. When it comes to setting policy, activists routinely use children as hostages, figuratively holding a gun to their temples and proclaiming that if some demand is not met, the kids will get it. It is hard to see how the shifting of more and more parental responsibilities--and costs--onto society at large will increase responsible behavior at any level.
At some point, the rate of return runs into the negatives in cultural terms, as well. What sort of message, we might ask, borrowing a favorite phrase of child advocates, does it send to paint the world in the most horrific terms possible, to see danger and disorder lurking everywhere? Do we best prepare our children for responsible, engaged lives by seeking to child-proof the world? What are the costs (to adults and minors alike) of thinking of our children as little Buddhas who must at all costs be prevented from living in the world they will one day inherit? Will kids imbibe such an ethos and respond by shrinking from the world in all its dangers and opportunities alike, seeking first and foremost to avoid the confrontations, negotiations, and possibilities entailed by a robust life? Or will they rebel against overprotection and take more and more unmeasured risks? Perhaps a harbinger of the second response is the rising popularity of extreme sports and increases in teen smoking (still far below 1980 levels). Whatever happens, it seems likely that extremity will breed extremity.
The Buddha's story may be instructive here, too: Despite his father's desires, he insists on seeing the world beyond the palace walls. The king finally relents, but secretly orders his servants and subjects to spruce up the tour route, to hide poor people, sick people, and old people, to create a scene bereft of physical decay or human misery. The attempt fails and the Buddha forsakes his father's world, first overindulging in all the pleasures of the flesh and then renouncing the body altogether and embracing rigorous asceticism. The legend has it, of course, that the Buddha found enlightenment through the latter route, but there is little reason to believe that the way we talk about our own children will lead to a similarly happy ending.