The Children's Hour

Beware political claims made on behalf of children.


If 1992 was the year of the woman, 1993 was unquestionably the Year of the Child. From every quarter, on every public issue, we heard claims made in the name of children.

Advocates of restricting television violence and of banning guns, of reducing the deficit and of increasing federal spending, of outlawing pornography and of reforming welfare, of beefing up police patrols and of establishing school vouchers, of restoring intolerance toward gays and of curbing sexual harassment—in short, anyone with a political point to make declared that they spoke on behalf of children, of the family, and of the future.

Children have always had a place in political rhetoric, but this outpouring is new. It's driven in part by events, especially high-profile crimes involving children, in part by the change of administrations—Bill Clinton in the White House means his allies can talk about kids without helping Dan Quayle—and in part by the baby boomers' continuing self-obsession. Boomers who postponed family life until their late 30s or beyond, or who are now on their second families, are the decision makers at many of the magazines, newspapers, and television shows that determine which issues get attention.

The current rage for children in public discourse is understandable. But it is also dangerous. Too many activists are using kids as human shields, to hide adult agendas. Too many boomer parents are foisting their private responsibilities onto the public. And too many people are demanding that we make the adult world conform to the standards of children.

Children act as a megaphone, amplifying political claims. If you say you don't like Gay Pride marches, or cigarette advertising, or evangelical Christians passing out tracts on street corners, I may say, "Tough. We live in a pluralistic society based on individual freedom. You have to put up with things you don't like. In return, people who don't like you will put up with you."

If, however, you say you want to protect your children from the things you don't like, your claim is suddenly stronger. You get more sympathy, even from those who oppose your agenda.

That's partly because people respect parents. They understand that raising children is difficult and that even lousy parents invest an enormous amount of hope and pride in their children.

It's also because people who don't have children have at least been children. They know that children are vulnerable, and they easily identify with them. They are sympathetic to the claims of innocence. If they had carefree childhoods, they want other kids to have them, too. If they had difficult childhoods, they want other kids to have an easier time.

And, most decisively, claims on behalf of children get a sympathetic hearing because children have a special status in a liberal society. They have neither the full rights nor the full responsibilities of adults. Freedoms can, therefore, be limited for the sake of children.

As a result, everyone who wants to restrict adult liberties has a strong incentive to find a children's angle. The very fact that parents invest so much of themselves in their children leads them to ask the government to support the views they want to instill in their children. If you disapprove of cigarette smoking, for instance, you won't want your children to be tempted by cigarette ads and may ask the government to ban the ads. And if you disapprove of cigarette smoking and couldn't care less about kids, you can attack ads aimed at adults by claiming to act on behalf of children. Regardless of motive, the policy prescription is the same: censorship for kids' sake.

We should, therefore, be wary when people claim to speak for the good of children—especially when they seek to restrict the freedom of adults. Consider Susan F. Reynolds, M.D., the author of an article in California Physician titled "TV Violence: An American Public Health Epidemic." Reynolds spends most of her article recounting the usual scary statistics, survey results, and social-science research. In that regard, her article is quite ordinary.

But its lead is stunning: "Early one evening my son, then 2 years old, became very excited while standing in front of our television set, pointing to the screen saying, 'Man fall down, Mommy, man fall down.' I found myself confronted with the impossible task of explaining to a toddler why the good guy had just shot and killed the bad guy on the police series Hunter."

Reynolds is not some teenaged welfare mother. Her child isn't a latchkey kid. She was, in fact, present when her 2-year-old child was watching a police drama that no 2-year-old could possibly understand, even if it contained not a single shootout. A woman with the intelligence to get through medical school shouldn't need the government to tell her that a cop show isn't fare for toddlers. And a mother who lets her 2-year-old watch such shows isn't likely to heed a warning if one exists.

Now, because Reynolds did not take responsibility for her own child, she wants the government to take responsibility for everyone else's children—and to make sure, by the by, that the shows adults can watch are also curbed. She is seeking to infantilize the adult world.

We can expect to see more such infantilization. When the baby boomers were kids, there was a clear line between the world of children and the world of adults. Kids didn't go to adult parties, didn't call adults by their first names, didn't go to the office when they were off from school, didn't go to adult restaurants or movies. After my parents visited New York City in 1964, I remember telling my mother I'd like to go there sometime, too. She said I'd have to wait until I was older because a lot of places in New York weren't open to children.

All that has changed—even the part about New York City. Beginning December 13, the city's Commission on Human Rights has prohibited any discrimination based on age in public places. So, reports The New York Times, the Frick museum, which previously refused admission to children under 10 and required those 10 to 16 to be accompanied by an adult, will have to "let toddlers and teen-agers roam the halls where priceless artworks and furniture…are displayed openly, with barely a velvet rope or restraint." California's sweeping anti-discrimination law a few years ago prevented a theater chain from excluding infants from R-rated movies .

Baby boomers who don't want to bother with babysitters, yet don't want to sacrifice their adult pleasures either, now force their children into adult venues. Indeed, New York City First Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Rolando T. Acosta was peeved when he wasn't allowed to bring his 17-month-old son into a movie theater.

The stark separation of my childhood was unusual by historical standards and probably less than desirable. (I, for one, think it's good if children occasionally see their parents at work.) But when you start bringing children into the adult world, you run into problems. You can either go back to a premodern model, in which you see children as little adults and don't attempt to shield them from the complexities of adult life. Or you can treat adults as big children, and restrict their rights and responsibilities accordingly. That is, unfortunately, the more popular model in the Year of the Child.