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Monday night's ARCO Forum of Public Affairs on "Sex, Commercialism and the Disappearance of Childhood" had very little to do with children. Instead, it featured elaborate plans for making children into media-savvy adults and educated consumers and citizens who are wary of exploitative companies everywhere. It is as if the speakers wished to solve the problem of disappearing childhood by turning children everywhere into adults.
From Kiku Adatto, director of children's studies at Harvard, we heard that children ought to be viewed as independent, adventurous and playful. She argued that we should recover the 19th century stories of resourceful youths like Huckleberry Finn.
Adatto worried that children these days are perceived as objects to be manipulated, an attitude which could lead to pornography and abuse. To clarify her point, Adatto screened a series of current art and advertising photographs of children. In one image, the head of a girl is cropped from the photo; in another, a child is posed like a model, torso thrust at the camera.
Unfortunately, Adatto's presentation was a little far-fetched. I was not convinced that art photography was representative of general views of childhood. Indeed, art often views itself as questioning the status quo. Moreover, Adatto's constructive argument that children should be viewed as active agents is obviously only half of the story. We all know that children can at times be fiercely independent, but we all also know that children are almost by definition attention-needy dependents.
Turning from our perceptions of children to the children themselves, Adatto argued that what we need is "a school curriculum to make us critical and reflective readers of the media." This is a very strange goal. Does Adatto expect us to raise a country full of kids capable of sneering, "Reporter X wrote that, well, you can't take it too seriously then. You know, he voted for Perot"? Even if it were possible to transform children into media wonks at the age of eight, why would we want to?
Another of the panelists, Bill Kovach, the curator of the Nieman Foundation, provided an answer. He suggested that children should be taught to read the newspapers in order to better informed citizens. In fact, he went as far as to complain that while there are plenty of courses to teach us how to read works of fiction, there is "no course to teach anyone how to read the most important book of their lives: the daily press."
Kovach's argument is misdirected. Children are not typically newshounds. This is a good thing. Eventually, we would like them to be well-informed responsible adult citizens, but it is unrealistic to expect children to become active readers of the daily press. "Reading the newspaper is one of those adult rituals that begins to interest older children and young adults precisely because it is part of the adult world." Trying to introduce it earlier--in a school setting--would be at the very least a tactical error.
The closest I came to hearing what children themselves feel about the sexual and commercial exploitation of children in the media were the comments of high school students attending the lecture. One student, Marie, from City on a Hill high school, suggested that we ought to either protect our children better or give them more responsibility: "Nowadays parents think they should let children be open to a lot more," she said. "At a young age children are being exposed to too much. Parents are inviting perverts to look at them. Back then children had to work to support their family. Nowadays we have a lot of advantages and we take advantage of those advantages."
I expected to hear far more about protecting children at a panel discussion called "Sex, Commercialism and the Disappearance of Childhood." Or at the very least, I expected to hear about whether children really needed protection. A study of "Images of Children, Crime and Violence in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler" by Judith A. Reisman, in contrast to the ARCO panel, sets out the relevant facts. Funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the study of the three magazines from December 1953 to December 1984, located 6,004 images of children. Overall, "child-depiction increased nearly 2,600 percent (from 16 to 412) from 1954 to 1984." Any discussion of sex, commercialism and the disappearance of childhood must address itself to this trend, relying on our common perceptions of childhood, before figuring out how we can make children more like adults.
Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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