Culture > Books

Books: Postmodern children

Books | Raising kids with the help of diverse paradigms

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

After reading education expert David Elkind's new book, Reinventing Childhood, it dawned on me that I simply don't have a reinvented child. Even though mine is only two, he must be the old model. So it's not my fault if he doesn't conform to the cheerful diversity of Mr. Elkind's "postmodern era," in which "an upsurge in problematic behavior" results from a new "need imbalance," caused by adults who consider their own needs before the needs of their stressed-out children. This is the tone of the book, and the only reason to take Mr. Elkind seriously is that the public educrats will. Ten years ago, he added a new phrase and a new malady to our culture: the "hurried child." Now he's adapting postmodernism to early childhood education: "Modern childhood was an abstract ideal based on norms of behavior, while postmodern childhood is a diverse collection of individualized portraits." He explains the real change, the reason we're having to reinvent childhood, is the change in the family, which has become "permeable." "Generally, the traditional nuclear family, when psychologically healthy and financially secure, may still provide the least stressful pattern of child-rearing-at least for the children. Nonetheless, all of the permeable family configurations can provide equally effective support for the successful rearing of children, given the same preconditions." Despite Mr. Elkind's love for university studies and exciting statistics, he offers no support for that whopper. It's not a fact to be built upon; it's a first principle to be believed. Another first principle is his conviction that no idea is worthy of consideration until it is complicated beyond comprehension. With no warning, for example, he launches into a discussion of "frames and scripts." What are frames and scripts? "Frames regulate our behavior in virtually all of our social interactions," he explains. "There are, first of all, situational frames-rules and expectations that regulate children's behavior in specific places. Children also use a number of people frames that are usually signaled by 'tag terms' such as 'Uncle Marty,' 'nerd,' or 'substitute teacher,' all of which provoke predictable reactions." Here, I must confess, is where my own child falls short. He doesn't have frames-he has old-fashioned rules. When he breaks them, he is not engaging in "frame dynamics" or encountering "spoiled frames," he is being "rotten." And because I love him, and want him to grow up into a pleasant young man, I do not consult my "parenting scripts" concerning discipline and attempt to "adjust his frame"-I "warm his bottom." The book is not a total waste, however-Mr. Elkind shows that perhaps the education establishment is ready to admit at least some of its failures. "Providing only positive feedback and letting children develop an inflated sense of self-esteem does them a disservice. In order for children to develop in a healthy manner, they need to be able to distinguish between good and bad, especially in regard to their own actions." That sounds rather old-fashioned to me. But I'll give it a try.

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