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Books: The assault on childhood

Books | The Medveds argue for letting kids be kids

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

The opening pages of a new book by film critic Michael Medved and his wife Diane provide a first-class borking. Not a "borking" in the senatorial sense (in which the Senate shoots down a Supreme Court candidate like Robert Bork because of his ideological views), but in the literary sense. They quote the American Spectator's opinion concerning Mr. Bork's 1997 book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah: "Half his readers have probably started eyeing the razor blades by the end of the first chapter." Saving Childhood proceeds to try to provide a few rays of hope. Still, the first few chapters can be horribly depressing. "In every corner of contemporary culture, childhood innocence is under assault," the couple writes. "The very idea of parental protectiveness has been overwhelmed by relentless pressure from a society that seems determined to expose its young to every perversion and peril in an effort to 'prepare' them for a harsh, dangerous future." The title of the first chapter is "Childhood Crashed and Burned," with subtitles such as "To Frighten and Corrupt," "Ward Cleaver is Dead," and "Sounding the Alarm." But beyond the book's apocalyptic first half, there is some real comfort-and it is found in fairy tales. "One way to inoculate your children against the intrusive impact of extrafamily influences is to glorify childhood innocence," the authors contend. "Let your children know-straight out-that our culture has lost its universal protection of that special time of youth and that you, as their parent, will do everything you can to preserve that precious opportunity for them." Innocence is at the heart of the book-the assault on it, the preservation of it. The most telling quote the authors cite is from Walt Disney Pictures president David Vogel: "There isn't this innocence of childhood among many children, what with broken homes and violence. We can't treat children as if they're all living in tract homes of the 1950s and everyone is happy. That is ridiculous." And so, breaking all the unwritten rules of old Hollywood, children are now portrayed-very graphically-as victims of crime and abuse, as sexually active, and as profane, "streetwise" miniature adults. It's not just the media; peers destroy innocence, as do schools and even parents, when parents aren't paying attention to the influences they're allowing in. But innocence is worth protecting-even if it means making some changes. And even if children are not exactly innocent, being tainted by original sin, they are all the more in need of protection. "The components of innocence-security, a sense of wonder, and optimism-are not just throwaway byproducts of the ignorance of youth. They form an important positive basis for the development of the self-which is, after all, the primary task of the early years of life." Television, they declare (and it can't be repeated too often) is the enemy of awe. The news, particularly in light of Monica Lewinsky, is simply more than kids need to know. Promote security, they say-smooch your spouse; let the kids crawl in bed with you sometimes; tell them stories about knights, as Chesterton pointed out, because the dragons appear on their own. Stories about knights, he said, let them know dragons can be defeated. Despite its depressing opening, Saving Childhood remains a fine book, mostly because the Medveds take their own advice. "Children insist on happy endings," they write. And the Medveds, orthodox Jews, end the book rightly pointing out that the sure cure for pessimism is gratitude to God. "Whenever our vision may be clouded by the fog of pessimism, we should recall that we have deeper reasons for confidence and joy. Rise up like a lion for the service of the Lord!"

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