Modern childhood: innocence stolen, paradise lost

ALICE STEINBACH

March 11, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

If you want to get a handle on the status of children in today's society, you might start by considering this: Of the hundred or so people still barricaded inside the armed Texas compound ruled by cult leader David Koresh, 17 are said to be children.

And each of these children, said Koresh, has expressed a desire to die along with him.

It is a claim that boggles the mind.

Question: Is there anyone out there who really believes that children, cult members or not, are capable of making such a decision? Or that they should ever be asked to make such a decision?

Suffice it to say: informed consent this is not.

What it is is an extreme example -- but a useful one, nonetheless -- of the essential powerlessness of children.

Or to put it another way: It is a chilling reminder of how much children are at the mercy of the adults who, by chance or design, control their lives.

Usually, of course, it is the accident of birth that places children with those adults responsible for protecting and guiding them: their parents. Unfortunately, however, this is no guarantee that a child will be protected during his or her most helpless and vulnerable years.

It was, after all, the choice of the parents and not the children to become involved in the Branch Davidians, a renegade sect headed up by failed rock star David Koresh. Like all children do, they simply followed their parents.

Now the 17 children who remain in the compound may be trapped in a tragedy they don't understand and can't control.

In other words, these children have not been treated with respect by David Koresh. Or by their parents. They have been treated like objects instead of individuals with rights; like things to be used by the adults who possess them.

But, given that definition, you don't have to confine such observations to children who live in cults with the likes of David Koresh. It applies to many children.

One could, of course, cite the recent case of Katie Beers as a perfect example of a child deprived of her childhood.

Or the "home alone" case last Christmas in which an Illinois couple left their children without supervision for nine days while they vacationed in Mexico.

Or the many cases of sexual abuse of children by parents which, I believe, is the ultimate form of treating a child as an object.

But those are the easy examples of how our society -- which likes to think of itself as child-oriented -- has ignored the needs of many children.

In a very fundamental way, we seem to have taken away from our children the very concept of childhood.

Which is to say: We are fast doing away with the idea that children need a period of "innocence" -- a time in which they are protected by family from the pressures of the outside world.

Increasingly, the traditional perception of childhood innocence is being replaced by what child psychologist David Elkind calls "childhood competence." And this shift has brought about a radical change in the way we view the purpose of childhood.

"Families tend to thrust children and teen-agers forward to deal with realities of the outside world at ever earlier ages," writes Dr. Elkind. "This has resulted in what I have called the 'hurrying' of children to grow up fast."

What "growing up fast" means in terms of the everyday lives of children, says Dr. Elkind, includes "teaching 4 and 5 year olds about AIDS and child abuse and providing 'toys' that simulate pregnancy or the dismemberment that accidents can cause unbuckled-up car occupants."

Kids, of course, are pliable and eager to please and -- as demonstrated by the kids in David Koresh's cult -- will go along with whatever the adults are pushing. They may even seem to absorb the complex ideas being fed to them.

But Dr. Elkind warns that kids are not nearly as competent as we like to think they are. And, by shortening the protective period of childhood we have placed children under inordinate stress.

Society's decision to view children as more competent than they really are, he suggests, "is a convenient fiction for parents suffering a time-famine."

Of course, many parents do indeed suffer a "time-famine." The stresses of contemporary life may even account for some families seeking out the "security" of life in a cult.

But precisely because of these stresses, children today need their childhood more than ever.

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