Mobilize the Children to Bridle the Adults

January 12, 1994|By VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

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 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 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 lTC 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 speak 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,'' Dr. 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 out 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'.''

Dr. Reynolds is not some teen-aged 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 shoot-out.

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.

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