Childhood was a liberal, do-gooder idea -- so let's abolish it

August 08, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Now that we have repealed welfare, I have a modest proposal. Let's go all the way and rescind childhood.

Childhood has become far too burdensome for the American public to bear. It isn't good for the country. It isn't even good for children who are captured in an unwholesome and prolonged state of dependency.

The whole idea of childhood, it should be remembered, is nothing but an anachronistic leftover from the original liberals. Before the so-called Enlightenment, before Rousseau, before the left-wing conspiracy of 18th-century do-gooders, the young were dressed, worked and looked upon as short adults.

Children existed, but they didn't have their own 'hood -- a place where they were supposed to be educated and nurtured until they reached maturity. Adolescence, for that matter, wasn't invented until the early 20th century. Nor was the concept of juvenile as in delinquency, nor the notion of teen-age as in pregnancy.

But now we are stuck with this useless thing called childhood, a drain on the private and public exchequers. Not to mention a merciless drag on private and public conscience.

Teensy-weensy reservation

Consider what happened when Congress passed and the president approved the ''Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996'' (a k a welfare reform). The only teensy-weensy reservations about cutting $56 billion from the poorest Americans, ending the federal guarantee of assistance to poor families and launching them into the un- known had to do with children.

There are still a handful of people troubled by the fact that America has the highest child-poverty rates of any industrialized country and that when this ''reform'' clicks in, a million more children are expected to become poor.

Why not eliminate all this messy, counterproductive guilt? Why not apply the same principles of ''personal responsibility'' and ''work opportunity'' to our youngest citizens? I am not alone in my plan, though perhaps I am the first to put it quite so baldly.

We are already erasing the line between childhood and adulthood whenever we want to. At the Olympics, we had 14-year-old gymnasts on the ''Women's Team.'' In the states, we now have plans to try 13-year-old lawbreakers as adults. In Congress they are considering doing away with juvenile jails and ''mainstreaming'' kids with older criminals.

Across the world, the ''new economy'' is using kids as a way to meet global competition.

Most Americans already recognize that childhood is simply not cost-effective. If children were once economic assets, they are now deficits, unlikely to ever pay back our investments.

So only a third of our households have anyone under 18 in them today. Communities that once felt a collective responsibility for the next generation now regard children as private property to be exclusively maintained by their owners.

If we eliminated the entire notion of childhood we wouldn't have to worry about children having children. Or about child care. Or after-school care. Or school. Child labor would become another ''work opportunity.''

Of course, we could retain childhood as a luxury item for those who could afford it. Sort of like an Ivy League college. The rest, the poor especially, will have to do without childhood the way they do without so much else.

It takes a village to raise a child, as the former Hillary Clinton -- somebody file a missing person report on her -- once wrote. But the village has now given instructions to the government: Everyone is on her own. The last great evil in America today is dependency. The last remaining ''culture of dependency'' is, of course, childhood. Is it any wonder that it has to go?

If my modest proposal seems too harsh, may I remind you of the one Jonathan Swift offered in 1729: ''A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.''

Swift proposed, modestly and satirically, that the Irish young be sold and eaten. They would be as well off as growing up in poverty under British policy.

I would never suggest such a thing. But come to think of it, this reckless ''reform'' is also cutting food stamps by about a fifth. Maybe Swift was just ahead of his time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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