The end of childhood as we've known it

January 09, 1998|By Ronald W. Dworkin

FOR progressives, a favorite metaphor for history is that of a train roaring down a railroad track. Time marches on, never looping back, and coming to an end when all is fair and equal. In recent years, the cause of children's rights has been adapted to this model of history. Every legal right awarded to children is seen as moving society down a new track. Every effort to ''empower'' children to preserve their right to ''choose'' is seen as forward progress.

Old World ways

But on the time line of history, this reform effort is having the opposite effect. Advocates for children are causing America to return to a way of life not seen since the Old World. The division between childhood and adulthood, once quite rigid in American culture, is starting to blur.

While strolling through a museum, its not uncommon to come across old paintings of children dressed up like adults. The 10-year-old son of an 17th-century noble, for example, might be dressed in full hunting costume or a gentleman's uniform. This was not done simply to make the posing child look cute. Rather, it was because children in Old World Europe (especially in aristocratic circles) were looked upon as ''little adults.''

The children of that era were not rigidly separated from their adult contemporaries. Both would play at the same games (often with the same toys) and attend the same nightspots and theatrical performances. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries, in America and Europe, that a special and vulnerable stage of life known as ''childhood'' came into being.

In this new era, certain kinds of play, such as fiddling with toys or reading out loud, were reserved for children. Other activities, like gambling, theater-going and cafe-hopping, were forbidden to them. A rigid distinction between childhood and adulthood came into being as children were looked upon as dependent creatures requiring care and protection.

This distinction is beginning to fade, and we are returning to the earlier model, though with a decidedly modern twist. Children's rights advocates in the 19th century emphasized the right of children to be loved and cared for. They emphasized a child's vulnerable status and his or her need for a nurturing environment.

First lady's role

Many of today's advocates (including First Lady Hillary Clinton) have a different goal in mind, awarding children the legal rights of adults. The right to exercise ''choice'' in lifestyles and living arrangements or the right to sue one's parents in court is promoted in the name of ''autonomy.'' Mrs. Clinton has argued in a well-known legal article that children should be able to represent themselves in disputes because, like adults, they are the best judge of their own interests.

The effect of this right is to obliterate the distinction between childhood and adulthood. It argues that ''unfair'' encumbrances have been placed on young people, which require a legal stance no less aggressive than that taken by the poor and the disabled. The progressive effort is really to factor out childhood from a person's situation, just as the effort is to factor out poverty or disability from the life of an adult, so as to guarantee full ''equality of opportunity'' and individual freedom.

Many children's advocates (for example, at the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund) gather support for their cause by emphasizing the similarities between children and adults. Advocates tell adults that children have problems with self-esteem and identity just like them.

In this way, the life's experience of an adult and a child begin to merge. For both, life is a series of emotional traumas, with personal ''growth'' being the consequence of some intense experience. Maturation no longer requires the guiding hand of parental authority so much as it does the opportunity to learn more about the self -- to suffer, to feel and to emote.

Popular culture

This attitude is reflected in some of the decade's more popular television shows. In ''Beverly Hills 90210,'' children are granted adult-like status by virtue of the intense emotional experiences they go through in their daily lives. Like adults, they ''grow'' through feeling. They love and they hate. They are upbeat one day and confused the next.

In a show called ''Party of Five,'' the parents are removed from the family altogether and five children raise themselves by coping with stress -- making difficult choices and sharing pain with their peers. Both the children and the adults who guest star on the show suffer through the same emotional juggernaut. The ''vulnerable'' stage of childhood that existed in 19th century America disappears altogether. It is replaced with a life's experience that is traumatic and confusing at times, but no less traumatic and confusing than it is for adults.

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