The Meaning of the Child in American Life

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SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 1959
MODERATOR: Richard D. Heffner
GUESTS: Dr. Peter Neubauer, Dr. Barbara Biber, Mr. A. D. Buchmueller
VTR: 03/15/1959

The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today “The Meaning of the Child in American Life”. Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher, and author of “A Documentary History of the United States.”
Tomorrow in New York City on Monday, March 16, 1959, at the Hotel Roosevelt, the Child Study Association of America is going to hold its thirty-fifth annual conference. Its subject “Facing an Explosive World! What Commitments for our Children?” And its from this conference that we get today’s subject.
I’d like to read the first paragraph that describes the conference. It says, “Throughout our world today there exists a profound unrest, growing perhaps from a sense of ruthlessness in which the individual feels lost in the universe of gigantic forces beyond his control. Thoughtful parents and everyone who is responsible for the rearing and education of the new generation sense the danger and ask, what are the ways by which we may forestall in our children a feeling of being somehow diminished? How may we help them to find meaning in life and invigorating vistas? Well, we thought here that this paragraph and the whole theme of the conference related to the charge and the claim that is frequently made that
America is a child-focused, child-centered civilization.

And our guests today are peculiarly qualified to discuss this subject. Suppose I introduce you to them now. Our first guest is Dr. Peter Neubauer, who is the Director of the Child Development Center here in New York City. And my second guest is Dr. Barbara Biber, who is the research director of the Bank Street College of Education. My third guest is Mr. A. D. Buchmuelier, Executive Director of the Child Study Association of America. Well, as I agreed before the program Ill pick up this matter of child-focused and child-centered society and point out that Max Lerner, who in his “America as a Civilization” has written that the entire family plan, especially on the middle class level, canters around the child. And I wonder how you react to this idea?
Well, I’m sure Lerner has good reasons to make such a statement but I think it makes a focus on the child which is not quite justified if we look at society at large. And it may be worthwhile for our discussion to separate the responsibilities which social institutions in America take in relationship to the children from the role which families play to the children.
You mean in terms of social agencies and the rest we might be a child focused society?
No, I mean education, I mean the courts which deal with children, I mean all those social institutions which normally children come in contact with.

If you speak about those institutions and if you do not want to be comforted by the achievements of the past, but a little burdened by the challenge of the future, we must say that it is a woeful
limitation on fulfilling most basic responsibilities to the child. can give you one example which we may discuss later on as an example. For instance, you take New York City and we have here 800 schools in New York City and they have a bureau of Child Guidance whose talk it is to take care of those children with problems. This Bureau of Child Guidance can at best take care of 70 schools out of the 800. It
cannot give service to all the other 730 schools except when there are emergencies. One has to wait until the emergency about children’s life and development is such that somebody in New York City will step into the service. If you take such figures, and there are many, many more, into account, one could not quite say that we are justified to be romantic about our society’s obligation in relationship to the welfare of the child.
All right, I wonder though whether that very criticism which is repeated quite frequently is an indication that we are so concerned about the child as to justify the claim that we are child-centered. Dr. Biber.
Well, the way Dr. Neubauer has opened it up, how could
anyone disagree, or rather, one had to agree with the relative lack of fulfillment of what may be a purpose in our society, That is, we’re interested in the children, we care about them. We’re aware, we’re honest to admit it — we’re not really able to meet all the problems of difficult children and Mr. Buchmueller knows that too, but don’t we
have to separate where we fall short from certain purposes and

intentions and goals from the very goals and intentions themselves?

And I don’t think that if we take the whole roster of American life that the accounting would be so completely on the debit side. For example, if you turn for a moment from the social institutions and what they’re doing or what they’re failing to do, to some of the quality of family life, I think you see certain evidences of a child-focused culture that could be put down to rather positive gains.
I think that’s very true that in many respects we are a child-centered society and that there are certain values in this as well as in some ways that we are not, as Peter has pointed out. And that I think we need to take a closer look at what we mean when we say that we are or are not a child-centered society. What values there are, what positive constructive elements there are in being child-centered as it were,
Well, suppose we were to go back to Max Lerner’s sentence here, “The entire family plan, especially on the middle class
level’s centered around the child.” And this is the traditional, again, charge or claim that is made that parents and grandparents and maybe not the institutions, Dr. Neubauer, completely and as yet, but that generally we’re overwhelmingly concerned with the child and everything — just about everything we do focuses on the child.

Well, break it up a little….
You break it up.

…..well, what Dr. Lerner has said when he says the
whole family life is centered on the child, what does that really
mean? Now one thing I think that we can say in America life is
that the adults, the parents and the children live a life of greater
similarity of greater closeness or greater relaxation of more
mutuality of interest in conversation and argument and disagreement
than was once true of the American family itself or that is true
of any other culture. Now how do we look at that? Is that good,
is that bad, is that a sign we’re a child-focused culture?
I would like to add another
One question, yes
What’s your answer to that question, by the way, Dr.
I think at a time in which people have difficulties in finding their place in society, and at a time that is very difficult for us to guide the development of a child adequately and to safeguard the future for the child adequately, at this period it may then be that the middle class family appears to be protective or over protective in relationship to the child. But isn’t this to a certain degree the only measure which can be taken by the family against the influences of the society which is not sufficiently supporting in helping the child adequately. So the family falls back on its own resources and tries to do the best it can. And what
does society do — what does the family do?

It tries to safeguard the child’s development and his capacity and the child’s health as much as it can, without maybe even knowing what kind of an individual or what kind of values at the same time it should give to the child, if you are speaking now about the child again in relation to society. So what we have here is maybe a emphasis on family and child, maybe because there is an insufficient integration of the child within the social structure to bring this in itself out without emphasizing the other, seems to be with a brief criticism there, it may be worthwhile to spread the dimensions a little bit larger.
Mr. Buchmueller?
Yes, I was wondering, though, along the line you’re speaking now, that one of the things that happens is that parents in their struggles to do the kind of thing you were speaking of ofttimes behave in a way something of this sort. They behave as a result of their own anxieties and their own concerns about what is best for the child and attempt to do what is best and try to develop values that make sense to the parent…in terms of his own value judgments rather than what might be valuable for the child himself in the kind of world he is going to be living in when he becomes an adult.
Well, that’s a kind of question that I wanted really to raise and now I have three experts I can raise it because it *seemed to me that a great many people who seemed to be involved enormously with their children, are less concerned with their children than with
what being involved with their children means.

It is a positively good thing rather than a bad thing, being not involved or uninvolved is a bad thing, being involved is the good thing. Therefore, I wonder whether the concern for the children and the time that we spend with them isn’t as Mr. Buchmueller suggests, possibly told more in terms of what we think we should do to relive our own anxieties than in terms of our real concerns. Or am I misinterpreting?
Well, couldn’t one say that the great advantage, the great advances in a way which we have today in this field is for the first time we have opened up child development as a science, that we are able to give people certain information about children’s needs, children’s problems from age to age, those which they have to solve and how we can help them to solve them. We have made a good deal of this material available to parents. Parents have eagerly absorbed this, and addressed themselves to their children with a new sense of devotion and responsibility. And what may look like involvement may be a closer participation in the developmental problems of the child. On the other hand, I would add to this if I may take another minute that we may be forced into a position where the best thing we can do is today I like to give to my children the best I have, develop them the best I can and from then on I hope they will go out and do all right because What will go on outside, what world they will have to face 20 years from now, what the conflicts may be, I do not know and therefore I can’t really prepare them for this. I will give them the best equipment and I try to do this, maybe they will do all right, at least I pray they will.

You sound like a very protective parent.
Well, I think there’s also somewhat of a blind alley
when we separate so completely what happens within the family and
what happens outside the family because I think there are certain
lines of connection between the child in relation to the family and
society’s attitude in relation to children and….
They’re not divorced from each other.
I don’t think they are divorced from each other. Go back
to the first question. The extent to which we are now living a family life in which the parent figures no longer represent absolute authority as they once did and that the authority of the parents now presumably is finding a basis that can survive through mutuality and through acceptance and that the children really can accept the authority of the parent at the same time and through the same relationship with which they accept the love of the parent is not something that just affects the child and the family, it affects the child in school, it affects the teacher-child relationship, we hope, many of us, that it will affect it more in the future than it has in the past, it affects relations in industry, so that when we say a child-focused culture, I think we have to see it on a changing relationship between different status of different members of groups, whether it’s the family or the school or the industry. I think you can’t isolate it too much. Now, when Peter says do the best you can for your child and send him out into the cruel world, I think that’s a discontinuity too between the raising of children and the relation
of the parents to their world and the projected relation that

these children will have in the future world.
Yes, but Dr. Neubauer seems to be saying that this is in the nature of things and to suggest that this is about all that a parent can do.

Well I say more … DR. NEUBAUER
I’m not so sure.
It is in the nature of things, I think it is in the nature of our particular conflict in the mid-twentieth century, where the acceleration in the shifting values, in the changing social structure is such and the world situation is such that it is very difficult for us to find our own place and our own goals. As you know, there is this long discussion going on now, what should be the goal of education? How does one formulate this in a fast-shifting world? During this period what can one give to the child when we are very hard put to say what kind of a world do I want my child — can I prepare my child for? And this is so difficult. And I think it is more difficult than it was in the past, though I have no doubt that parents in the past thought it was difficult too. During this phase one somehow tries to put some emphasis where one can execute it.
Well, I think this is again one of the very sources of the conflict and the confusion that parents have. Some of these things I think, and I’m saying here too in relation to what Barbara was saying a while ago, that the change and shift in parental role from an authoritative one, and a kind of authoritative one in which there is a “no questions asked” kind of frameWork that parents are confused in
what are the different alternatives that are open.

As we were saying about what is responsibility of education, I think we do have more responsibility than just on the one hand saying, “Look, go out in the cruel world and see what happens to you?” as contrasted to “You must take what I say as the basis for making value judgments?” These are two extremes and I think there are other alternatives besides those two.
Yes, but you see it is my impression that the problem is not so much the problem of authority versus equality between the individuals in the family, if you take our topic literally, and you say childhood and society, I must come back to my original point that when you speak about society and you mean by this not only the family values but social institutions, it is true that child care is late to come, is still all in all neglected. that there are many, many sick children who don’t get care, that you steel with emergency measures all the way through, that you say we are so very much child-focused and we don’t find places where a child who is ill, either mentally or
emotionally disturbed, (see talk about my own field,) can find care.
This seems to be a little bit contradictory and one has to state that with all our good intentions, there is more to be done than what we have so far achieved.
Well, I want to know about a point that Dr. Biber was making before we went on the air that had to do with T think what you considered the commercialization of the role of the child, but you were saying that the child obviously plays a very important role because we cater to it commercially. We aim ourselves at the child.

Well, I think the position that Peter is taking, really, that we have as a child-focused society, we have certain noble goals. Peter’s pointing out to us how we fall short of those noble goals especially in the way our institutions served the child. He’s talking from his field about clinics and services to the disturbed child, I have to underline and emphasize what he says with a big black crayon about schools and education, the amount of money, the concept we have, the number of children per class, the way we train our teachers, all this as an institution, as a society, we are niggardly about compared to the luxurious way in which we satisfy other presumably important social wants. So that I certainly agree with him on the failings of our institutions, at the same time that I seem to want to bring to the focus certain of the positive directions in which we are moving think in the relation between child, children and people in our society. Now the point-I was making that you refer to is an instance in which the conflicts in our society hold back the full realization of goals which also exist in our society, well, cultural conflict and goals, values and ideals. And I think any of us as parents, as educators, as clinicians, people that are interested in public welfare of families, have to be very plain about which are our goals, which are our values, that we want the schools to accomplish, what we want the families to be, what we want the clinics to do. The point I was making was once you get clear about those goals and values, we can’t be ostriches and fail to recognize that we’re living in a culture that’s full of conflicting values and goals, and other people don’t like what we think and other people won’t support what we may support and that we therefore have a set of ideals to maintain.

Now commercialization of the child is one of the depressing aspects
of modern life to me. I don’t like to see my friend’s children’s
rooms so cluttered with things that you can’t get in, the children can’t get out. I mean, psychologically there’s grave doubt as to whether this plethora of objects adds to the children’s happiness….
Or well being.
…or well being. In fact it seems to reflect a failing
in the values and, the ideas of our whole society, namely that the
more things the happier the family will be, the parents will be,
the children will be, which is one of the illusions and unless we
really can act….
Or if the child gets nourishing cereal on TV presented to
him, he gets un-nourishing programs connected with it.
Well, this I think is a positive child-centered focus and
that is as we were saying our society, and that includes all of us,
tend to exploit childhood.
Well, don’t we have to accept knowing the difficulty of
social living in any society, that every good idea takes wing and
has some bad results as well as good. ones. Sure we understood
the children need to play, that toys, that expression through play
is an important part of development, Well, American being what
it is and manufacturers also being up and coming the way they are,
recognize, here are the markets, the more we sell the better.

We happen to live in a culture where children want what other children have and these parents who want to be devoted parents and aren’t so sure what really is the essence of devotion go along.
Well, that’s a pretty key expression, “who want to be
devoted parents” and I wonder whether that isn’t in a sense the key to what were talking about here, in a child-focused society. You’re not saying here who are devoted parents but who want to be devoted parents, and I wonder whether we can’t place some value judgment upon this seeming overwhelming desire. I suppose I could go back and find a number of cartoons in the New Yorker Magazine, any place, that would poke fun, — it’s sort of the opposite of what you were saying Dr. Neubauer, granted I think we all here in all seriousness hope that much more in the way of public funds be put into child development studies, and into all kinds of studies into education, etc., but there’s always some basis in reality for jokes and this notion that every place you look, you talked about, Dr. Biber, about the child’s room just crammed full of toys and the question of whether you can make this move or that move, let’s consult the child’s well being, isn’t there something to be criticized here about our focus,
I believe there is too, as you were indicating there, that most parents want to be devoted parents, whatever that may mean to a given set of parents. That means a variety of different things obviously to different parents.

You mean what it means about them or what it means to them? MR. BUCHMUELLER:
What it means about them and to them both. But relating that to something you were saying before, this matter of exploitation, that is we are living in a society of conflicts, which certainly I would agree with entirely. Isn’t it true that one of the kinds of goals, one of the kinds of things that we strive to do in order to help children mature is to help them face this fact and learn how to deal with conflicts more adequately than weave been able to do before.
But in order for parents to accept this element as part of being a good parent, that you have to really help your child to get the strength not to avoid conflict but to fulfill yourself by being able to live with it and being a deeper and a deepened human being because you have lived with it, in order for parents to really accept this as part of their role with children, they have to have the inner courage themselves which is somewhat counter to the mainstream of American life which is not to learn how to resolve and live with conflict and be a deeper person because of it, but to avoid it, to take the easy path.
Because 1 think that this is one of the reactions that
we face.
This is one of our problems.
Dr. Neubauer?

If being child-focused would mean that we gave an over-gift to the child it definitely would run contradictory to all the kind of a message which goes in the field of education or child development that we would like to give to parents. Since it is not the material giving, and then the camp and the early trips to
Europe and the entertainment at early ages and the parties and even the telephone which is introduced and all these things which are given, but naturally I must stress and stress over and over again that it is not so much the amount of time and it certainly is not the material goods but it is the greater degree not only of affection but as you have said the understanding of the specific conflicts which the child has to master and it is not the avoidance of the conflicts
but helping the child to finally solve them. Now this degree of relationship to the child would make this kind of a criticism naturally one which is more a part of misunderstanding, maybe of middle class concept of what is good than it is inherent in what we would wish to be parent-child relationships.
Well then, don’t we have to discuss this in a sense on two levels. One on the material level and that level we seem to be child-focused. Now, lets put aside the matter of whether we put enough into education, enough into the institutions you are talking about, but in the family level, we seem to interpret being child focused as giving things, giving material things, and what you seem to be saying is, that this is, can be, and probably is the anti-thesis of being truly child-focused, being truly concerned with the role and the well-being of the child, so that what looks to Mr. Lerner as a child-focused society, is rather a materialistic
society in which giving things to children

And doing for..,.
Doing for, seems to absolve parents of a great many other responsibilities. I think maybe the problem is that we’re arguing about child focus – you’re saying we’re not really child focused and in a sense others say we are child focused but what we mean by that is that the parent thinks he is concerned with the child’s well being when he piles things on top of the child, makes for that full room that you were talking about Dr. Biber. Is that a fair way of putting it?
I think they all have stressed it, that the more they learn about development the more we know about the necessity of the needs to master, the necessity of having problems which is part of development and the necessity of learning how to cope with them, which parents can’t do for the child but can only help the child to achieve. Now this is the best sense of helping and being child-focused.
So man is not child focused when he makes sure that his child is not confronted with problems.
I wonder if there isn’t something else that we have somewhat left out of this which I think plays some role in it as far as the confusion and the anxiety and conflicts that parents have, and that is — as stated in the quotation that you made at the beginning of the program, and that is, the kind of forces, at least seemingly, and I think realistically are at least to some extent, outside of the control of the parents that have something to do with what goes on within the family also.
You mean the whole troubles of our atomic age – that one hardly can find certainty or standards,
The kinds of tensions and the sources of the tensions…
Well, isn’t this what you meant, Dr. Neubauer, by saying the world in which we are going to project ourselves.
And it’s difficult to do so.
It’s impossible. It is very difficult to judge the
adequacy of education, of family life, without taking into account the problems which the family faces in society. The degree, for :_rstance, in which our society fails us yet, to have centers which study human development. Everyone would think this should be for a democracy, one of the most important responsibilities, that the human resource is developed to its utmost. This is our future, this is what we will build on, this is what we have to know more and more about and that you can’t count it on the fingers of one hand and that it came in very, very late and that it’s still so very, very much in the beginning, then one would have to say is that whatever efforts the parents make, it would need to be supported, no doubt, by the full resources of the democracy which naturally has to support this.

And, of course, that’s why the Child Study Association
tomorrow is going to have its conference. Thanks so much for joining
me today, Dr. Neubauer, Dr. Biber, Mr. Buchmueller. We’ll be back
on The Open Mind next week. See you then.

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