Kay S. Hymowitz
Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future … And Ours
VTR Date: December 15, 1999
Kay Hymowitz discusses how childhood is being taught and bought into oblivion.
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GUEST: Kay Hymowitz
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I must admit that it wasn’t until I read, Ready Or Not: Why Treating Children As Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours, published by the Free Press, that I full well realized what a thoughtless exercise I had myself participated in decades ago while a member of a university committee on in loco parentis, “crazy like a parent” as we disparagingly dismissed the notion then, basically swallowing the faulted and destructive new anti-cultural tradition position that young people really need not be parented all that much, perhaps not even really even be taught, by their parents or even by their teachers for that matter.
Rather, my academic colleagues and I foolishly embraced the philiarchy notion, as opposed to matriarchy or patriarchy that is so wisely critiqued by Kay Hymowitz, my guest today in Ready Or Not: Why Treating Children As Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours, her compelling account of how our youngsters’ very childhood has perhaps been taught and bought into oblivion. Indeed, what impresses me most about Ready Or Not is that it seems as much an attack on consumerism, and the dictates of an untrammeled free market as it is on anti-culturalism, on too many educationalist views that parents and teachers need not, indeed must not, transmit values and knowledge, but rather act simply as facilitators of our kids’ whims, wishes and instincts. All of which makes for an extraordinarily interesting book and I just wondered what you expect the answer to it can be in terms of what we should be doing.
HYMOWITZ: Well, it’s interesting, I’ve been finding that parents and…and teachers and most of the adults I’ve been speaking to are actually very fatalistic at this point about children.
HYMOWITZ: Yes, it’s as if they feel they really don’t have any control, they generally blame the media, of course. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m raising three kids … actually two of them are in college already. And my experience has been that we an enormous amount of influence over our children. And there’s a great deal that we can do, despite the omnipresence of a very toxic media culture.
HEFFNER: But you say “we”. What do you mean by “we”. What kinds of people have that kind of influence and control? Are you talking about all parents?
HYMOWITZ: Oh, I think all parents do if they decide that they … believe that they do and if they decide to take charge that way. There are a lot of parents who are holding back. I don’t know that … I guess what I’m trying to get across in Ready Or Not is that a lot of people have assumed that that isn’t even their job. That, that, that what they really should be doing is let the child kind of blossom and develop on, on his or her own. That the children have within them all of the capacities, the talents, the interests, the curiosity, the drive, the ambition and the values that they need, and they really don’t have to do that much. My point, really here is to say that we’ve been encouraged by a set of bad ideas, really. That this isn’t just a matter of forces that we have no control over. These were human ideas and I think a new set of ideas can have some power over them.
HEFFNER: I’m interested that when you go through all of this and you come to the end of the book you have this, this little spike in optimism, or of optimism …
HEFFNER: … and you think we can. And you say now, “we can reverse this”. May I ask you whether you think it’s likely that we will in the 21st century reverse this?
HYMOWITZ: That’s a different question, isn’t it?
HEFFNER: Yes, it is.
HEFFNER: It is.
HYMOWITZ: The answer to that question is no. I think there are a lot of forces working against the ideas that I’m trying to get across here. I think that we really are, are putting more and more emphasis on our work and careers … we adults, that is. We have less and less understanding of children and what they’re like. We’re more and more detached from them. I was amazed to see some figures recently that said that there … what is it … 26 percent of households now are married couples with children. What this means … and that’s versus 30-some percent some years ago. And seventy percent probably at the beginning of the century. What this means is that there are an awful lot of people out there who are not having direct experience with children. And are not really, therefore, in, in a position to understand what they’re like.
HEFFNER: So are you “spitting against the wind”?
HYMOWITZ: Well, I hope not. I intend to keep doing it. [Laughter, while Heffner remarks] I know … I don’t know the answer to that. How can anybody know what’s coming? The fact is that there are…is some self-correction in this culture. This is a rapidly changing society we live in. It’s … people are constantly having to look around them and decide what’s going on. I’m hearing, for instance, from children a recognition that things are not quite right. Can they then, when they get older, correct them? And do things the way that their parents didn’t do them? Well, it’s happened before, I suppose it’s possible. I do think though that there are reasons to think it’ll be extremely difficult for them.
HYMOWITZ: Well, there are a number of things. One is, of course, the divorce rate. One, one thing that would have to happen I think is it would have to go down, and we’d also have to see fewer single parent families. For this reason … one of the things that happens in those families is that children are given more and more responsibility, they’re treated more and more like adults, for the simple reason that parents aren’t … don’t have the same kind of time, when there’s just one parent raising a child or several children for that matter. So it becomes much more difficult then for the child to have this kind of protected childhood that I’m arguing is terribly important to our society and to the individual child. Now, what tends to happen, of course, is that with a high divorce rate, divorce becomes more acceptable, kids who grow up in divorced homes are more likely to divorce. So it becomes … that, that becomes ones of the strengths that will make it more difficult to undo some of these ideas that I’m talking about here.
HEFFNER: You mentioned the media before …
HEFFNER: … and you do spend a good deal of time on the media. What’s the role that you see that the media have played?
HYMOWITZ: The media… has helped us… in our … in our… what I call “teening of childhood”, it has helped to turn children, younger children into teenagers. If you look at a lot of the ads and TV shows for that matter on the air right now you’ll see that the children are… meant to look like and act like teenagers. Even on some of the young children shows, the Nickelodeon shows, for instance … well, at least the ads, you have teenagers who are singing the ads, and who basically are saying to the … these very, very young children … “you know, come along, be like me, you want to be like a teenager”. And sure enough, in the last ten years we’ve seen a remarkable increase in a kind of teen-like qualities in children between eight and 12. I have a 12 year old at home, that’s how I know for sure this is happening. But marketers have been spotting this for some time. And they came up with the term “tweens”; they’re calling these kids now “tweens”. They don’t act like children in the way that they used to; they don’t play with toys, for instance. They’re interested in fashion, they’re interested in R rated movies; they don’t even think of themselves as children. So the media’s had a tremendous influence here. On the other hand, and this again gets to the optimistic side …
HEFFNER: I was just thinking that … right.
HYMOWITZ: [Laughter] That was your next question, right. I do think that parents act as mediators of the media and sometimes we forget how important their role is. I’ve seen this in my own experience with my children. We not only tell them what they can and can’t watch, we not only give them, or don’t give them televisions … by the way, at this point, it’s something like two-thirds of all children have televisions in their room. And those children are not generally being supervised as to what they’re watching. But we also are telling them what we value … like, for instance, we might … my husband and I might bring home a movie that we think is wonderful. And say to our children, “here … now here’s a good movie unlike the junk that you sometimes are attracted to”.
HEFFNER: But it’s so interesting that you still say in most homes there isn’t that kind of supervision …
HEFFNER: … and so I keep wondering, “well now where does Kay get this optimism?” Where does … how does she conclude that in the final analysis it may well work out?
HYMOWITZ: No. I didn’t say that. I said it could.
HYMOWITZ: And I’m not arguing that it will. I think it can. I think that there, I guess what I’m saying is that we should fight this kind of fatalism that there’s really nothing that can be done. I do think that parents have more power than sometimes people are admitting today. That’s really my major point. It’s not that I so much think that parents will seize the controls, but rather that they could, if they wanted to.
HEFFNER: They could. Your assumption though in terms of the pessimism that I got you to express is that they in all likelihood, won’t.
HYMOWITZ: That’s correct.
HEFFNER: What brought this about?
HYMOWITZ: Which …
HEFFNER: The, the divorce you mentioned … but when there is a unitary home, when there is a mother and a father …
HEFFNER: … and we have a home setting, we don’t find very much of the control …
HEFFNER: … that you talked about as being possible.
HEFFNER: Why not?
HYMOWITZ: Because we … about thirty years ago we saw a very dramatic change in the way people began to think about children. I think it was an elaboration of a very American ideal. We Americans don’t like the idea of authority, really. We baulk against the idea that we should have to tell somebody else what to do, how to behave, how to think, how to feel. And I do believe that that expands to children as well. It’s not so easy to just come home and behave un-American around our children. Unlike the way we’re acting in the rest of our lives. And something happened in the sixties, and the early seventies, which I don’t think I need to go into too much … you know, and everybody knows … that there was an elaboration of this ideal, of the American ideal of autonomy and individuality. And it got expanded to children where it really had no business being. It got expanded to the idea that children, too, did not need to be told how to behave, how to act, what to believe. And this is the mistake I believe we’ve made.
HEFFNER: Why do you call this an “anti-cultural” tradition?
HYMOWITZ: Well, I call it “anti-cultural” because it’s a kind of clumsy word to kind of capture this idea that the notion that arose at this time was that children could develop outside of, and even in opposition to culture. That they had within them all of these qualities and I spoke of before, that they didn’t need to be taught them. Let me give you an, a kind of interesting example that came up in a radio interview I did recently. Somebody called and said, “well, we should let children choose”, for instance, what books they want to read or what movies they want to see because they’ll learn from experience when they’re wrong, if they’ve chosen something bad.
HEFFNER: Learning from doing.
HYMOWITZ: Yes, exactly. But the interesting thing there is that that caller assumed that the child had taste. That in other words, taste wasn’t something learned. That’s an anti-cultural idea. It’s as if that a sense of refinement and taste that we hope our children will develop over time is already there and all we have to do is let the child develop it. I don’t believe that true. I think children learn taste.
HEFFNER: In that we provide that culture.
HEFFNER: And that cultural setting.
HEFFNER: You, you talked before about parents giving guidance. For twenty years I was Chairman of the film rating system and I remember George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School … a wonderful man, who when he came here, said the same thing. He dismissed the system as being an “upper middle class conceit” …
HYMOWITZ: Oh …
HEFFNER: … and I wondered when you spoke about what parents can do, whether you’re not really talking about those of us who are blessed with time and financial resources and education and not talking about the mass of Americans.
HYMOWITZ: I think what I would answer to that is this … there … the time…let me address the time issue actually, first of all, because people bring that up a lot, and it is terribly important. The most recent studies have shown that parents have something like 22 hours… fewer hours a week with their children than they did thirty years ago. And that’s quite a remarkable shift. However, I always come back to this. I’ve seen so many parents who are working fairly long hours … there’s, I think there is a point of no return, by the way. But who are working fairly long hours, and doing just a wonderful job with their children. On the other hand, I see stay-at-home parents who are indulging all of these bad ideas I’m talking about, so don’t think it’s clear that time is the whole story. There are a lot of parents who are with their kids a lot and simply don’t know what their job is.
HEFFNER: Well, in Ready or Not, you make a good deal of the impact of merchandizing and marketing upon our children. And you, you, you quote statistics that indicate, as you just did before, that they’re moving up … childhood is gone
HEFFNER: … for all practical purposes. Do you ever feel motivated to say, “we must do something about this”.
HYMOWITZ: About …
HEFFNER: What about an individual level … would we … talking about being anti-cultural …
HEFFNER: … we, to protect our culture must do something.
HYMOWITZ: Well, I’m all in favor of grass roots organizations that are arguing with the media. I think those arguments are very important and I think the media really … there are a lot of people in the media who are a little bit cowardly and will succumb to some of these complaints. So if you’re talking about government regulations, for instance, I simply don’t see how most of those would work in these situations. So I would argue that it has to come from grass roots.
HEFFNER: Do you expect that it will come effectively?
HYMOWITZ: Well …
HEFFNER: In case you’re right? (???)
HYMOWITZ: … there certainly are a lot of people who are screaming and yelling. I have to admit, however, that I … after Columbine, for instance, there was so much talk about the violence in the media and then I came across these figures saying that some … that two-thirds of kids have televisions in their rooms. So there, there are definitely… mixed signals coming from here. No I’m not sure that people will care that much. I’m not sure that people are as even suspicious of the media as they ought to be.
HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute … interesting … that people care that much … what do you mean?
HYMOWITZ: I’m not sure that people are really as concerned about what their kids are watching as they, as they ought to be. I see a lot of parents who say to me things like, “well, I trust my kids”. You know, or, “I’m not worried my child is going to turn into one of them” … somebody who’s going to take out a gun. And they’re probably right, the child is not. But that’s not the point, of course. What they’re forgetting is that these stories that children are hearing, whether they’re reading them in story books, whether they’re seeing them on the television, or on the big screen, are a part of their socialization. Kids learn from stories. We all remember stories from our own childhoods that, that had an impact on us. And what they’re forgetting is that whether or not it teaches exactly, for instance, that violent movie teaches to kill, it’s teaching something. I can’t, you know, I can’t speak about it very broadly here because it depends on the specific example. But the point is stories are a socializing force, and parents ought to be taking them much more seriously than they are.
HEFFNER: What do you think leads us not to … a kind of care-less-ness, a selfishness, a desire not to get that much involved because that means more of our time. It means taking us away from our own enjoyments?
HYMOWITZ: To be fair, a lot of what I’m talking about here has never been the responsibility of parents before.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
HYMOWITZ: Well, what I mean is that the culture made it much easier on parents because the stories that were available to kids, were better than they are now. Now parents … what I’m saying is, you have to go watch all those movies or think very hard about what movies your kids are watching. We didn’t have to worry about anything like that thirty, forty years ago, did you? So … although there were always attempts to protect children from certain kinds of information, and I suppose from certain media. It wasn’t much that you really had to worry about. It was safe out there. What I’m really describing here, and I think this is why you’re sounding skeptical about just how much parents can do. And you’re right about this, is this is an enormous project that I’m describing. It takes, not just time, but a lot of thoughtfulness that parents who never in the past had to do … or had to engage in, and you’re right, it’s extremely difficult.
HEFFNER: It was some months back that the President said “the v-chip” was going to put power back in the hands of the parents. Well, it had never left the hands of the parents who were willing to exercise that …
HYMOWITZ: That’s true. Yes.
HEFFNER: … power. Who had the intention to exercise that power. But I wanted to ask you something … what did you mean by Ready or Not?
HYMOWITZ: [Laughter] Well, “ready or not” of course refers to the children’s gang. But what it means is that children…we’re treating children as if they’re ready to understand things and do things that they are not ready to do. I … let me think of another example that we might put in here. Oh, one of my favorites in, in one of my early chapters that I like to mention is that kids today … that if you look at the advice literature, for instance, a lot of the popular advice givers … Dr. Spock, Penelope Leach, people like that, have described a very young child as if they know exactly what they need in terms of their food, their toilet training, and all sorts of … and their weaning, and all sorts of things like that. One of the examples that I thought was so interesting was that the assumption became, it’s some… about thirty years ago that kids, for instance in toilet training could decide when they were ready. What we’ve seen though is that we, we’ve had an increasing number of kids who are using a new product … it’s diapers for four-year olds (laughter) because …
HEFFNER: They’ve never been ready.
HYMOWITZ: (Laugher) … they’ve never been ready. This is again an anti-cultural idea. In most cultures it’s up to the adults around to sort of say, “now it’s time”. But instead, our culture will say, “tell me … you tell me when you want it”. And, of course, some kids are saying, “I don’t want it at all”.
HEFFNER: Of course, I think… in a sense, to the degree that you mentioned Dr. Spock, who I think was here once or twice, I think you give him a bum rap.
HYMOWITZ: Well, remember my point about Dr. Spock is not the usual one you hear. Alright my criticism is not the usual one you hear that he’s … was too permissive. That’s …I think that the real problem with Dr. Spock is not that he liked, or was willing to accept bratty children … he was not.
HEFFNER: I know.
HYMOWITZ: And I, and I make that point very clearly. However, I think he was a little optimistic about what children were like. And anti-cultural in that sense.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, one has to say then, is Kay Hymowitz a little too optimistic about, about what parents might be like. One of the reviewers of your book said, “Loved the book (appropriately enough)” and then said about the optimism at the end, “Maybe she doesn’t remember that the Romans left a great tradition which disappeared because they’re weren’t others who could build”. And I just wonder whether you’re, you’re not… too optimistic about what we might do to correct ourselves.
HYMOWITZ: Remember, I’m not just talking about parents here. I think we’ve been perhaps mentioning them too much. I’m talking about teachers as well, and all adults. I think that a culture … it isn’t just a matter of parents in isolation raising children. I think the entire culture takes part in the preparation of the young for the, for the future. Teachers, of course, play a very important role. We haven’t talked about them. They can do a lot also to change these anti-cultural ideas that I’ve been talking about.
HEFFNER: But these teachers are the grown up versions of these children earlier on.
HYMOWITZ: Again, the question isn’t “will they” or “are they likely to”, it is rather “can they?”
HEFFNER: You know it’s interesting, you talk about teachers, you write about John Dewey and you say at the same time that Dewey was expressing his ideas, over in Vienna Sigmund Freud was expressing somewhat dimmer views about these little beings that we call children.
HYMOWITZ: Yes. One of the points that I make throughout this book is that we have, perhaps, an overly optimistic view about what children are capable of doing on their own, in an anti-cultural setting. And Dewey is one example of that. But I should mention that Americans have always been very, very optimistic about human nature, and I don’t want to just completely throw that over. I do think, though, we went … we have gone too far. If we look at some of the theories, for instance, of the education experts that I cite in my book. You’ll see that the assumption is the child is really so self-regulating and so constructive, it’s as if, as I mentioned, that Freud, Freud had never described little Hanz at all.
HEFFNER: And you think, do you see any movement away from this posture?
HYMOWITZ: I do. I think that educators are changing their tune. One of the problems, of course, is that in any change … it doesn’t necessarily take the form, precisely the form that you had hoped. (Laughter) Of course there is a tremendously powerful movement right now in education circles to, towards standards and testing and that sort of thing. And I’m not necessarily opposed to that. But of course those…standards and testing are only as good as the standards and tests are, and that’s what I think remains to be seen. So that I don’t think there’s anything specifically about that, that procedure that will necessarily work. It depends on the content.
HEFFNER: And the media?
HYMOWITZ: The media … you mean will there be any improvement in the media? No! I don’t think so. I think that we have a generation of kids who are growing up knowing what they know about the media and who are only going to keep running with it and… making it … well, at any rate, they’re not, they’ve…we’ve kind of lost the strain …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
HYMOWITZ: … well, I think that, for instance, my children … it was very difficult to get them to watch a black and white movie … just to give you an example. So that what happens is that they become more and more familiar with their own present and very relevant, you know, quote-unquote, movies, and that I think is what … what worries me is that we’ll have a generation of… people in the media who will simply only know the last ten to fifteen years and have very little understanding of the, the broader tradition that, that might help to enrich their own, own productions in the future.
HEFFNER: As a teacher of college students, I know that’s true …
HYMOWITZ: Ah, yes.
HEFFNER: And it couldn’t be, couldn’t be otherwise.
HYMOWITZ: Well, of course, that’s partly a failure of educators, isn’t it?
HEFFNER: Failure of educators and failure of parents.
HEFFNER: We haven’t done very well, have we?
HYMOWITZ: No, I don’t think so.
HEFFNER: And I gather you see the result is … well, your, your sub-title, “Why treating children as small adults endangers their future and ours”.
HYMOWITZ: Yes. Let me comment a little bit on the … some of the meaning of that sub-title. One of the things that happens when we don’t adequately socialize children is that they become much more… prisoners of their impulses, much more impulsive, much more chaotic and I think what happens … what has to happen at that point, very unfortunately is that we have more coercive measures that we have to take with those kids. A lot of the zero tolerance policies, for instance, that we’re seeing now in the schools, that people are rightfully complaining about, are inevitable though, when children are not being adequately socialized. One of the examples that I give in the book of a, of an anti-cultural force was a decision made by the Supreme Court in 1969 that gave students the Constitutional right to free speech. Well, what happened with that is that we now … we then have students who are saying all sorts of things in school that teachers feel reluctant to correct. And that means then that you get sexual harassment codes because teachers are not doing the job they need to do to socialize children. You need, you need the law to move in.
HEFFNER: It’s not a very pretty picture that you paint, but it is one that I think everyone should be familiar with, so that … our time is up and I have to say “thank you” for writing Ready or Not and Kaye Hymowitz, the sub-title is so compelling “Why treating children as small adults endangers their future and ours”. And thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
HYMOWITZ: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.