Vance Packard, the distinguished critic of American society, has spent a lifetime stalking our enemies. More than any other writer-critic extant, he knows how to stir statistics into his prose and keep it palatable -- which is not to say that we don't choke upon what he has to say. And in this, his ninth book, "Our Endangered Children," Packard serves us a quietly terrifying portrait of a nation in which children are sown, like wheat upon rocky terrain, and often perish.
You will not enjoy this book any more than you would enjoy being locked up in a video arcade room for a weekend. But the wonder is that Packard had the strength to complete it without succumbing to despair.
Today's "child according to Packard" must cope with stresses that put him or her "at risk" from the beginning: an "inhospitable birthing system," unstable or single-parent homes, deficient day care, demoralized schools, and anti-child, crime-ridden neighborhoods. And these are just the broad-brush outlines of the predicament as outlined in an early chapter, "What It Means To Be Young Today."
"The notion still persists that America is a uniquely child-centered society," comments Packard. Yet "a deep malaise has rather swiftly come over child raising" in this country. There is no one answer that explains it, of course. But Packard -- surrounded by charts; surveys, psychological studies, and census reports, as well as his friends and common sense -- attempts to give a number of answers explaining why we have become a nation that often honors children in the breach.
I doubt that most parents beyond the pram stage of child-rearing will find anything wildly new or out of synch with their own undocumented experiences. In a culture that is highly materialistic, economically unstable, and full of deleterious influences from television to drugs, families find themselves in communities where their root systems are continually befouled or threatened, without having the strength to pull up and out. Like freeway shrubbery, a child must be resistant to pollution to survive from one day to the next.
Packard's strength lies in the voluminous information he has acquired to document our individual case histories. Like a prosecuting attorney with a table full of courtroom exhibits, he relentlessly pursues his case:
"Nearly half the children born in the last few years will spend a portion of their lives living in a one-parent household . . ."
"Now only a minority of families eat a supper together around a table." (Half of those sit before a television set in a darkened room.)
"Roughly a third of U.S. schools actually inflict psychic harm on pupils."
"Only 5 percent of U.S. children see a grandparent regularly."
"Nearly a quarter of all preschoolers and nearly 40 percent of all grade school children still are watching TV between nine and ten at night."
Packard's book is not simply a catalogue of disasters, although everything from the junk food served in school cafeterias to the impact of custody fights upon children is included and researched. He attempts, with some success, to offer solutions to obvious problems, sometimes with too obvious answers.
In his chapter "Nine Adult Skills That Help Children Thrive," Packard says, without tongue in cheek, that "a skillful child developer does a lot of interacting with the child, especially verbal interacting." But it would be inaccurate to say that Packard simply restates the obvious with a few statistics to support it. The trouble with the book is with the size of the dragon Packard is attempting to define.
On the one hand, Packard concludes that the healthiest child lives in a house with a front porch, in a small community, with two parents, a supportive school system, and only five hours of television on the weekends. On the other hand, he is well aware that only a handful of parents, mostly affluent, can pull this off. And so he proposes alternative solutions, examining day care, joint custody, playground, school and work programs -- as they exist in isolated parts of this country or abroad. But in the main, Packard is an ecologist on a field trip, examining the evidence surrounding normal children who are not growing well.
I wished, without wishing to depress myself further, that Packard had examined the correlation between families with strong religious affiliations and strong children. There is no particular attention given to the underlying values that this country subconsciously espouses, at the expense of its children. The same altars we have traditionally worshiped before -- Money, Power and Influence -- are still in place, at least in large cities. An interesting statistic uncovered by Packard is that children in rural areas are less bored than children in urban areas.
In conclusion, "Our Endangered Children" is a book that can be used by a lot of people -- parents, educators, analysts and public policy makers -- to good advantage. But I could not read too far without having to check my instinct to go upstairs -- to see if my children were all right.