Much is made of how terrified parents are for their children. But few acknowledge how frightened we are of our children.
What made me realize America's terror of its kids wasn't the case of the Michigan boy, 13, who was tried and convicted--as an adult--for fatally shooting another youth when he was 11.
It wasn't even the Arlington teacher who pressed criminal charges against two 10-year-old boys who put soap in his drinking water. The fifth-graders--who the teacher apparently felt weren't sufficiently punished by a three-day suspension--face felony charges for an act that for generations was considered a prank.
Perhaps such overreactions to children's awful behavior should have made America's child terror clear. But what convinced me was another astonishing fact:
Fifty-three percent of American children have TVs in their bedrooms--including 65 percent of 8- to 18-year-olds. Some 32 percent of kids ages 2 to 7 have in-room sets, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Now some would say that parents allowing huge numbers of kids to have in-room TVs proves only their prosperity and generosity. So what, they ask, if the average kid spends 5 1/2 hours daily, seven days a week, being stroked, cajoled and manipulated by TV, music, computers, video games and reading materials? Or that for kids 8 and older, the total is 6 hours 43 minutes daily--roughly the equivalent of an adult workweek?
Sorry, but that scares me almost as much as my kids do.
When I say that we parents fear our kids, I don't mean we fear being physically hurt or threatened by them.
What terrifies us is what our kids represent.
My own child-terror began 17 years ago, after my eldest son's birth. Staring at his perfect face, I felt an unprecedented rush of love--and of fear at how vulnerable and responsible it made me.
Kids, parents quickly learn, are walking, talking need machines, requiring our endless protection, support, advice, money and most frightening, time. For moms and dads balancing jobs, relationships, finances and more, even a beloved child can be a noisy and demanding drain on one's already-strained resources.
Only a saint wouldn't find that horrifying.
Fear is just one of several reasons we're letting the media swallow our kids whole. Others include the unchecked growth of cable and the Internet and a booming economy that has turned electronic luxuries into common household toys.
But let's admit this biggie: The media provide parents relief. Our TVs, electronic games and computers are cheap babysitters--legal opiates that, briefly or for hours at a time, give parents a much-needed break.
That's understandable, but the consequences disturb Donald Roberts, the Stanford University professor who co-authored the Kaiser survey. A mountain of research shows the media shape childrens' view of the world--anyone who doubts it should consider recent estimates that ad agencies spent $240 billion last year to influence us.
Now that kids spend far more time with TV, music and computers than in schools or churches, the media are their most powerful influence, "with the possible exception of parents," Roberts says.
More disturbing than media content, which parents can't control, is the unprecedented number of moms, dads or other caregivers who leave kids alone with its messages. Increasingly, there are no grown-ups around to filter, interpret or react to what children consume.
No one to teach them how to respond.
Hour after hour, the media "stimulate kids to ask questions," Roberts says. When parents are there, they can tell kids what they believe, explain their values, whether they're responding to something that's said on a talk show or an allusion to sex on a sitcom. . . . Children learn a million lessons just watching their parents.
Roberts's advice: Get TVs and computers out of your child's bedroom and into a location where you have a prayer of responding to them. "I cannot comprehend why 25 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms," he says.
The survey's saddest suggestion may be its least surprising: Kids who use the media the most tend to be less happy. A child's continuing disputes with parents, unhappiness at school and behavioral troubles are "strongly associated" with high media use.
Why not? Less-contented kids may be more likely to take refuge in the media, to gorge themselves on make-believe worlds filled with more danger and mayhem--and more wealth, fancy baubles and freedom without consequence--than their actual lives could contain. Such images give kids more reason to fear and to be dissatisfied with the real world when they finally flick the "off" switch.
Yet their overwhelmed parents hand them over to such images without a thought.
That should terrify us all.