Protecting Your Child from the Assault On Innocence
Beyond his remarks themselves, perhaps the most interesting thing about Michael Medved’s Twin Cities visit last May was the tandem of organizations which joined with American Experiment in cosponsoring his appearance: the conservative Minnesota Family Council and the less-conservative Jewish Community Relations Council.
I might be wrong, but the flier announcing Mr. Medved’s speech might have been the first document in recorded local history (I’m mostly joshing here) in which those two good organizations had ever shown up in proximity to each other. Yet while interesting-even uplifting-this collaboration really wasn’t all that surprising, as I know of no film critic/social critic who better bridges gaps between and among Jews, Christians and other people of faith than Mr. Medved. Why might this be so? Permit me to cite several things he had to say about “Protecting Your Child From the Assault on Innocence,” as recalled in this oral essay.
In talking, for instance, about the need to affirm a Judeo-Christian ideal, that of “protection, of childhood innocence,” Mr. Medved focused on how security, optimism, and a sense of wonder should be the birthright of every American child. Of optimism in particular, he argued:
How do you counter the prevailing pessimism and self-pity and gloom? The answer to pessimism is not enforced optimism. It is, very simply, gratitude. Expressing gratitude for what we have. Expressing gratitude to our parents, to our country, and to the Almighty, who has made it all possible. Regular recognition of our blessings is crucial to childhood innocence. . . . No people in history have had more reason to feel grateful than we have.
And of wonder, he said:
In Jewish tradition, one of the ways we affirm a sense of wonder is to say a blessing over an apple before we eat it, to say a blessing over a sunset or a whale swimming by. You rejoice in God’s creation. We want to protect a sense of joy in our children that is the opposite of the jaded attitude that we see in too many kids in shopping malls across America — kids with dead eyes and tired souls who have seen it all and done it all and to whom nothing is miraculous or wonderful.
In speaking of the little seven-year-old girl, Jessica Dubroff, who died in April 1996 attempting to “pilot” a plane across the continental United States, Mr.
Medved framed his overall argument perfectly:
The essence of being a pilot is competence and certainty and resilience and, if necessary, hardness on which other people can rely absolutely for their very lives. The essence of being a seven-year-old should be that you can rely on other people to protect you. We seem to be determined in so many spheres of our national life to make even small children into tough, cynical adults.
This was Mr. Medved’s second American Experiment visit, and he was received just as enthusiastically as he was the first time, four years ago, when he drew from his seminal 1992 book, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. And just as he did back then, he had a few pointed things to say this time around about the role of electronic media. (The gist of his argument when it comes to television remains crisp: Don’t spend nearly so much time watching it.)
If it’s fair to say that only a relative handful scholars and activists are blessed with “distinctive voices,” it’s also fair to say that that Mr. Medved is doubly blessed, as not only does he routinely have exceptional things to say, he always says them exceptionally well. I know of no speaker more forcefully entertaining (the most apt term I can think of) than my good friend Michael. For this and other reasons, it was a joy to welcome him again to Minnesota.
American Experiment members receive free copies of almost all Center publications, including “Protecting Your Child From the Assault on Innocence.” Additional copies of this essay are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the previous page for membership and other information.
Thanks very much, and as always, I welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
A contribution has been made to American Experiment as a memorial to Tim Vieburg, son of James Vieburg, to be used in the publication of a paper regarding children or education. We are honored to have received this gift and to use it for sharing this celebration of young life.
What’s wrong with our kids? Why, in a country as blessed as ours manifestly and unmistakably is, are so many of our children depressed and hopeless, inconsolable, jaded?
When you come to Minnesota-which is regularly judged to be one of the most livable states-from other parts of the country, you can’t help but be struck by how fortunate people in the Twin Cities area are. Yet I heard about the need for a new fence on the parking ramp at the Mall of America. Why? To prevent teenagers from jumping off and killing themselves.
This is a national problem. The National Institutes of Health suggest that in America today, suicide is a far greater problem among our teenagers than deaths from AIDS and gang violence combined. According to some numbers, 8 percent of all American teenagers will at some point between the ages of thirteen and nineteen attempt suicide.
What’s going on here?
Let’s look at a few recent news stories. One involves what we are teaching kids in school. The George Marshall Institute, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., came up with alarming results in a study about what we teach our children in school about the environment. The message that kids are getting is that we’re doomed. In the future, there will be no clear air, there will be no clean water. The world that they are going to inherit is going to be worse than the world their parents inherited. The truth of the matter is that all across the United States, our environment has improved. His is one of the striking governmental success stories. In almost all major urban areas, the air is cleaner than it was twenty years ago. Yet for some bizarre reason, we seem determined to depress our children by telling them lies.
Another news story: the Motion Picture Association of America’s figures on movies released in the United States in 1996. Of about 700 films, 68.5 percent were rated R. More than two-thirds of that year’s movies were officially for adults only. Now, you might think that’s the only way they can make money, but that’s not true. That year was no different from any of the previous twenty years, when with remarkable predictability, movies rated G and PG, movies aimed at a family audience, did better at the box office-by a ratio of two and a half to one-than movies rated R.
It is not difficult to understand why G and PG movies do better. Producer Samuel Goldwyn, one of the founders of this mighty engine of popular culture, issued a persuasive bit of entertainment-industry Zen when he said that it is better to sell four tickets than two. You don’t have to be either a rocket scientist or a free marketeer to understand how that works. Yet in television and the movies-and certainly in the realm of popular music-there seems to be a dedication to shocking, adults-only material regardless of the financial consequences.
The third news story, actually a pair of news stories, has to do with the fate of two little girls. Jessica Dubroff’s father was determined that she live her dream of becoming the first seven-year-old girl to pilot a plane across the United States. She took off one night in a rainstorm and crashed the plane and died with her father.
No one knows who murdered six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, but we do know who murdered her innocence long before her physical death. Her parents dressed her up in bleached hair and heavy makeup and taught her at age five and six to conduct herself in public like a little tart.
What all these stories have in common is that they are evidence of our truly perverse national determination to corrupt and frighten our children. This national assault on innocence is bizarre, perverse, and profoundly destructive. You see it, of course, in the media, but you also see it in our schools, you see it in the influence of peers on our children, and you see it most destructively from parents themselves.
Take Jessica Dubroff as an example. She was seven years old, yet her father was determined that she be a pilot. The essence of being a pilot is competence and certainty and resilience and, if necessary, hardness on which other people can rely absolutely for their very lives. The essence of being a seven-year-old should be that you can rely on other people to protect you. We seem to be determined in so many spheres of our national life to make even small children into tough, cynical adults. This reflects a profound change that has attracted far too little attention. There used to be a consensus in Western society that it is necessary in raising children to affirm the priority of protection, that there are years in children’s development when you need to build a wall around them to allow them to grow and develop in peace and security to find their own way before the world intrudes and assaults.
The Preparation Model vs. the Protection Model
The protection model has been scrapped in favor of a preparation model that is now the emphasis in American education. Let’s warn children about all of the dangers, all of the horrors in the world around us. In Minnesota, beginning as early as first grade, children get the fundamentals of AIDS education. Whether it’s AIDS education or sex education or drug education or warning about environmental dangers or racism or abuse or harassment, we are terrifying our children at younger and younger ages.
Does this preparation model work? The preliminary evidence suggests that it is an abysmal failure. Take a look at sex education, for example. There is no evidence from any major school district that educating children in elementary school about sexuality in any way accomplishes the goal of sex education, which is to reduce the level of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. There is, in fact, abundant evidence that it actually increases and intensifies the problems it is meant to address. So what do you do when you have a failing program? You do what government always does: you spend more money on it. How absurd this is.
As a nation, as concerned parents, we need to affirm an old ideal, deeply rooted in our Judeo-Christian tradition: the ideal of protection, of childhood innocence. Three elements of childhood innocence-security, optimism, and a sense of wonder-should be the birthright of every American child.
On the issue of security, I’ve got news for you. Anyone who has been involved in raising a child already knows this instinctively, though you may not have articulated it quite this way. The news is this: little kids are the world’s best natural conservatives. Maybe not the world’s best Republicans, but definitely conservatives. Have you ever prepared a lunch box for a child? You don’t get a lot of requests for Cajun food, or for nouvelle cuisine. They want the same darn thing day after day, and if you try to impose variety on them you are going to get complaints. They want their peanut butter and jelly. My three children, ages ten, eight, and four, want to eat macaroni and cheese three meals a day, seven days a week-and please, don’t vary it. Not a soupon more cheese, or less salt. It has to be exactly the same every time.
The same is true of bedrooms. Have you ever tried to persuade a little girl to rearrange the furniture in her bedroom, or move to a new bedroom, or even, God help us, move to a new home? It’s impossible. Our ten-year-old daughter, Sarah, is an incredibly articulate and passionate advocate of the absolute status quo in her world. She wants the dresser in the same place. She wants the teddy bears and the dolls in the same place. She wants to know where the night light is. When she wakes up, she wants to know exactly where the door is and how to get to the bathroom. She wants no change at all. This is absolutely normal, absolutely healthy, and it is part of the birthright of childhood.
Kids are going through profound changes. Whenever I go away from home, even if I’m gone only two days, when I come back my kids have changed. During this stage in their lives, they are going through such overwhelming physiological and psychological changes that they naturally want the world around them to be safe, to be predictable, to be secure. This is a fundamental element of childhood innocence. This is what kids want and need, yet for a variety of reasons, too many children in the United States are denied the predictability that healthy children require and deserve. The greatest threat to childhood security and predictability is divorce, but beyond divorce is the even more common phenomenon of moving.
Children want to stay in the same place; parents seem to follow a wandering star. Our national symbol is the bald eagle, but it should be the moving van. Americans move more than any other people in the world. The average American family moves to a new home every four and a half years. It can be devastating for kids. I know . We moved after twenty years of living in the same home, and the kids have not let us forget it.
But our experience also suggests how we can deal with all of the challenges to security and predictability in childhood innocence. We moved to Seattle with a great deal of crying and hand wringing and upset on the part of the children. After we arrived in our new home-the boxes were not yet unpacked and the furniture hadn’t arrived yet, and we were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags-we had the experience of our first Sabbath there.
The frantic activity of organizing a new home suddenly stopped. The telephone stopped ringing, riding in an automobile stopped, and all of a sudden there was familiarity for our kids: lighting candles, celebrating a Friday-night meal together, singing songs, reciting familiar blessings. At that point, Sarah turned to me and said, “You know, maybe sometime this can begin to feel like home too.” There is a profound value in ritual, in establishing predictability. Even in homes that may be shattered by divorce-especially in those homes-the ritual and predictability of organized faith, of marking periods of time in the same way day after day, week after week is profoundly important for our kids.
As conscious parents, as a decent society, we should equip our children not only by letting them know what to expect, but also by letting them know what is expected of them. The most valuable forms of security in terms of childhood innocence are providing a predictable world as a setting for children’s lives and giving predictable responses to certain behavior, sending a clear message about what we expect our children to do. Nothing could be more important in establishing that sense of security and certainty that is a crucial element of childhood innocence.
This brings me to the second arena-optimism. The optimism of our kids is under assault from the media and from their schools. It is undermined everywhere you turn. My problem with the overdose on mass media is not that it contributes to a national epidemic of violence, though it does that. Rather, it is its contribution to an even more serious national epidemic: our great national epidemic of whining and self-pity. How utterly inappropriate this is. We are surrounded by blessings, by options and privileges and choices unimaginable to our grandparents, yet what you hear from children is how bleak the world is, a message of self-pity. “Generation X,” we are told, has to pierce noses and lips and eyelids and wear black and wear tattoos to signify how hopeless and miserable and wretched their world is.
The fundamental need of childhood is exactly the opposite. Kids need to believe that they can make the world better, that there are possibilities for improvement. If you don’t believe that you can improve your circumstances, why should you go through all the challenges and the difficulty and the hard work of growing up? Of mastery in schools? Many people have studied the impact of optimism on success in a whole range of areas, but nowhere is optimism more essential than success in school. If you want your kids to do well in school, you’ve got to convince them that they can succeed, that it is worth doing well, that their lives can actually be better than their grandparents’ lives.
How do you counter the prevailing pessimism and self-pity and gloom? The answer to pessimism is not enforced optimism. It is, very simply, gratitude. Expressing gratitude for what we have. Expressing gratitude to our parents, to our country, and to the Almighty, who has made it all possible. Regular recognition of our blessings is crucial to childhood innocence. Ingratitude is destructive. If you owe a debt of appreciation to a parent, to a spouse, to a business associate, but stubbornness or stupidity prevents you from expressing it, that blocked appreciation, that ingratitude, can corrode your very soul and destroy and embitter every element of your life. Ingratitude is corroding the very soul of America. No people in history have had more reason to feel grateful than we have. It is essential that we instill in our children the principle of gratitude.
A Sense of Wonder
This brings me finally to the notion of a sense of wonder. How many of us have ever deliberately misled our children during a certain holiday season as to the existence of an overweight elf with a white beard and a red suit who allegedly brings toys to well-behaved children on Christmas Eve? How many of us have ever led our children to believe that if they put a tooth that has recently fallen out of their mouths under a pillow, a benign supernatural being will transform that tooth into a dollar or some kind of toy or reward?
Why do we do this? We all like to think of ourselves as enlightened parents, so why have we lied to our kids? We do this because we remember it from our own childhoods. It is wonderful for a child to believe in magic, in the supernatural, in miracles, to look out at the world with a sense of wonder and magic and miracle. It is a beautiful thing to see a child with that kind of awe and joy and excitement about this wonderful world.
In Jewish tradition, one of the ways we affirm a sense of wonder is to say a blessing over an apple before we eat it, to say a blessing over a sunset or a whale swimming by. You rejoice in God’s creation. We want to protect a sense of joy in our children that is the opposite of the jaded attitude that we see in too many kids in shopping malls across America-kids with dead eyes and tired souls who have seen it all and done it all and to whom nothing is miraculous or wonderful.
How do we encourage that sense of wonder? First, by demonstrating our own joy and wonder in the world around us. A second way is to limit the intake of television. No force in American life is more destructive of a sense of wonder, more encouraging of cynicism and despair, of a jaded and corrupted attitude, than television. Average American children by the age of six will have spent more hours watching television than they will spend speaking to their fathers in a lifetime. And what is the television saying to the child? Rejoice in the world around you, celebrate in this world that God has made for you? No, the television is saying the exact opposite: take everything for granted, feel impatient and desirous and restless.
It seems to me that in terms of the impact of mass media, we are at a crucial moment here. It is similar to the moment, back in the fifties and early sixties, when Americans first discovered that smoking isn’t good for you. When people were first beginning to understand that tobacco can be poisonous and deadly, the initial response was to cut down the tar and nicotine and to get better filters on the cigarettes. That was a good thing, and it made cigarettes a little bit less deadly. But it wasn’t an answer. The real answer was less smoking. By the same token, there is emphasis now on making television a little bit less poisonous. That’s a good thing-it’s an effort to which I have devoted a great deal of my life-but it is not a final answer. The only thing that will truly make a difference is cutting down the amount of time our children spend watching television.
Imagine for a moment that we have a TV czar who applies a virtue test to every television program. Sure, it would be better for our kids, but would you then feel comfortable about children watching television for twenty-eight hours a week? Of course not. The problem isn’t too much sleaze and gore and bad language. It’s too much television-period.
We’ve got to cut it down. Here’s how: Create a television schedule, a television diet. Look at the weekly television listing in your Sunday paper. Highlight the shows you really want to see. Make a schedule, put a copy of it on the refrigerator door and on the side of every television in the house, and stick to it. Suddenly, you may have some success in restoring a sense of wonder concerning the real world. Because television, with its flickering, fast-paced images, its powerful ability to hypnotize and dazzle the senses, makes the real world look pallid by comparison, and how tragic that is for kids.
The most important means of affirming a sense of wonder is demonstrating a sense of wonder ourselves. Demonstrating it about the world, but also about our children themselves. They are a loan, not a gift. Appreciate the miracle behind that loan. Appreciate the trust that is placed in us. Look at them with joy, with a feeling of privilege and determination to restore security and optimism and a sense of wonder to their lives and to our own. We must recognize this precious opportunity we have to bring the next generation into this blessed country and into this magnificent world that the Almighty has fashioned for all of us.
Q. There seem to be plenty of directors and producers who are after the R-rated movies and worse. Do you see any trend the other way, and can you specifically talk about any movies with positive effects?
A. Good question. I wish you had asked me last year, when I would have pointed to a whole series of 1995 films that were remarkable for children: Babe, The Indian in the Cupboard, Apollo 13, The Little Princess, Mr. Holland’s Opus. All of them did quite well at the box office, some of them as surprise hits. In 1996 we took a giant step backward, and 1997 has been pathetic.
Why don’t people in Hollywood recognize that you can make more money by making uplifting, family-friendly entertainment that respects the innocence of our kids? Naturally, everyone in Hollywood wants to be rich, but most of the powerful people already are rich. If you are in a position to give a movie the green light, you don’t need to worry about where your next meal-or your next Mercedes-is coming from. So what do you worry about? You worry about the acclaim of your peers.
When Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction, walks into a Hollywood party, the crowd parts like the Red Sea did in The Ten Commandments. Every aspiring starlet wants a little bit of Mr. Tarantino’s time. But what happens when Stephen Herek comes into the same Hollywood party? Does anyone even notice? Who is this guy? Well, he’s made movies at least as financially successful as Quentin Tarantino’s-Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mighty Ducks and theremake of 101 Dalmatians-and no one has heard of him. Unfortunately, our culture values the ability to shock and titillate and horrify. We need to change the cultural formula and return to the idea that it is a worthy endeavor for popular culture and for high culture to uplift, to inspire, and to ennoble the human spirit.
Q. What is the relationship of national affluence to the corruption of family values? I am a child of the Great Depression, during which, in spite of the economic privation that families suffered, there seemed to be greater protection of children, more of the wonder and values that you were talking about.
A. Let me recommend a wonderful book by David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (Free Press, New York, 1995). On the eve of the greatest destruction the world has ever known, the World’s Fair was wildly optimistic: the future was going to be bright and beautiful and brilliant. Nearly all of the visionary predictions about the wonderful future have come true-things like air conditioning, for example.
As recently as 1910, the overwhelming majority of American parents had the experience of watching a child die. At the time my grandparents arrived in this country, you were likely to see one of your children die. What a terrible thing-and what a blessing that it has become extraordinarily rare today. And yet, do we have the corresponding optimism and joy? We do not. I don’t think it is the corrupting power of affluence because I’m enough of a capitalist and a free marketeer to believe that affluence doesn’t need to be corrupting. I believe it has to do with the shattering of the basic underlying consensus of religious faith that used to exist in this country and no longer does.
There are so many differences between the militant, uncompromising, and radical secularist point of view that is empowered in Hollywood and in too many of our universities, and, on the other hand, the point of view of people of faith, be they Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. One of the most profound differences is simply the idea that the world might actually get better, that there might actually be some kind of benign providence. Anyone who looks at American history and doesn’t see the role of a guiding hand is either ignorant, deluded, or too corrupted to see what is unmistakable.
Q. The Internet offers tremendous possibilities for producers who want to get their work out. I think it is going to converge with television, and I’d like your take on where this may be going.
A. I am not as worried about the Internet as I am about the impact of television, because the Internet is interactive. With television, you’re three-fourths asleep in terms of your heart rate and eye movements and other measures of your physiological state. The Internet, at least, engages the individual. It’s crucial, though, that we affirm the importance of real life, of actual human beings, of talking to one another. The most destructive effect of addiction to television or the Internet is not the material that you get from these media, it’s the contact that you don’t get from the real live human beings around you. The hanging around kicking the sand together like kids do. The importance of turning off the computer for a while, and certainly turning off the television, is making way for the child to connect more readily with real people and the real world.
Q. I see a lot of people starting to understand the crisis that our children are in, and one of the consequences is that the political agenda increasingly has become protecting the children by creating more big government programs-taking over the health care industry, for example, for the sake of the children. Taking over a day care industry for the sake of the children. Taking over the responsibility of parents and family for the sake of the children. Essentially taking away the freedom that our children will have as they grow older because we are trying to protect them. How do we protect the freedom of our children and not let the crisis of childhood be taken over by the advocates of big government?
A. I absolutely share your concerns. Where you see it so clearly is with our schools. This may sound unduly political; it is not meant to.
The United States Senate recently debated changes in legislation regarding schoolchildren with disabilities. On the floor of the Senate, some of our national leaders debated the precise behavioral violations that allow a teacher to ask a child to leave the classroom. It’s insane: a debate among senators in Washington rather than a discussion with an individual teacher and a principal and a parent. Aside from the fact that it is wrong and an erosion of freedom, it is profoundly misguided and inefficient to make classroom decisions this way. Our senators have a tough enough time making decisions that are appropriate for them to make.
This is very fundamentally related to the assault on innocence and the attack on childhood. The attack on childhood is hugely encouraged by the attack on parenthood. The message that our children repeatedly get in school is that parents are dangerous, that their homes are dangerous places, but their schools are safe havens. The social worker, teachers, school psychologist are people you can trust; don’t trust those parents. There is a standard anti-drug curriculum in the state of New Jersey in which second graders are asked to go to their parents’ medicine cabinet and make an inventory of all of the addictive substances. Joe Stalin would love this-turning little children into government informers.
Why have we permitted it? Look at the exercises your kids bring home, look at what they are reading. Why do we allow our school districts to include all of this material that is fundamentally and profoundly undermining our authority as parents? Why? Because too many of us baby boom parents are deeply unwilling to become adults. Parents have to be willing to be grown-ups. We have to be willing to say, No, I’m not your best friend, I am a source of authority.
We have to be willing to absorb some of the shocks, some of the insecurities, some of the challenges from the world at large and act as a wall between the children entrusted to our care and a sometimes difficult and hostile world. For children to be children, parents have to be adults. That is a challenge, but also an opportunity.
We teach our children not only by talking to them, but also by showing them. If we want our children to be less addicted to television, we’ve got to become less addicted to television. It does absolutely no good for parents to preach to their children about not spending their time watching garbage on TV when the parents themselves are up late at night watching comparable garbage. That’s true of every lesson we want to teach our children. If you want to teach your children a sense of wonder, manifest a sense of wonder. If you want to teach your children optimism, you have to show some optimism, and if you want to teach your children respect for authority, you have to show respect for authority.
When you’re at your wits’ end and a clever, insistent eight-year-old says, “Daddy, why do I have to go sleep?” Why? Why? Why?-what do you say? “Because I said so.” We’ve all done it. Parents have to demonstrate the same willingness to bend their behavior because a higher authority said so. Is this a pitch for religion? You bet it is. There is no greater force in protecting and encouraging a child’s innocence than showing that parents themselves recognize the binding nature of an even higher authority. Children see them changing their behavior because the master of the universe said so and gave certain commands that they find every bit as binding in their lives as they want their commands to be in the lives of their children.