Are Children Little Adults?

An American revolution in child rearing has tiptoed in on little cat feet. One sign of it is the locution "quality time," by which busy and uneasy adults tell themselves that the diminished quantity of time they are spending with their children is redeemed by its quality. Another sign is crib mobiles, which arrived in the 1950s, harbingers of today's vast smorgasbord of learning accessories for babies.

Wonder why there are so many television programs about childlike adults ("Seinfeld," "Friends," "Ally McBeal")? These reflect "the elongation of youth" by those who "loiter on the outskirts of adulthood," dressed in jeans and sneakers like prepubescent children. Notice the cartoons for adult viewers ("The Simpsons," "King of the Hill"). And the "juvenilization" of movies that attract undifferentiated audiences of adults and children ("Star Wars," "Indiana Jones"). When children are regarded as little adults, adults become childish.

So says Kay S. Hymowitz in her book "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future--and Ours." It should make Americans uneasy about the social consequences of some suspiciously convenient ideas. Hymowitz, a mother of three and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes America is no longer fashioning the childhood democratic culture needs, one that prepares citizens for freedom.

Time was, "behaviorists" thought a child was as America once was--a blank slate on which anything could be written. That was an invitation to educators' fads and utopian dreams of human perfectibility. More recently, says Hymowitz, a largely fictitious neuroscience of brain growth has led some experts to postulate that parents' primary task is the cognitive development of their children. These experts say the infant's brain is amazingly self-capable, and babies are remarkably lucid and self-regulating creatures.

"The belief that children's brains are naturally ordered and compartmentalized is," Hymowitz believes, "especially dangerous in an age when children's lives are so harried and when so many are receiving two hours a day or more of rapidly moving light and noise stimuli from the television set." But the idea of the naturally competent child makes parenting less demanding.

If children are rational, autonomous, emotionally self-sufficient, information-processing marvels, parenting is reduced to providing stimulation to infants and information to children. Parents become "personal cognitive trainers," spurred on by theories of "fetal learning" and reports that children can recognize stories read to them in the womb. Hence pregnant women put headphones on their stomachs to give baby a head start on classical music. Once born, spontaneously competent children need only "empowering" and self-esteem; they do not need to be taught meaning and values.

Hymowitz notes that by the mid-'70s, when women were going to work in large numbers, the popular image of babies began to change. Instead of being characterized by helpless neediness, babies were thought to be self-sufficient, and cognitive virtuosos, needing only bursts of "quality time." Between 1970 and 1990, white children lost an average of 10 hours a week of parental time and black children lost 12. By 1997 "children were spending two hours a day more in preschool and school programs than they did in the early 1980s." Hymowitz thinks it is axiomatic that "children who spend the bulk of their time in an institution are going to learn a fundamentally different way of constructing an inner life than those who spend most of their days with an adoring parent."

If children are miniature adults, naturally endowed with most of the qualities necessary for participation in adult society; if they require scant shaping; if there is little need to restrain and redirect their natural impulses--well, then, "the legal status of infancy or minority should be abolished and the presumption of incompetency reversed" regarding motherhood, abortion, schooling and much else. So wrote Hillary Rodham in 1973.

From all this it is a short downhill slide to what Hymowitz calls "anti-culturalism," the notion that children are little computers with a dash of Blakean purity and creativity, who can only properly develop in opposition to the prevailing culture. One result is sexual education taught as plumbing for technicians: The assumption is that children need only information and "some deprogramming" to help them escape from the "sexual Egypt" of society's attempts to suppress their natural, and naturally lovely, sexual urges.

Why do we have a 50 percent attrition rate of teachers in the first five years of teaching? Listen to the logic of language when teachers are called "facilitators" of, or "co-learners" with, naturally competent children. Hymowitz wonders, "Why would adults want to be teachers in a society that believes adults have nothing to teach?" Nothing, that is, besides "empowering" information. Gone is the grand mission of transmitting to society's newcomers the moral knowledge society values.

"The truth is," Hymowitz insists, "children are ignorant." She is reaffirming "the universal truth that children are incomplete creatures looking for signs from their culture of what is expected of them." The old American belief was that babies are Americans-in-training, and that adults had to work hard at making independent, rational, self-regulating citizens. The new theory is that children naturally attain that state if society does not pervert them.

Hymowitz tends, as intellectuals do, to overestimate the permeation of society by the latest (perishable) theories. She lives in New York City, so she can be forgiven for thinking the culture is going to wrack and ruin even faster than it is. Parents with a coldly utilitarian focus on the infant cerebellum--parents pestering their toddlers with Japanese-language flash cards--are at least paying attention, and such are the charms of children that "quality time" is apt to become what children really want and need--lots of time.