Could I climb to the highest place in Athens, I would lift my voice and proclaim, “Fellow citizens, why do you turn and scrape every stone to gather wealth and take so little care of your children to whom one day you must relinquish it all?” — Socrates
A few years ago while shopping in the children’s department at an unnamed location (think Big box retailer), I came across a size 6x “Hello Kitty” thong. I am still haunted by the sighting. For me, the sight of those teeny tiny panties confirmed my worst fears about the diminishing value of childhood in our culture.
Throughout history, the concept of childhood has remained malleable. Numerous scholars have confirmed that as a society experiences shifts in predominate values or norms, concepts of childhood are routinely affected. Despite the popular perception that childhood is a natural state of existence, science has confirmed that childhood is not biologically defined or distinctly uniform. In fact, it is a byproduct of culture. In reality, childhood functions as a manifestation of one’s social world and as such it is uniquely experienced by individual children.
As Max Weber wrote “culture is a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance.” The child of history serves not only as a mirror of our cultural values but also a creator of culture in his own right. Children behave to the expectations of our collective mind – acting out with precision our hopes, our fears and our beliefs about the nature of childhood itself.
We know that the role of the child in society has been reinterpreted continually throughout history. The behavior of children changes naturally as a result of these evolving ideologies. There is a natural intersection between what the people believe to be true and the outgrowth of finite behavior. Thus, we understand the example of a “Hello Kitty” thong for a six year old as representing both the growing trend toward the sexualization of children and giving the kids what they want.
I had a very insightful student write the following lines in a paper this fall: “. . . . .I shouldn’t have worried about fitting in so much. There was no point to rushing into a personality that wasn’t natural. At that point, I was only learning how to play the many roles of personality that I subconsciously play today. I needed much more practice back then.” As the great sage Winnie the Pooh once said, “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”
All too often we push ourselves and our children to develop in a way that is not aligned with our natural selves. I believe that it is of utmost importance for parents, educators and the elders of community to ensure that children are brought up with both love and discipline. It is the collective responsibility of all of us to teach our children right from wrong, to keep them safe and to remind them daily of their own internal goodness.
Is childhood a social artifact worth saving? If we believe that it is then we must act responsibly to create a world worth living in. We must behave decently to one another. We must work to establish a language of values that supports and protects our children. We must create images that reflect our truest desires rather than our deepest fears. We must see the world as a beautiful sanctuary and our children as our most fragile flowers. Finally, we must feel our own inner goodness, innocence and fragility in a way that reconnects us with the most vulnerable in our midst.
All of my experience as an educator and parent leads me to conclude that a sense of reverence is necessary for the health of our children. If a culture is devoid of reverence, we deny ourselves inspiration. The entire experience of childhood should be about the art of awakening the natural curiosity of innocence. The preciousness of childhood should be savored. It would be a tragedy of untold consequence to allow the slow disappearance of this most human social artifact.