This article is about the image of the child in the media and in society today. Do Christians just follow the world in this regard?

Source: Una Sancta, 1998. 3 pages.

The Times, They Are Changing!

The one constant factor in our lives in the latter part of the 20th century must surely be that of change. Looking ahead it appears that very little is going to change in this respect. Change will continue to mark our lives as we enter a new century and a new millennium in just a few years from now, the only difference being that the rate of change may well accelerate. Change is with us now and it will form part of our future.

Change usually makes us think in terms of technology. After all that's what seems to drive most of the changes around us. Technological advances, however, are not the only things in a state of flux. Attitudes and outlooks change too. It pays for Christians to be observant when it comes to these, to see where they are coming from and what their intent is. Also to see where they lead.

Recently I read an article by Neil Postman, entitled, 'The Disappearing Child' in which he describes changes in society's view on the child. Most interesting and thought provoking! Also for Christians. The article is not so recent; it was published in 1983, yet the sentiment expressed is something which has probably become more obvious over time. Postman uses the media and especially the television to prove what he calls the adultification of childhood and also its converse, the childified adult. Television and the media are, in his view, excellent mirrors of what lives in society.

Postman contends that "children have virtually disappeared from the media", by which he does not mean that children can no longer be seen, but that "they are depicted as miniature adults". An attentive viewer of different TV formats "will notice that the children on such shows do not differ significantly in their interests, language, dress or sexuality from the adults on the same shows." Postman concedes "that the popular arts have rarely depicted children in an authentic manner." He then cites a number of examples of child stars in films to show that "cinema representations of the character and sensibility of the young have been far from realistic." What was still redeeming in these examples, however, was that "one could still find in them, an ideal, a conception of childhood." "These children dressed differently from adults, talked differently, saw problems from a different perspective, had a different status, were more vulnerable."

In an attempt to describe how things have changed Postman uses as example a television show of the past and tries to describe what it would need to be like for it to have any following today. The program he uses as example is The Shirley Temple Show.

Is it imaginable ... that Shirley Temple would sing 'On the Good Ship Lollipop'? If she would sing at all her milieu would be rock music, that is music as much associated with adult sensibility as with that of youth. On today's network television there is simply no such thing as a child's song. It is a dead species ... A ten year old like Shirley Temple would probably require a boyfriend with whom she would be more than occasionally entangled in a simulated lover's quarrel. She would certainly have to abandon little girls' dresses and hairstyles for something approximating adult fashion. Her language would consist of a string of knowing wisecracks, including a liberal display of sexual innuendo. In short, The Shirley Temple Show would not – could not – be about a child, adorable or otherwise.

From here Postman shifts his attention to commercials. "Of course, the disappearance of our traditional model of childhood is to be observed most vividly in commercials." Postman cites an example of an advertisement for jeans where pre-pubescent children,

represented as being driven silly by their undisciplined libidos, are further inflamed by the wearing of designer jeans. The commercial concludes by showing that their teacher wears the same jeans. What can this mean other than that no distinction need be made between children and adults in either their sexuality or the means by which it is stimulated?

Also in commercials children are unashamedly used as actors.

I counted in one evening's viewing nine different products for which a child served as a pitchman. American television viewers apparently do not think it either unusual or disagreeable that children should instruct them in the glories of corporate America, perhaps because as children are admitted to more and more aspects of adult life, it would seem arbitrary to exclude them from one of the most important: selling.

The adultification of children on television is closely paralleled in films, and in children's literature and in the popular arts more generally. "We are in the process of exorcising a 200 year old image of the young as child and replacing it with the imagery of the young as adult."

The same is true of the traditional model of an adult.

If one looks closely at the content of TV, one can find a fairly precise documentation ... also of the childified adult ... With a few exceptions, adults on television do not take their work seriously (if they work at all), they do not nurture children, they have no politics, practice no religion, represent no tradition, have no foresight or serious plans, have no extended conversations, and in no circumstances allude to anything that is not familiar to an eight year old person ... Indeed it is quite noticeable that the majority of adults on TV shows are depicted as functionally illiterate, not only that the content of book learning is absent from what they appear to know but also because of the absence of even the faintest sign of a contemplative habit of mind. The model of an adult that is mostly used on TV is that of a child, and that this pattern can be seen on almost every type of program.

All of this is happening, contends Postman, because TV tries to reflect prevailing values and styles. Is it really so, then that in our current society the values and styles of the child and those of the adult have tended to merge? Again Postman cites examples from the reality of the time in which we live to support that this is indeed so.

The children's clothing industry has undergone vast changes in the past decade, so that what was once unambiguously recognised as children's clothing has virtually disappeared. Twelve year old boys now wear three piece suits to birthday parties, and 60 year old men wear jeans to birthday parties. Eleven year old girls wear high heels, and what was once a dear marker of youthful informality and energy, sneakers, now allegedly signifies the same for adults. The mini skirt which was the most embarrassing example of adults mimicking a children's style of dress is for the moment moribund" but other things have taken its place. "As the concept of childhood diminishes, the symbolic markers of childhood diminish with it.

This process can be seen to occur ... in eating habits as well junk food, once suited to the undiscriminating palates and iron stomachs of the young, is now common fare for adults ... It seems that many have forgotten when adults were supposed to have higher standards than children in their conception of what is and is not edible.

It would be interesting to follow through some of the other examples described by Postman. Time and space, however, preclude lengthy descriptions. What follows then are just some conclusions. In relation to child's play Postman concludes:

The traditional assumptions about the uniqueness of children are fast fading. What we have here is the emergence of the idea that play is not to be done for the sake of doing it, but for some external purpose, such as renown, money, physical conditioning, upward mobility, national pride. For adults play is serious business. As childhood disappears, so does the child's view of play.

In relation to entertainment few distinctions need to be made, according to Postman, between that practised by adults and that by children. As for music: adults can no longer claim that their tastes in music represent a higher level of sensitivity than teenage music.

Re language use, Postman says, on television, on radio, in films, in commercial transactions, on the streets, in the classroom, one does not notice that adults use language with more variety, depth or precision than do children. As for swear words, it seems that the young use them as frequently and effectively as do many adults.

Till so far the observations and conclusions of Postman. Did you find yourself challenged by his thoughts? Saying to yourself, "That's right, I can think of lots of examples like that." Or thinking to yourself, "I could probably mention more areas where this is true." Did you perhaps cringe here and there when certain examples hit fairly close to home. The question that confronts us is this: Do we simply go along with the trend, or is there some value in being conservative and upholding what today is called traditionalism?

To my way of thinking we do well to resist, as much as we're able, this trend of our time. The Lord's order in the development and growth of people allows for a very distinctive child phase. A phase where one can be unashamedly child, unencumbered by the worries and concerns of adulthood. A time when parents and other adults have the opportunity to teach and give instruction in the ways of this world and God's place within it. A time to lay a firm foundation on which later a tower may be built. God's direction to His people in Deuteronomy 6 come to mind.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.

Likewise what is instructed to parents in Ephesians 6. 'And you fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.'

Proper training and development of our children, which is directed at their active service, as adults, in the service of the Lord, requires a clear distinction in the phases of development. Let the child be child and the adult be adult. We should take note here, not simply to follow the trend of society but to actively resist it so that our children will continue to have a childhood phase. In relation to this we may well examine our habits in terms of how much TV our children watch, how we dress them, what they play and how this is organised, how they speak and in so doing let them be distinctively children. There is no need to push them up the path toward adulthood before they are ready for it. Smart children who take on adult aim and habits, apart from being very irritating, are certainly not served in their later life by these approaches. At the same time, we do well as adults to maintain appropriate adult standards and show that indeed we have a greater level of discernment and understanding (the Bible speaks of it as wisdom) when it comes to the things that we ourselves are engaged in. Let adults demonstrate understanding of our place and purpose in life, as being in accordance with the purpose that God has for us. Demonstration of maturity and insight is more difficult than compromising on standards; it's also not likely to enhance one's popularity. At the same time, with a view to the long term it is the way of the greatest reward and the most positive effect.

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