Where have Our Children Gone? A Review of Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood
Initially, the question posed in my title may seem very strange, especially coming from a teacher. But, if one looks closely, are children actually children? What defines a child? Are children different now than they were one hundred years ago?
What prompted me to do some thinking and writing about these questions was a book written by Neil Postman, a brilliant McLuhanistic-like social commentator, called The Disappearance of Childhood. The very title of the book seemingly suggests a conundrum. How could childhood disappear? Numerically speaking, there are more children now than ever before. Of course Postman is not stating that there are no children anymore, but rather that children are not acting like children anymore; their childhood is disappearing.
The Development of Childhood
In lucid, commonsense style, Postman begins his book by tracing the development of childhood in Greek and Roman cultures. The author searches to discover the answers to questions such as: Where did the idea of childhood come from? Why and how did it come about? Why is childhood disappearing?
Throughout the Middle Ages there was complete non-interest in children. Postman argues that this attitude or social tendency changed with the introduction of the printing press. He states that the printing press created a new definition of adulthood based on reading competence and a new conception of childhood based on reading incompetence (p18). There were no children because there was no means for adults to know exclusive information. The printing press created a new symbolic world that required a new conception of adulthood, one that excluded children. This invention defined childhood as the period in one’s life when one learned how to read in order to become a civilized, literate adult who could comprehend complex information. Once this initial separation was achieved, other areas followed. The clothes of children became different, their language (slang) was different, books on pediatrics were written, and children’s literature came about. Complementing this was the rich content of secrets that society began to keep from children as the idea of childhood continued to develop. Control of these secrets meant control and power over children. This control was not malicious; in fact, more often than not, such control was exerted for benevolent reasons. It is important to note that childhood did not spring full grown from the printing press; Postman acknowledges that though it is a crucial element in the formation of childhood, it is not the only one.
The Erosion of Childhood
All of this of course begs the question “Why?” If by 1850 childhood was a social principle, why and how is it disappearing now? We can trace the beginnings of the erosion of childhood back to the invention of the telegraph, which occurred in 1840. The telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable and pointless (p 71). Childhood is an outgrowth of an environment completely controlled by adults who decide the quantity of information a child has access to; information was made known in stages they could assimilate psychologically (p 72). The maintenance of childhood rested on the control of information and sequential learning. The telegraph made information uncontrollable; quantity, not quality, became the overriding concern. Childhood would have remained intact if the electronic revolution stopped there, but of course, this was only the beginning. The way people communicated began to change: first the telegraph, then the camera, phonograph, movies, radio, television, and now the internet. The printed word requires the reader to respond to the content, but pictures usually just call for an emotional response rather than a thinking one. When communication can be achieved by pointing with a finger, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks (p 74). This observation was made, believe it or not, in 1935!
Why do these inventions cause the idea of childhood to disappear? The first reason concerns the accessibility of information. Growing up is a process of finding things out. This whole system collapses with the introduction of electronic media, but especially with the invention of the television. Watching television not only requires no skill, but develops no skill (p 79). Have you ever heard of someone with a TV viewing disability? No one gets better or worse at watching TV. Television also presents information to everyone. There is full access for everyone to all the information and knowledge television has to offer. A ten-year old can watch shows intended for adults. With full access to information, there are no secrets and no shame; without these, childhood cannot exist. Just as there is no need for lawyers if everyone knew what lawyers know, so the distinction between children and adults disappears when they both know the same information. The shows our children are watching are physically causing them to lose their childhood. I am not advocating that all children should be completely sheltered and protected from all the secrets of the adult world, but simply stating that television is the absolute worst medium for children from which to learn these secrets.
I could go on with the tirade against television and its other socially destructive attributes, but Neil Postman does a wonderful job of that both in this book and others he has written, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death. What I would like to pay some attention to is the solution to this problem. What can we do to help our children keep their childhood? Is this even a problem in our Reformed circles? Does the disappearance of childhood matter to us? In our Christian communities do we value children enough to care? In my brief experience as a teacher I think it is a problem. Generally speaking, our children are watching the same TV shows and videos and listening to the same music as kids from public schools. It is hard as a teacher to keep kids interested in the war of 1812 when they have seen The Matrix and its two sequels repeatedly.
What about the role of children or childhood in the Bible? Although it is clear that the modern concept of childhood did not exist in the Bible, this does not render our discussion irrelevant. One only has to look at how Jesus treated children to realize their inherent value and importance. Christ even held up a child as an example of simple trust and faith for the disciples to follow. Children are not mentioned that much, but their importance as receivers of information and knowledge about God cannot be overlooked. Parents are instructed to teach the next generation. I would argue that, to some extent, our children’s capabilities of receiving and working with this knowledge are being eroded, because of the way childhood is disappearing through the electronic media in our culture. That is why this whole discussion is so important. There is no doubt that the erosion of childhood is a problem not only in society, but in our Christian communities as well.
In his book Postman asks whether or not there are any social institutions strong enough to resist the decline of childhood. He cites that there are only two institutions that have a proper interest in children: parents and the school. Although the role of parents is often diminished through the electronic media, one cannot deny the impact – good or bad – parenting can have on a child. Knowing (and sometimes controlling) who their friends are, what they are watching on TV, or typing on MSN and listening to their CD or MP3 players will go a long way to keep your children from becoming miniature adults. Postman believes that the family is not strong enough to stand up to the dissolution of childhood, but we of course, realizing the eternal consequences, have a different view of children and consequently our parenting will be different too.
The school is also a valuable institution in the fight against the erosion of childhood. One of the main purposes of Christian education is to transform covenant children into covenant young adults who know God’s Word and world through the learning process. Postman rightly points out that the school only functions if there are important differences left between adults and children (p 151). If you do not need to be educated to be an adult, why should children even go to school?
I would like to add a third influence into the mix here: the church. Our religious beliefs greatly influence and strengthen our schools and give proper purpose to parenting. God’s Word gives us a worldview, a perspective, and a reason to combat the influences that are dissolving childhood. We say that we love our children; let’s not let them embrace a culture that is so damaging, not only to their childhood, but to their spirituality as well.
In conclusion, I realize that the so-called solutions have perhaps only raised more questions. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do know that the disappearance of childhood is a problem even in our Reformed circles. One possibility is to limit the amount of exposure children have to electronic media. Going hand and hand with this action would be to also restrict and control what your children are exposed to. This is time-consuming and tedious, hard work for parents. However, I think you will agree that our children are worth that effort and whatever else we can do; God desires to use them to build up his church. My advice would be to read this book and take it for what it is worth. Though there are some comments that you will undoubtedly raise your eyebrows at, as I did, Postman does make many relevant remarks. One cannot help but agree with one of his final statements: wherever one looks, one sees more evidence that childhood is disappearing.