RALL: Finally, Children Are Seen and Heard

For the first time in 30 years, kids are hot property.Americans have always claimed to value their offspring, but in reality the social value of children flip-flops as much as the stock market. The latest kid craze started in reaction to outrages such as the Polly Klaas murder and Susan Smith's drowning of her two young boys in a South Carolina lake. The latest wave of concern about kids continued with Hillary Clinton's book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, the enactment of "Megan's Law" -- a New Jersey statute which advises neighbors whenever a convicted child molester moves into the hood -- and a Republican-sponsored $500-per-child tax credit proposal.The last month alone has seen a cacophony of politicians and journalists calling for censorship of the Internet in order to protect children from pornographic images, presidential bullying to force television networks to broadcast three hours of educational programming a week, and Kathie Lee Gifford's teary testimony before Congress about child labor in New York and Honduras. By far the most memorable example of juvenile chic, however, was Bob Dole's bizarre, morbid appeal to voter-parents: "Let's just say you're dead. You're dead and your orphaned children need a stable guardian to raise them. Not some nutcase. Who do you trust with your own flesh and blood...Bob Dole?...or Bill Clinton?"Then a bomb blew a TWA 747 out of the sky near Long Island, killing all 230 passengers. Among the dead were 16 high school French students from Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Press and televised coverage of the disaster focused almost exclusively on the underage victims. Rescue workers talked of pulling dead babies and teenagers out of the Atlantic Ocean; cameras rested meaningfully on floating baby bottles and dolls. Breathless monologues about interrupted young lives were accompanied by advice on how to explain the explosion to children.President Clinton's first reaction was to the loss of the French students from Pennsylvania: "Let us remember the dream these children shared -- the dream of making the most of their own lives," Clinton said on July 18. "As a nation, we should dedicate ourselves to encouraging all our young people to think that way, and to making sure that they all have the opportunity to live up to their dreams." The dead students' teacher, her husband and three adult escorts didn't rate a mention in the president's message.It's no coincidence that a few days later, on July 26, he proposed to the television networks his three-hour FCC rule. The next day, Clinton expressed reservations with a Republican welfare reform bill that he had previously planned to sign. In the new political climate, gutting social entitlement programs (many of which benefit children) became impossible. Instead, he warned, "we still have more work to do to promote work and protect children."Kiddie politics raged on unabated on July 27 as Clinton revived his long-forgotten campaign pledge to crack down on deadbeat dads. In Denver, he announced that post offices will display mug shots of absentee parents to shame them into paying up child support. He also unveiled a new Web site set up by the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Child Support Enforcement containing lists of dads and moms who've skipped town."If you owe child support, you'd better pay it," Clinton said. "We'll track you down with computers, we'll track you down with law enforcement, we'll find you through the Internet."Early in the morning of July 27, a pipe bomb killed two people and injured 110 others at an Atlanta Olympics outdoor concert. Lead coverage in Sunday's New York Times emphasized interviews with emergency workers who encountered scores of victims suffering from puncture wounds caused by flying shrapnel. It ended with the following sentence: "The doctors found one fact to quietly celebrate. Of all those brought to them, there was not one child."Adults have become invisible, if not disposable.This is a huge switch from the anti-child mentality my generation grew up with during the seventies and eighties. Generation Xers attended schools decimated by budget cuts and misguided educational experiments (New Math, phonetics and the Open Space Concept). We went home to one-parent families destroyed by divorce and flipped burgers until the wee hours on school nights. Under presidents Reagan and Bush, federal college grants virtually disappeared and a yuppie-first economy prospered. Xers struggled to get by on working-poor salaries through the early 1990s. There were more teen suicides during the 1980s than soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.Adults forgot their primordial urges to nurture their children; instead they sought protection from their kids. Although the Boomer criminals of the 1960s benefited from revolving-door justice and slaps on the wrist, the 1970s saw the advent of "tough love" and "assertive discipline," trying kids as adults, unsealing juvenile court records and imposing lengthy sentences on 16-year-olds. In 1973, abortions became legal and the number of terminated pregnancies skyrocketed; one wonders whether the desire not to have kids in the first place was as responsible for this trend as economic necessity. Awareness of overpopulation has been with us since Thomas Malthus in 1798, but the Zero Population Growth movement began in the early '70s, not in the '60s or '80s when birth rates were much higher.Even popular culture reflected the demonization of children. The poster for the new TriStar film Matilda screams "KIDS RULE!", but we grew up with imagery of children as the devil incarnate in such movies as It's Alive! (1974), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976) and Children of the Corn (1984). During this period, Disney laid off its cartoonists and the proportion of "G"-rated films of all movies released in the United States dropped from 41 to 13 percent.While Americans still scream for harsh treatment of underage murderers and gang members in the inner cities, children of the white middle-class are media darlings.What happened? Simply put, the average age Baby Boomer child is now 10. Boomers run the White House and dominate the mainstream media. Now that this privileged generation's coddled progeny have achieved sentience, it's unsurprising that the national attitude towards kids is finally coming around.It's too early to tell if the bullish attitude toward the next generation will result in meaningful improvements in children's lives, such as increased education spending or lower divorce rates, or if such changes will last. There is a tendency among Americans, as the world's most selfishly individualist people, to resent a new protectionism that many of them never enjoyed themselves.Typically, the pendulum of popular culture has swung too far to another extreme. Becoming obsessed with children to the exclusion of adults is just as destructive to society as the neglect of the last twenty years, during which one of the most intentionally neglected, abused and impoverished generations in American history grew up to become alienated and dispossessed.Putting kids first requires taking care of adults too.

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