Deadly Childhood
Kids, alienation, and amorality

Little innocents are an endangered species. Fanned by tabloid TV's grim fairy tales and exploited by everyone with a political axe to grind, Boomer fears are fueling the apocalyptic belief that we're witnessing childhood's end.

See also...
... by Mark Dery
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 13, 1999

Eaten hollow (the story goes) by media-fed cynicism and moral decay, contemporary America is somehow causing the premature death of childhood. United in their kill-your-TV mediaphobia, liberal intellectuals such as Neil Postman, who exhibits a congenital allergy to mass culture, are singing from the same page as neo-conservatives like Michael and Diane Medved, who see the Mark of the Beast on Judy Blume's forehead.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman -- a McLuhanite to the bitter end -- argues that childhood as we know it is an invention of print culture, and that the media bombardment of our post-literate culture is making children alienated and amoral beyond their years. Here as in Poltergeist, TV is the soul-eating maw of Hell. Likewise, in Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence, the Medveds lay the blame for America's supposed slouch toward Gomorrah at TV's doorstep (although sex education, condom distribution in schools, and babysitters with pierced noses get frowny faces in the cosmic grade book as well).

Postman and the Medveds aren't the only ones piling sandbags around the embattled notion of childhood as a time of wide-eyed wonder. Bad dreams about murdered children and killer pedophiles trouble the nation's restless sleep.

In the early episodes of the TV series Millennium, children were the frightened face of family values in a world whose center cannot hold. The lead character's five-year-old daughter was a pre-Raphaelite moppet whose sole function was to gambol through the gathering gloom, her radiant innocence a beacon to the serial killers hiding under the bed. The opening montage evoked the siege mentality of the nuclear family in the '90s, the catchphrase, "Wait... Worry... Who cares?" hovering menacingly over the profiler's home, a yellow and gold Victorian.

The house looks a lot like the neo-traditional houses in Celebration, the Disney planned community whose town seal is a ponytailed girl riding her bike past the proverbial picket fence, a playful pup nipping at her tires. Equating small-town America with carefree childhood, Celebration's promo video beguiles nesting Boomers with sunlit visions of a "place that takes you back to that time of innocence."

Of course, every philosophical absolute demands a counterweight; in cultural politics, as in physics, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Boomers' insistence on seeing children through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia for the Wonder Years of their own childhoods is counterbalanced by their demonization of teenagers. Most of the 2,000 adults polled in a 1997 survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit policy group, believe that America's youth are undergoing a "moral meltdown"; two-thirds of the respondents described today's teenagers as "rude," "irresponsible," and "wild."

Dripping pheromones and oozing cool, teenagers force the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old generation to confront the grim truth that Monoxidil and Viagra are now its drugs of choice and Mick Jagger looks like a stand-in for Don Knotts, circa Three's Company. Today's teens must be sacrificed (metaphorically, at least), lest they displace the eternal adolescent every Boomer sees in the mirror -- especially when he or she is zipped into leathers for a rumble with the other weekend Hell's Angels from the office. Thus the proliferation of social controls such as teen curfews, school uniforms, mandatory drug tests, and McCarthyite anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E. Youth, "next to the criminally institutionalized, have fewer rights than almost any other group in society," contends the cultural critic Andrew Ross.

Widespread perceptions of today's youth as a nest of vipers fly in the face of the facts: According to a 1997 study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, those youth who are violent are no more so than their predecessors of 15 years ago, nor are they younger (Op-Ed hysterics about little killers notwithstanding).

"In the past two decades, our collective attitude toward children and youth has undergone a profound change that's reflected in the educational and criminal justice systems as well as in our daily discourse," writes Annette Fuentes, in The Nation. "'Zero tolerance' is the mantra in public schools and juvenile courts, and what it really means is to be young is to be suspect." Just in time for its midlife crisis, the counterculture has exchanged its founding myth -- Oedipus slaying his father and laying his mother -- for the story of Kronos eating his own kids.

The Boomer demonization of all teenagers as baby-killing prom-goers and schoolyard shooters is no less fanciful in its own grim way than the idealization of little children as Baby Gap angels. Obviously, it's high time that thirty- and fortysomethings grew up, already: in 25 years, at least 20 percent of America will be over 65, and a quarter of that slice will be over 85. The Boomer love-hate relationship with today's teenagers is deeply rooted in their proprietary attitude toward adolescence and their jarring sense of obsolescence.

Perhaps, by casting out the demons of youth envy, the generation that invented youth culture will reinvent old age. A few role models (admittedly from pre-Boom generations) wait in the wings: the arch, effortlessly elegant Paul Bowles, cooler than God at 88; the magisterial, sharp-tongued Louise Bourgeois, suffering no fools at 87. Our consumer society has worshipped at the altar of eternal youth since its beginnings; early in this century, a cosmetics evangelist exhorted her sales team, "We are going to sell every artificial thing there is... And above all things it is going to be young -- young -- young!" Overturning this cultural logic would be a truly radical act. Then, and only then, would the Boomers' endless childhood be over.

Mark Dery has written about new media, fringe thought, and unpopular culture for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Suck, and Feed. His collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink was published by Grove Press in February, 1999.