It Takes a Village …


I ran across this post on danah boyd’s blog today that fits in very well with a recent post I wrote about high concept and high touch. Increasing pressure on kids to perform, high stakes testing, and a continuing emphasis on left-brain types of skills is not just an American phenomenon, judging from this letter in the British newspaper the Telegraph.

The letter reads:

Sir – As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.

This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.

Like danah, I support this letter. I think it is yet another example that shows how children are being socialized into a society that is not theirs, but their parents’ and grandparents’.

The letter also illustrates how schools alone cannot remedy the problem, as it is not an educational one, but a social and cultural one. Current issues related to technology, such as the whole debate around MySpace and the subsequent DOPA legislation are merely trying to deal with the symptoms of deeper and pervasive problems such as youth alienation, pressure to perform academically, and bullying. And as danah argues, banning youngsters from using certain digital tools may actually worsen the problem:

By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general. TV is allowing children to have desperately-needed downtime, the Internet provides them with the a place to hang out amongst their friends when they are locked into their nuclear family residences.

It takes a village to raise a child … a saying that has been beaten to death but that sounds oh so true today, especially in the Western world. Or, as Garrison Keillor wrote in his “modest plan for saving the country“,

You have to advocate for young people, or else what are we here for?


Image credit: (I should have started this a long time ago, and will go back and post image credits once I get a chance).

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