Issue 112, Summer 2010

By Joan E. Bertin

Kids today have less time on their own to play, run around outside, ride their bikes aimlessly, or simply do nothing. Their lives are heavily programmed and supervised. They go to swimming or gymnastics classes, play on the soccer team, rehearse a school play, join school clubs, volunteer at a soup kitchen, do homework, or study for tests. This state of affairs makes it all the more important that children’s imagination, curiosity, and intellectual development is not similarly programmed and supervised to limit their world to one that offers no unexpected challenge. Yes, of course we want kids to eat their broccoli – but it shouldn’t be their whole diet.

Yet control over the minds of young people is the order of the day. Some of the fears fueling the urge to control are connected to the unforeseeable effects of new media: Internet filters, which are notorious for the large swath of educational material they block, are installed in both public library and school computers, and many states have tried to prevent minors from buying video games containing fantasy violence.

However, the panic that makes parents want to shelter kids from “dangerous” content isn’t confined just to new media: In Florida, there is an effort to make the library “label” books so as to identify any content that refers to illegal behavior, or is “inappropriate” for teens – reducing literature to a few numbers and letters. In New Jersey, a small but determined group wants to remove GLBTQ-themed books from libraries. In Pennsylvania, a group of parents objects to the use of excerpts from R-rated films in high school classes. 

Like every generation before them, young people today are growing up in an environment that is far different from the one their parents experienced. The fear and anxiety that underlie efforts to protect children from the confusion, risks and uncertainties of life are certainly not new but they are exacerbated by the pace of change, the unprecedented diversity of our communities, and parents’ inability to keep up with the technological savvy of their web 2.0 children. 

The effort to protect kids by insulating them is ultimately doomed. For better or worse social networking, texting, interactive media, etc. are here to stay. It’s worth recalling that five hundred years ago, the invention of the printing press buried an old comfortable world of confined knowledge and completely transformed society. Something comparable is happening today.

Change and uncertainty are defining characteristics of life. Unfortunately, there have been no significant improvements in the crystal ball in the past 500 years. The best we can do for our kids is to help them acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to adapt successfully to whatever the future holds. 

In the meantime, we have our work cut out for us, explaining to frightened parents that reading books like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in an Advanced Placement English class isn’t what causes harm to children. It’s NOT reading such books that does.