~Meniscus Archives~
Winter 2003
Issue #2

November - February 2004

Link to Issue #2 Home


Bynum's Corner Word Games

The Dissapperance of Childhood
Sarah Trachtenburgh

There's something about Crystal Boots
Drayton Patriota
Debate/Retort by Little Lamb
The Apothecary and Mr. Cesnek
Chrystie Hopkins
A Stroll Down Shakedown Street
Caleb Estabrooks
Out of the Box, Into my Hands
Derek Gumuchian
Travel Log of a Colorado Girl
Erin Hopkins
Santa Fe
Chrystie Hopkins
How to find your friends at IT!
Rob Hansen
Meniscus New Years Picks
Sound Tribe Sector 9: Focusing the Light
-Jon Heinrich
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Take a Trip with the Wild and Wooly Masters of the Jam-Jazz Scene
-Brian Gagné
CD Review:
Solar Igniter
CD Review:
Cadillac Jones-
Junk in the Trunk
Through Glass
and Grain

-Aiden FitzGerald
four poems
-Brandon Rigo
-Pete Pidgeon
Art Model
-Julia Magnusson
-Julia Magnusson
Dead dog
-Julia Magnusson
-Julia Magnusson
Those games
we'd play

-Julia Magnusson
Ode de Toiletté
-Aron Ralston
-Stephanie Laterza
-Stephanie Laterza
-Stephanie Laterza
Meniscus is...
Meniscus Premier Launch Party
Zeitgeist Gallery
Cambridge, Massachusetts
August 14, 2003

Metro Saturdays hosts
Meniscus Portland Launch
Sky Bar @ The Roxy
Portland, Maine
August 30, 2003

State of the Art
Lounge Ten
Boston, Massachussets
October 23, 2003


Sarah Trachtenburg on

The Dissappearance
of Childhood

Published 11/15/03


Childhood as we know it today did not always exist. Many citizens of the U.S. take this life benefit for granted. Childhood is only a couple of centuries old and, like most luxuries, began with the upper class. Children existed, of course, but only as “small adults” whose function was to work, not to play or learn. There was no such thing as the innocence of youth; a time in which kids could be kids without the adult struggles of survival; a time of life to enjoy playing, exploring and changing. There was no sentimentality towards early life the way there is today.

We find ourselves at a crossroads today, at which childhood is acknowledged and children are pampered and protected. Without a doubt, times are better than ever for children. A century ago, many small children worked in coal mines and sweat shops. As the pendulum swings far away from those hard days, children seem to be sheltered not just from reality, but growing up in the general sense. We seem to shelter children not only from the negative, but from the positive, as well.

Currently, we see a paradox in which children are sheltered from a true childhood, but at the same time pressured by their peers and the media to grow up more quickly. On one hand, parents force over-dependence. On the other, kids are thrust into adult situations at earlier and earlier ages. A child today can go from forced infantilization to forced adultification at school age, completely skipping over a healthy developmental period.

Even factoring shifts in economy, each generation becomes progressively more spoiled than the last. This is attributable to greater wealth in general, but greater wealth, by itself, does not necessitate restricting children’s autonomy and exploration. When children are able—and even want—to do things such as pour their own juice or dress themselves for school, parents tend to do these things for them.

Parents also use well-meaning yet extreme measures to protect their children. Recently, a friend of mine told me that her parents vetoed the idea of allowing their kids to participate in a water fight at her family reunion barbecue because they might, um, “get wet.”

In an admittedly extreme example of teaching overdependence, I once babysat a six-year-old who was not taught to wipe herself after using the bathroom. I suppose they didn’t think she should be able at this seemingly advanced age since she relied on an adult. That task fell on me as her caretaker. (I know, what a job!) I finally asked her to try it for herself and call me if she needed help. Children of this age crave autonomy; after trying this and succeeding, she called out, “It’s fun to wipe your own butt!” I wonder how many children now are not encouraged to care for themselves in such small ways? She was ready for small levels of independence even if her parents were not.

Are we helping children by putting off independencies? Is it really healthy for a school-age child to rely on an adult to pour her juice? At what point are we over-protecting, over-coddling and restraining children? From my perspective, parents of the middle class are over-sentimentalizing children to such a degree as to deny them a true childhood in its optimal sense—one of playing, learning and growing. In our attempts to protect children more and more, we are raising a generation of delicate doilies who do not learn how to do anything for themselves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when children reach puberty today, they seem to be under-protected. In the 1950s, it was normal and expected for twelve-year-olds to “be kids;” meaning they’d play with toys, not be interested in fashion or dating, and generally maintain the innocence of childhood as long as possible. Such a twelve-year-old may be hard to find today. Children of this age may be pressured by peers, and mass media to start dating, having sex, and obsessing over their physical appearance.

Sexual experimentation among young children can be a positive and wanted experience; it is something that is needed for healthy and normal development. Children in many cultures, past and present, play games exploring each other’s bodies in a positive setting, as part of friendship and curiosity. Certainly sex among pubescent (and younger) children did occur in the 1950s, although before the advent of the birth control pill, and widespread acceptance of condom use, times discouraged “going all the way.” But it seems that avoiding sex may be more difficult or unrealistic for junior high aged kids today. Just look at the level of sexuality on television these days.

In short, children of today do not have the choice of remaining children the way their grandparents did. It is truly frightening to think that a twelve-year-old may be getting drunk and trying to seduce boys as a way to get them to like her when, deep down, she might rather be dressing her stuffed animals or writing a children’s book. Peer pressure, the modern demon of parents, is a large factor in children’s inability to stay children. The media also plays a negative role, with its constant emphasis that we must all be sexy in appearance and in behavior.

This “sexification,” largely emphasizing physical appearance, does not exempt children, who are in general, particularly sensitive to media. It is common to see images of eroticized children, such as young teenage girls made up to look like consenting adults, and adult women in erotic positions surrounded by the props of childhood. Children who see these images can easily misinterpret the message to mean that they should be that way too in order to succeed socially.

Adults may inadvertently sexualize children without even realizing it. The same toddler, not allowed to engage in a water fight for reasons of “protection” may, a couple of years later, be dressed to look like an adult woman. Or as a teenager, she might be made up to compete in the Jon-Bénet Ramsey circuit of beauty pageants, or simply to keep up with the Joneses.

I do want to point out that we are sexual for our entire lives and children, like anyone, have a right to sexuality. It is helpful to a child’s development of positive sexuality to acknowledge and confirm sexual feelings, as opposed to repressing them. Repression can be particularly harmful if accompanied by mixed messages in the form of superimposed adult sexiness.

Adults responsible for caretaking may harm their children by inadvertently exaggerating their sexuality in an adult caricature. A child’s sexuality is qualitatively different from that of an adult and needs to be nurtured in specific ways.

Today there are many challenges. How can parents successfully find the balance between providing a safe and open environment for their children to grow, while also allowing them to find their own way? What is the perfect balance between infantilization and adultification?

It is not all black and white; overprotection is not the natural consequence of keeping children out of sweatshops. Generally speaking, parents need to allow their children to explore and be ready to protect them when need be.

Think of tiger cubs whose parents hide in the tall grass ready to pounce in the event of danger. Parents need to promote autonomy in their children, which is what children crave in the first place. Activities such as cooking, sewing, crafts and the like give children the sense of taking care of themselves. A child who learns how to pour her own juice, for example, finds it fun and exciting to be able to do something for herself; it is building a child’s sense of efficacy, for which overdependence is a poor substitute. Teaching children to cook, for example, makes them feel like creative, independent beings who will one day be competent chefs. In my experience, children are very excited about conceding to autonomy.

Let children be children in the best sense of the word. Let them have the freedom to be, and the freedom to not be adults. They should have the right to explore autonomy with loving parents in the background as a safe base, ready to provide real protection when needed. When one takes care of children, one molds the future. Mold a generation that can stand on their own feet and be proud of it.

-Sarah Tractenburg

Further reading
Neil Postman and Marty Asher. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Vintage Books, 1994 (original 1982), ISBN: 0 679 751 66

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