Project Manager: Sue Goodney Lea
Whitney Houston sings in The Greatest Love of All (1985) that “the children are our future.” What, though, is the future of childhood? What does it mean, in our society, to be a child– or to have a childhood? And what might it mean in the future? Looking back, it may be easy to presume that children have always enjoyed the protected status that they at least officially seem to have within modern American society. But both the historical and the modern realities of childhood greatly complicate this picture and many of our associated ideals.
For children who are not from upper middle-class families, childhood was—and too often remains—much more brutal and more like something out of a Charles Dickens novel than our idealized visions. Today over 20% of American children under eighteen live in poverty, and fully a third (33-35%) of Black and Hispanic children are impoverished. The housing market collapse in late 2008 has rendered many more families homeless, and there is now an epidemic number of children who are growing up in hotel rooms, shelters, or even on the streets. In some families, children are split among relatives so that they do not have to live on the street with their parents. In many families, children work to help support their family. In farming areas, children as young as seven or eight can be found picking fruit and vegetables for ten or more hours a day with their migrant families.
And for children in wealthier communities, the hyper-scheduled and supervised nature of modern childhood imposes its own strains. In only the most dangerous and violent neighborhoods do you routinely see unsupervised young people simply playing in the streets or anywhere else. Most middle and upper-class children’s lives are intensively planned and managed by parents (usually moms, but increasingly dads too) and/or nannies: sports teams, tutoring, and music or art lessons are arranged to fill the child’s time. What is lost by not letting children enjoy the timelessness that comes from getting lost in an afternoon’s play? And what is the result of always having adults on hand to solve problems and mediate every conflict? In addition, economic affluence is no certain shield against STD’s, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, bullying, violence, and unengaged, ill-formed, and abusive parenting that too often threatens children of all economic classes.
American society has also substantially extended adolescence in the last 30-40 years and for various reasons. Young people now often live at home well into their 20s. If they go off to college, they bring their “helicopter” parents with them. These parents call their kids constantly, manage their schedule and assignments, and chase after professors so as to ensure that their child is doing well and being treated fairly. Even dormitories are returning to the in locus parentis model, which was jettisoned in the late 1960s, whereby a college is expected to keep each child safe at all times.
Perhaps we need to re-think what childhood might look like in the 21st Century. This project will ask some difficult questions and consider multiple, alternatives answers. For example—
- How might we address broader social issues directly affecting childhood such as homelessness, abuse, neglect, crime, and violence—whether on the streets or in their homes and at the hand of a parent or caregiver?
- At what age and under what circumstances should children be working?
- How do we best raise children who will be competent enough to navigate the complexities of our modern world? What traits will they need?
- When is it time to let young people have their freedom and live with the consequences of their mistakes? Instead of sheltering young people, should we safely expose them to the perils they will encounter?
- What legal and other rights should children have? How can we assure them a voice when there really is something wrong?
- Can—or should—we regulate parenting and if so how?
- How do we ensure that parents and other caregivers benefit from new knowledge from neuroscience and developmental psychology? How should this and other scientific advancements be used to shape public policy related to childhood?
- What are some ways by which we seem to extend and/or shorten childhood? Are there ways that we ask (or require) some kids to grow up sooner? Is this more true in certain places or contexts?
- Are there ways to build and develop our supporting villages that will be both more supportive and less threatening to parents and caregivers.
- What other issues might affect children growing up 20, 30, or 40 years from now?
This project began discussions in the fall of 2011, and completed those discussions in late 2012. Following initial drafting, testing, revisions, and design work, the first edition of the completed discussion guide, What Might Childhood Look Like in the Future?, was published in early 2014. Click on the cover image for the discussion guide (above) to view it online or click on the blue button in the sidebar to the right to download a pdf copy.