Perhaps we need to re-think what childhood might look like in the 21st century. 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. There is now an epidemic number of children who are growing up in hotel rooms, shelters, or even on the streets. 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.
For children in wealthier communities, the hyper-scheduled and supervised nature of modern childhood imposes its own strains. 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 STDs, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, bullying, violence, and unengaged, ill-formed, and abusive parenting that too often threatens children of all economic classes.
The six policy possibilities in this discussion guide:
A. Connect Parents
B. Re-Evaluate the Dual Income Family Model
C. Do You! Help Children Develop Their Unique Talents
D. It Takes a Village
E. Life is Group Work
F. Free Their Minds