The Immoral Life of Children

three girlsA few weeks ago a friend’s ten-year-old daughter came home from school, turned to her mother with a frown, and speaking low, so as to stay out of earshot of a younger sibling, asked, “Mom, what does the word ‘contraception’ mean, and what does a sponge have to do with it?”

You would think she’d been talking to a classmate, but no; as it happened she had read this in a book on Ancient Rome.  Since the school’s fourth grade bookshelf includes a number of colorfully illustrated reference books on the period, her mortified teacher’s first thought was that one of these adult books was the source.  It wasn’t; the information came from an Usborne book.  In other words, it came from a book written and designed for children.

It is not very original of either this mother or me to complain that our children are under siege, but they are, and some days the pervasiveness of it seems remarkable.

I have fourth grader myself, who loves to read and loves words, so many nights now she and her father tackle the Jumble word puzzle which lies opposite the comics page in our increasingly thin Louisville Courier-Journal.  This is a new game for them, and it took a day or two for my husband and I to notice that right above ATCATK and YLROLWD lies the “Annie’s Mailbox” column, with its sad parade of grief, trouble and abuse. We cut or fold the page now.

This child would like to read parts of the rest of the paper also, but since the front page may feature a large colored photograph of people exploded by a suicide bomber, or the murder of a child, or a personal assault highlighted in large type, some days she can’t.  (I don’t complain that the paper reports bad news, but I do object to the increasingly tabloid fashion in which some stories are covered.)  I have to scan the covers of the political/literary magazines I take; I ran a permanent marker through a cover headline in the Atlantic the other month, in order to be able to keep the magazine around the house till I’d read it.  I didn’t want to be asked what “gay sex” is.  Women’s and health magazines are typically so indecent that on the rare occasions I have one around I hide it.

Once you start worrying about earfuls for little pitchers you find the words you long to avoid are blazoned and trumpeted everywhere.  Two weeks after the school book revelation, the same child was in a locally owned coffee shop, where, in between sips of hot chocolate, she asked her mother what “rape” meant.  Each table at the shop sports a little rolodex of laminated information cards, and there, along with cards telling about shade grown coffee and Louisville’s recycling efforts, was one on a women’s crisis shelter which the shop owners support.

This is a little thing, but it indicates an assumption made everywhere:  that with the exception of certain slurs there is no limit on what is deemed appropriate public language, and that what is appropriate language for adults is assumed to be appropriate for the children who follow in their wake.  News is reported in a way that takes for granted children either aren’t listening or don’t matter, and this is as true for the “highbrow” radio on NPR as it is for the “lowbrow” so-called conservative TV shows.  This is tolerable when your child is two, or even six, and has no idea what some of these words mean, and it’s tolerable I suppose when the child is 17 and knows what 17-year-olds are going to know these days.  But it’s pretty hard to take with a fourth-grader, who is old enough to understand, but too young to bear the burden of this knowledge.

The definition of adult-appropriate language and topics has changed in the last three or four decades to include words and speculations no one would have discussed before, outside a law court or an exceedingly frank one-gender get-together.  These words leap out from everywhere—the TV, radio, newsstand, book store display, and conversations overheard on the sidewalk.  I can remember when it was a big deal for a family newsmagazine like Time to run a cover story on STDs, but that was at least twenty-five years ago.  I am also old enough to remember when the word “rape” would not have been said in public, and certainly not used casually as a metaphor.  Time was when no one, certainly not a lady, would have begun a column with the story I began with above, because it is too indelicate (I am not old enough for that).  But we are not able to be ladies anymore, and children are not allowed to be children.  If there is any outlet in our media-saturated culture that isn’t actively working to turn ten-year-olds into case-hardened 22-year-olds, I would like to know what it is.  Around here, Louisville’s classical music station WUOL is the only thing that comes to mind.

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