The Immoral Life of Children


A 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.

Fortunately for me I am not a news media addict.  I like quiet, and I hate television.  I don’t need to listen to news radio when the children are around, and I can bowdlerize the paper, and my children don’t surf the Internet yet.  But books—we all love books, and since my children love to read it has become impossible for me, without becoming a high-octane helicopter parent, to vet all their reading.  The Usborne book is a good example of many grammar school-age books that are unexceptionable except for one or two little ticking bombs of age-inappropriate information, buried on page X.  These clues to adult life show up in fiction, historical fiction, “fun facts” books and history.  I’m aware of some of them, but have missed many others.  As we ascend to the pre-teen and teen list, they will become Legion.

The answer, but of course!, is to foster open communication with your children, because everything can be handled well with good communication—everything except a ten-year-old’s concerned astonishment about what these strangely intimate details of adulthood can possibly mean.  We can try to comfort, but any further explanation at this age will only make things weirder.  There is plenty that even the most curious ten-year-old doesn’t want to know.  Not really, and not yet.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of people who are dying to tell her.  We have to counter their words with our own, when what we really want on certain topics is silence.  And talk as families will, children differ in their inclinations toward privacy and worry, and parents in their sensitivity and haplessness.  I know most of what is going on in the head of one of my children; very little of what truly is felt by the other.  We discuss some of the books they read as it is, for the fun of the discussion, and when the requests to read Pulliam and the Twilight series come, as they will, then we may talk about why we avoid some books for a good while, or entirely.  (Not having read either series yet, I don’t know how I will feel about them.)  Maybe that talk will be enough to forestall sneaking, but I can’t be sure. I am sure that with every publishing year which passes there will be more to sneak, and more we simply stumble upon.

Whatever my children may or may not be reading, I can see that they must grow up.  I can see the Big Conversation visible on the horizon for my eldest, and I know that I cannot assume my standards will become her standards by osmosis.  We will have to talk about moral behavior with a directness my own mother never used with me—because the culture we live in is making all kinds of arguments on the other side, all the time, explicitly, in a way it didn’t when my mother was young.  I can’t protect my children from the ugliness of a lot of history, if they’re going to learn any, or from all the horrors of our current wars and other countries’ conflicts.  I have no illusions I can protect them from pain, death or the knowledge of evil.  I don’t even desire to protect them from everything, since they must learn to stand up and fight on their own, and love the good on their own.  But it is a heck of a thing, to live in a culture that works so actively and in so many thousands of ways, big and small, to undermine every possible standard–even the chastity of children.

Previous articleGood Job, Bruce!
Next articleThis is My Son
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto.  She lives in her native Kentucky.


  1. Thank you Katherine for this essay. The basic point that certain messages (or implicit arguments) have seeped far and wide in the media messages we receive is an important one for any realist.

    “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.”

    I would have this as the antithesis of culture (as in, to cultivate – I am following Barzun here). That is, in many of these instances (like in “pop culture”) the word is basically a misnomer. Call it “pop degeneration” or “pop vulture” or something. I refer instead to these things as “media messages”, and reserve the word culture for things actually deserving of the name (that is, things that cultivate a person’s development).

  2. OMG. Casey, thanks for the link to the NY Times slideshow. How horrific. This seems like something you would expect to see in a culture of death like Palestine, where children are indoctrinated from birth to carry on violence against an enemy portrayed as inhuman. Or perhaps some story of Hitler youth in the 30’s. It is not what I would expect from an organization like the Boy Scouts. Leviathan rules indeed.

  3. Katherine, perhaps it isn’t the chastity of children you feel is at risk, but rather their innocence? An innocence you both love and miss in yourself?

    As you admit, that innocence must go. The world is full of ugly. But when? And under what terms and conditions must it go? Up to a point, that is a legitimate question for a parent.

    You have a 4th grader, and the Big Discussion is about to happen. That means that child is approximately 10. Your work is nearly done. To whatever extent it was ever possible, you have inculcated in your child your belief system. The wider world of peers and media is now in the driver’s seat.

    We lead best who lead by example. Good luck in yours.


  4. I fail to see how mentioning rape endangers the chastity of children, and indeed, awareness of what appropriate physical interaction with children may be the very thing that has helped increase abused children reporting abuse to trustworthy adults.

    And I was raised with the brutal images of the Vietnam War. Children in the 1940s saw images of WWII. There has never been a time, has there, when children have been shielded? I had to stop reading the Old Testament to my sons because of the rapes, and gore.

    I think railing against the immodest clothing of children as well as the hypersexualization of ads (that can not be avoid – it would be easy enough to remove the rolodex of the ads for various agencies from the table at the coffee shop) would be a far better use of energy as well as directly impacting the chastity of our children.

  5. Katherine, thanks for this thoughtful, fine essay about parenting, and especially about parenting young girls. We have nothing but daughters–four of them, ages 12, 9, 5, and 3–and my wife and I talk endlessly about how to guide them, what to guide them towards, and what to guide them away from, and how. I suppose we’re much friendlier with pop culture than you our; we have no television reception in the house, but we fill our home with music, much of which is popular stuff chosen by our oldest girls and their friends. Some we draw the line at, some we allow, some we strike compromises upon. It will, no doubt, always be that way, until the last one leaves the house.

    In regards to reading, I was touched by your comment “we discuss some of the books they read as it is, for the fun of the discussion, and when the requests to read Pulliam and the Twilight series come, as they will, then we may talk about why we avoid some books for a good while, or entirely….Maybe that talk will be enough to forestall sneaking, but I can’t be sure.” It sent me back to when our oldest was in 3rd grade, and snuck away and read the 4th Harry Potter book, when we had told her not to. That was the first such battle we’d had with her; several have since followed, and now the 9-year-old is old enough to begin to plead with us about different things as well. We’ve been successful in keeping some material out of their hands, but we have also learned that, if your child is a determined reader, all of these battles will, eventually, be lost (after all, eventually they’ll be 17!)–and the longer you draw out the battle lines, the more resentment your child may feel against you. Of course, parenting children as they grow up and explore the world will always be a balance between the risk of resentment and the risk of allowing exposure, and often I would argue to err on the side of the former. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. As Jake said, good luck!

    (I couldn’t resist linking to your essay, as I formulated some thoughts in a post this morning:

    Our girls are growing older, and while I’d like to think of myself as a decent father (we try to schedule one Saturday every month where one of the girls and I go off and do something, just us together), the truth is that most of their time, relationships, and conflicts, are with friends or schoolmates or with [my wife]….[H]ow do we communicate with daughters and young women, how do we introduce them to and educate them in a world that so often communicates a message–a sexualized, commodified, materialist, misogynistic, self-centered message–that suggests to them that there is only one possible way of achieving maturity? Well, I don’t have the answer to that; not in a grand sense. But I do think I can pull off a lot of little answers, to small crises and questions as they occur. But of course, to answer those cumulative little questions, you have to be there when they are asked. This summer, along with everything else, I want to start trying a little bit more to be there for my girls.)

  6. The issue of “Adult-appropriate” language and it’s associated “child appropriate” language is a bit flummoxed because EVERYTHING IS “APPROPRIATE”” in this less than discriminating culture of glib cheer with a war zone backdrop. The other morning, as I was doing my daily angst yoga by listening to a morning cable news channel yammer-fest while dressing, one of the thoroughly crazed Media Swells , I think some kind of unctuous PR man blurted out…at a time when perhaps many mommies were sending their darlings out the door to the bus with the telly blaring …..that he thought the Federal Government would be wise to , as he put it..”give the terrorists a steak knife to the eye”….This put me in mind of his accounts receivable department and the fact that he wears a $30,000 Phillipe Patek watch. I hope his clients give due homage to his dunning notices.

    But, your kids will be fine because you have engaged them in depth. Just wait till they turn 13 though. They get up in the morning with a sweet smile and compliant cheer, go off to school and then return home that evening in a hormonally altered psychotic state that makes them seem like a hybrid of Madonna or Snoop Dawg with a little unibomber mixed in along with some Lizzie Borden. Thus begins a 7 year ride of sheer terror and high comedy whereupon they actually return to sanity in their 20’s and you see spread out before you the fruits of those years of stewardship from 0-13. Best to actually steel them just a bit….like annealing hard sword blades before they head out of the nest. The Concept, a magnificent woman tells me every time I say “they never listen”…that in fact they do but will not let on for fear of depriving themselves of the Burlesque Show of my Continuous Appalled Apoplexy.

    Fear not Ms. Dalton and pass the ammunition.

  7. Katherine,

    I think your girls will be just fine. Talking to them the way you described is what is needed. My own children have long since left the nest; the ones I worry about now are my grandchildren.

    It never ends! 🙂

  8. Thanks, Katherine, for a post right after my own anxious heart. May I mention, if anyone makes it down this far, that a very good defense of aural chastity is to be found in Rochelle Gurstein’s brilliant “The Repeal of Reticence,” which I recommend on my Editor page, and which I believe is back in print.

    Our culture is sufficiently awful that the only children who will not simply mimic and repeat that culture are the ones whose parents equip them with the intelligence and explicit — as in, fully articulated! — to resist it in favor of something superior. That has been a hard lesson to learn for two reasons. First, the advocates of “openness” have historically been precisely those persons most anxious to destroy all inherited and decorous morality. It’s hard to accept that, precisely because their methods are so effective, we have to employ their methods as counteraction. Second, traditional moral standards are so enduring, so naturally inheritable, that there was a long gulf between when they came under successful attack and when people realized how successful indeed the attack was becoming. My parents, for instance, had no idea how much they would have needed to discuss with me if they had hoped to save me from trouble; consequently, trouble and I came a-calling. I pray that I’ll be able to speak clearly to my children about why, among other things, sometimes we should remain silent.

    Thanks again.

  9. Thanks to Mr. Khan for the NYT article. Pretty bad.

    Yes, Jake, I could have ended with “innocence” or “peace of mind” as well as “chastity,” but I was writing about both issues, which are related.

    Whatever any of us grew up knowing or watching, there have certainly been periods when children were shielded from horror as much as possible, and there is no question that getting news from a newspaper without graphic photos, or over the radio, is less frightening that seeing bloody images and videos. I imagine that for Americans who were children in the forties, the really scary memories of WWII have to do with absent fathers and uncles, and family grief, rather than with any news they heard.

    Plus, much of what we are barraging our children with now has nothing to do with war (though again, I think many of these things are related). And even in periods when children were not protected from early sexual knowledge, their families and neighbors had much higher expectations for their behavior than we do, particularly for girls. My point is simply that whatever a family’s “choice,” aural or reading “reticence”–thanks for the reference, James–has become a near impossibility.

  10. James’ point, that “the only children who will not simply mimic and repeat that culture are the ones whose parents equip them with the intelligence and explicit [reasons]— as in, fully articulated! — to resist it in favor of something superior,” gets to the heart of the matter. In favor of something superior. Precisely. The lack of sufficient reason was precisely why Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no!” campaign was pointless.

    Re. a desire to retain innocence, of which chastity is one form, even I, at 50, turn off NPR at certain stories or quickly leave a web page so as not to take in or retain certain images. How much more is this necessary for children.

  11. Thank you, Ms. Dalton, not only for relieving the testosterone-heavy slant of this excellent Front Porch, but for reminding me that “we few, we happy (though outnumbered) few” are not alone. Neil Postman’s “Monastery Effect” still has a chance, as long as children have parents who shield them, as much as possible, from burdens they are not yet (if ever) equipped to bear. We live in a society that cripples its children both by physical overprotection (keeping them indoors, teaching them that all strangers are dangerous, organizing free time out of their lives) and emotional and spiritual underprotection (by the abuses you have described).

    I wouldn’t take too much comfort in the idea that your children will be fine because you’re doing the right things. Sadly, the enemy can slip into even the most well-defended fortress. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to fortify the walls, of course. No point in opening the gate for the enemy forces…or giving them a prominent place in your living room!

    But don’t be too depressed by this, either: “Just wait till they turn 13 though….Thus begins a 7 year ride of sheer terror and high comedy….” I would shout from the rooftops (if I were more comfortable with heights): It doesn’t have to be that way! The greatest lie we were told, and told repeatedly, as our children were growing up, was “They’re good kids now, but just wait until they’re two [or five, or ten, or 13, or 17]. Then you’ll see.” It never came to pass. They were delightful at every single age, including the greatly-feared teens. Never anything resembling “a hybrid of Madonna or Snoop Dawg with a little unibomber mixed in along with some Lizzie Borden.” It doesn’t have to be that way.

  12. I just read some religious folk slamming the Old Order plain communities for “lack of privacy.” Your article, Catherine, is a nice juxtaposition to such knee jerk modernism. Privacy is exactly what we no longer have… under Leviathan. Thank you.

  13. Why “particularly for girls”? I don’t think I completely agree with everything in the original essay, but I sure don’t agree with that. Much higher expectations for behavior can and should apply to both genders, not particularly girls. Boys need to be raised to be honest and chaste in equal measure to girls. Girls should not be held responsible as the repositories of morality and innocence and chastity while “boys will be boys.”

  14. Robyn, when I said “particularly for girls” in my comment I was speaking very generally about the past, and I was being descriptive, not advocating a double standard. I wrote about girls in this essay because girls had the experiences I describe, but readers are encouraged to apply my regret to their sons, as well.

  15. While I do not have children of my own, dear Sis, I work with college students (who I consider to be on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, and who are suddenly free to pursue every whim and vice in addition to an education). The ones that do well typically have a strong sense of self confidence and honest assessment of self worth. I think the best a parent can hope to do is to teach their children to be honest, to take responsibility for their actions, to push their limits, both physical and intellectual, and to be kind and respectful to others. Of course you want to safeguard them from growing up too fast, and where you try to draw the line is up to you as a parent. I was exposed to murder and cannibalism at an early age in Grimm’s fairy tales, saw the painting “Rape of the Sabine Women” possibly first in our Masterpiece game, and read Mom’s copy of “The Naked Ape” around age 11 (quite the eye opener), and I still made it through high school totally un-sophistocated.

    The best thing you can teach any girl in my humble opinion, is that she is a beloved, wonderful, beautiful, valuable member of your family and of society, and that she can grow up to do anything she puts her mind and elbow grease to. If she values herself, and trusts her intuition, she will make good decisions. She will also, possibly, sneak read Judy Blume or her modern equivalents before you are ready. Worry some, my love, but not too much.

  16. “Innocence” = “Helplessness”.

    Some parents like to have their children as helpless, ignorant, and incapable as possible for as long as possible. It’s fashionable to infantilize offspring to the point where they’re thirty years old and still living at home, and to the point where they mindlessly obey whatever someone in authority tells them to do, even if it’s destructive or morally wrong. Witholding necessary information from them is one way parents do this. It’s in the same category as never permitting responsibility or accountability.

    Unfortunately, outside the stifling parental environment, a person who’s been kept “innocent” is a walking target.

    I would have *loved* to have had access to information that might have kept me from being abused and mistreated as an adolescent or young adult. It would have been great to have access to advice so that I could find out what “normal” was or how to enforce boundaries. But as long as parents deliberately keep their children pig-ignorant about some of the dangers out there, they basically set their kids up for future predators.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version