Heffner column: The new childhood
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Educator and cultural critic Neil Postman, in his book “The Disappearance of Childhood,” described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy. In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets - including sex and violence - of the adult world.
Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. Some information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways. “The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”
Postman pointed out that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.” The visual media erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. “It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience.”
Most parents would agree with the difficulty - almost impossibility - of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process. New developments in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further. The COVID-19 pandemic is testing anew Postman’s point about the visual media eroding the dividing line between childhood and adulthood.
That dividing line, which has been breaking down in recent years, is now amplified by the collapse of the educational system. With variations throughout the country, most children have been left with remote learning through the use of technology, which itself has been unevenly available.
Aside from the interruption in the acquisition of academic skills, the absence of human interaction between teacher and pupil, between students themselves, is a significant deprivation in child development. Teachers have been speaking and writing about the difficulty in reaching young children without human contact.
Teachers say that even years of experience in classroom teaching has proved to be inadequate and they resort to trial and error in an effort to overcome the distance in distance learning. One teacher speaks of the difficulty holding the attention of a kindergarten class reading to them on zoom. Teachers miss the “mommy look” which helped a child settle down.
At the same time that the prescribed educational path for children remains largely unavailable, children have been exposed more than ever to what Postman called the “realities and secrets” of the adult world. The last few weeks in particular have exposed through unceasing visual media the extremes of reality, the highs and lows of the adult world.
It is hard to know what young children have taken from the violent assault on the Capitol, the impeachment of one president, the inauguration of another. It remains for parents to process the impact of these events on their younger children.
High school age children are more able to conceptualize and articulate their thoughts and feelings. Some express feelings of hope and rescue evoked by the inaugural events, a greater political awareness and a special response to the young poet, Amanda Gorman, and her poem.
Postman believed that in Western civilization, the growth in empathy and sensibility - in humaneness - has followed the path of the growth of childhood. These qualities have distinguished us as a society. Our values have derived from the humanities.
Let us hope that the pandemic with its reliance on technology, will not prevent a return to the kind of education that in the past spoke to those values.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.