The Coddling of the American Child

Many people have been surprised by the success of the Harry Potter series among young children, some barely old enough to read. The conventional wisdom had it that the plot of the books should be too complex, the atmosphere too grim. And characters actually die! The horror of it all...

This presupposes a view of children as being used to simplistic plots in which the conflicts are trivial, the characters are cardboard, and everything is sweetness and light. This sort of view is exemplified in the pabulum usually found in the children's section of libraries and bookstores, where the books often serve as nothing more than vehicles to shove some feel-good message down the throat of the reader, with very little in the way of realistic plotting.

Similar observations can be made about most children's television, at least from what I remember seeing on TV when I was younger. There was violence, certainly; but it was "cartoon violence," meaning violence without any sort of negative outcome. Nobody ever died in "G.I. Joe" that I recall. Nor in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," nor in any of the excrable variants of the "Power Rangers" franchise. In fact, I don't think I ever saw anyone die in a children's show, with the exception of one episode of "Mighty Max."

The problems being confronted were all relatively simple. Enemies were caricatures, intent on outlandish schemes of world domination or somesuch. It was rare indeed that the good guys did not triumph at the end of every episode. There was no reflection of what happens in the real world.

Often this whitewashing would reach lengths that defied simple logic. I remember one episode of "Double Dragon" in which one of the brothers is railroaded to prison by an unusually hostile judge. When he escapes a few weeks later, the judge is discovered to be a shapeshifter of some sort, and the real judge is found tied up in a back room. I remember thinking that it didn't seem realistic; if I were the imposter, I would have murdered the real judge to lessen the chances for discovery. Of course, such things don't happen in the world of American children's fiction.

Similarly, in the movie "The Iron Giant," near the end of the movie the Army is attacking the giant robot with every weapon at its disposal: planes, tanks, warships. It does not respond, until the boy that had befriended him is *apparently* killed. Then it goes berserk, unleashing its awesome weaponry against the Army. Yet when it would blow up a tank, the crew would always escape just in time to avoid death. Indeed, there is not a single death in the entire movie, which stretches the imagination given the firepower being thrown around.

Why are American children fed such a distorted view of the world, violence and its consequenses? Not only do such practices insult the intelligence of the young, they end up accomplishing nothing. Children will simply watch movies meant for older audiences; and in the meantime, they are shown that violence is something exciting, and completely without consequence.

The question was sharpened for me when my brother introduced me to a Japanese anime series called "Rurouni Kenshin." When I first watched it, I was shocked at how "adult" it was. The title character was an assassin during the Meiji Revolution, and is now trying to atone for his past by protecting the innocent, while never killing again. One of his friends was part of a group of warriors allied with the main revolutionaries, until the revolutionaries won; then they betrayed their former allies and killed almost all of them.

The show addresses drug dealing, corrupt government officials, revenge, the confrontation between a traditional society and Western culture and technology. Death is a constant part of the show; I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw an evil character commit murder. And not just the evil characters; one character, an assassin turned policeman, kills criminals with absolutely no emotion. Most importantly, the show is built around some of the loftiest themes that life holds: atonement, redemption, friendship, forgiveness.

Similarly, I discovered a young adult fiction novel written by an Israeli, David Grossman, called "Someone to Run With." It is "young adult" only in the sense that the main characters are young teenagers; but they must navigate a nightmarish world of criminal gangs, heroin addiction, and brutal police. The action is as dark as any "adult" novel, especially the sequences in which a character goes through heroin withdrawl. Grossman is an acclaimed writer of so-called serious fiction as well; it seems that in Israel, there is no stigma to writing for children as there is in America.

It seems that while many societies try to prepare their children for the real world, American society tries to insulate their children from the real world. Of course, this is folly. There is no way to escape the real world, especially now with mass media. All that is happening is that society is wasting a valuable pedagogical tool, and raising young adults with unrealistic ideas about how the world works. At the same time, children know when they are being condescended to, and respond with cynicism and sarcasm.

I don't know why Americans have the notions of childraising that they do. But I do know that they do more harm than good. The world will not ignore children until they reach adulthood, and we have a responsibility as a culture to prepare our children for real life—not some video-game fantasy world in which actions do not have consequences.


Asher Litwin said...

Do you think one result might be the over-naivety of pacifist liberals who believe that there is ALWAYS a way to solve something without killing or violence?

Mastiff said...

You could probably say just as easily that people are more willing to use violence because they don't understand its consequences. I don't know, and it would need research to back up. Fortunately, I think such research has been done.

Andrew Zuckerman said...

It is true what you say that an simplistic and unchallenging material should not be directed at kids, that they should be given material that would help and encourage them to grow into the responsible decision-making adults they will become; however, you also can not go all the way to the other extreme. Children, irregardless of the world at large, should still be given an opportunity to be children, and I wonder what exactly would be the cut-off point for introducing such material to them. How soon would you say they need to learn about these sorts of things? And how quickly? Would it be a gradual "coming of age" process or would it be a sort of "all at once" approach?

Anonymous said...

I would say it depended on the child, no?

'Irregardless' (small mockery, no offense intended ;)) of the age, it should be up to the parents to decide the whats, whens and wheres.