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Children Are Scapegoats For Adults Without Power

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Lately I have been observing a cruel, almost combative hostility toward chidren that amounts to a new "cult of toughness." I first noticed it in 1979 when the United Nations International Year of the Child--a global campaign to end poverty and provide health and human rights to all children--was attacked by a number of groups, including Americans Against Abortion, which called it "an intense propaganda campaign to 'liberate' children from their parents." The suggestion was that the millions of starving children were merely rebellious little brats who deserved no help at all.

In 1980, I watched delegates convened to address the problems of children and families turn the White House Conference on Families into a forum for parental vituperation. Dozens of male delegates skipped over family economics, housing, violence, and stress to rail against children who disobeyed their fathers (and to predict consequent doom for all other authority figures in Western civilization). A man who accused government job programs of "coddling" kids later acknowledged bitterly that he had been unemployed for 18 months.

Several people sidetracked discussions of child abuse with a defense of corporal punishment. 'Why is spanking children so important?' I asked one man. "To teach them who's boss," he answered. The refrain became familiar: Too many kids "talk back," they get "big-shot ideas" from television and books, they "think the world owes them a living." The common enemy was "permissiveness," the preferred cure "discipline."

For years, various religious and political fundamentalists have validated parents' anger and offered relief in the form of authoritarian certainties. The Indiana Moral Majority leader, Greg Dixon, for example, engineered a weakening of his state's child-abuse laws in 1981 because "the Bible instructs parents to whip their children with a rod." Mr. Dixon insists that "welts and bruises are a sign that a parent is doing a good job of discipline."

More recently, the new cult of toughness has found expression in books such as The Coming Parent Revolution, Back in Control, Toughlove, Dare to Discipline, and Spank Me If You Love Me. Appealing to readers who are more interested in learning to control children than care for them, these books tend to underplay children's suffering and glorify parent power in the name of either God or the family.

"We can trace to the Puritans the idea that children are inherently bad and it is up to adults to cleanse them of their evil," said Edward F. Zigler, professor of psychology at Yale and head of the psychology section of the Child Study Center there. "Those who argue against heavy discipline may be accused of being too tender-minded, but today there is total consensus among behavioral scientists that hard discipline is counterproductive. It only teaches children that people who are big and strong can do what they want."

Much of the get-tough impulse seems to originate in adult insecurity and the American fixation with power hierarchies. (Who's in charge? Who's on top? Who's Number One?) When grown-ups feel powerless, one response is to take it out on children.

"Most concrete kinds of violence come from adults who are themselves vulnerable in some way," commented Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. "For instance, when unemployment strikes, children become objects for adult rage and frustration. Among men especially, violence toward children is connected to bitter feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness."

Children have always been readily available scapegoats for male impotence and anger. But now, without animals to tame or frontiers to conquer, with no control over economic conditions and world events, with women in revolt and machines displacing workers, men may look to children as the last subjects of male domination. When gender, class, and racial supremacy fail, who but children will anchor the bottom of the chain of command?

The truth is that many people who consider themselves child-loving sentimentalists love only docile and respectful children. They are not so fond of independent, free-thinking, quirky, or opinionated children who are critical of adults. The defiant child magnifies adult impotence. The vulnerable child reminds us of our human frailty. The self-sufficient child proves us dispensable. Believing that children are intrinsically bad frees adults to be cruel and punitive.

In many cases, the psychological and political dynamics of power are intertwined. Some people with heavy responsibilities can live with their envy of carefree youth only if adults have the ultimate control of children's freedom; these people oppose any advance in children's rights for fear it will rob them of that edge. Other people feel their educational or intellectual superiority threatened by precocious children who are "too smart for their own good" or by child advocates whom they accuse of "trying to undermine parents' authority." Still others suffer the existential knowledge that each year added to a child's age is a year stolen from a parent's youth.

Altogether, these diffuse resentments can make children, the most powerless people of all, seem privileged--and give adults unconscious reasons to retaliate against them. Moreover, it is not just extremists who get tough on children and ignore their needs. Millions of moderate citizens protest the cost of public education, child-care centers, infant-health programs, and food stamps, and worry about their property values when juvenile facilities are planned for their neighborhoods.

In this supposedly child-loving country, most of us quietly tolerate a situation in which one disabled child in five is not getting an education and 13 percent of our 17-year-olds (47 percent of black youths) are functionally illiterate. The poorest people in the land are kids. More babies die at birth in the United States than in 14 other countries. One child in six gets no health care at all. Eighteen million have never seen a dentist. More than a million have serious drinking problems. A quarter of a million youngsters try to commit suicide annually (10,000 succeed) and homicide has become one of the five leading causes of children's deaths--with parents or step-parents responsible for a third of them.

On official levels, mistreatment of children can mean cutting 28 percent of federal nutrition programs or it can mean maintaining a public policy that answers real suffering with benign neglect. "We may be a youth-oriented society," Dr. Coles commented, "but what we love is youth, not children."

Recently, during the National Governors' Conference, 250 state officials from around the nation gathered in Portland, Me., to consider state-initiated solutions to children's problems. The well-chosen title of their three-day symposium was "America's Children Need Powerful Friends." Given the obsession with adult power over children, the idea of using adult power for children is refreshing. Having "powerful friends" in high places is the only hope for those with neither the vote, the voice, nor the economic clout to fight for themselves. The question is, as the cult of toughness gains more converts, where are children's friends going to come from?

1983 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

Vol. 03, Issue 07, Page 19

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