SAVING CHILDHOOD - Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence, by Michael Medved and Diane Medved, PhD, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1998, 324 pp, $24, ISBN: 0-06-017372-6

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Diane and Michael Medved, husband and wife, both having been authors prior to their marriage and this collaboration, start in Saving Childhood with a number of anecdotes which epitomize our current problem of treating children like adults rather than nurturing them. They quote Marie Winn in her prophetic book Children Without Childhood, where she powerfully develops the argument that civilization has recently and swiftly shifted its fundamental attitude toward nurturing the young so that most adults are hardly aware that a true conceptual and behavioral revolution is under way and is still poorly understood. This new era operates on the belief that children must be exposed early to adult experience in order to survive in an increasingly complex and uncontrollable world. But has the Age of Preparation which has replaced the Age of Protection helped children adjust to adulthood? The statistics aren't encouraging.

Since 1960, the rate at which teenagers take their own lives has more than tripled. By 1995, 14 percent of all those who died between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four died at their own hands. According to the CDC, in 1993 a horrifying 8.6 percent of high school students had attempted suicide in the twelve months preceding the survey. The U. S. Dept. of HHS reports more than 500,000 such attempts each year--or nearly 1400 every day.

"The fastest growing segment of the criminal population is made up of children," notes former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Since 1965, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has tripled to more than 100,000 annual arrests. Approximately seven teenagers die each day as murder victims; more than 10 percent of all high school students carry a knife, razor, firearm, or other weapon to school on a regular basis.

Between 1992 and 1995, the use of marijuana nearly doubled among eighth and tenth graders. A national survey shows that 50 percent of all twelfth graders and 40 percent of tenth graders have used illicit drugs, including LSD, inhalants, stimulants, barbiturates, cocaine, and crack.

Today, half of all girls and the-thirds of all boys have intercourse before age eighteen with one in four acquiring a sexually transmitted disease every year. The rate of unmarried teenagers getting pregnant has nearly doubled in the last twenty years and today, 30 percent of all births are illegitimate.

If the modern age of preparation is to ready our kids to confront the challenges of adolescence and young adulthood, it can only be adjudged an appalling failure. With this disaster so obvious, the authors wonder at the unshakable determination of so much of the educational, psychological, and cultural establishment which presses on with their new approach, regardless of its consequences, extending the assault on innocence to ever-younger victims, all in the name of equipping them for the future. The authors compare this stubborn impractical insistence to George Santayana's classic definition of fanaticism, which, he writes, "consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim."

The authors give us many instances of children being pushed into adulthood denying them childhood experiences. The seven year old Jessica Dubroff's flying experience is illustrative. On the first leg of a cross country flight, Jessica fell asleep in her booster seat, as seven year olds are likely and should do when in a moving vehicle. The fifty seven year old father was not dissuaded from his goal of having his seven-year-old daughter be the youngest person in a transcontinental flight, even when there was record to be broken. He called a press conference, as she climbed into her booster seat again, and they took off on the second leg of the journey in blustery sheet-rain. With only 35 hours of flying experience over four months, which would qualify an adult for a hundred mile flight, the plane immediately crashed taking the school grade child, her father, and flight instructor to their deaths. Why do adults deny a seven-year-old girl the ability to rely on others for her basic needs and protection?

Neil Postman of New York University emphasizes the role of television in The Disappearance of Childhood. Where adults once could ease children into the "secrets" of maturity, the tube presents them with the grim truths from the earliest ages, and all at once.

The author, who raises her children in Jewish religious schools and a home TV-free home describes an experience with her seven-year-old daughter Sarah who was looking up from a book she was reading and beginning to cry. She asked when she would start to bleed. She removed the book and told her daughter that it was nothing she had to worry about right now. Sarah learned that some topics remain inappropriate for a second grader and there is a world of "things that you will learn about later." Sarah now prefers to resist mature realities until they are unavoidable. When using the library, Sarah must look at the copyright date to make sure it was written before 1960 when authors could be trusted to portray childhood the way it should be--with issues and problems of the sort girls typically and appropriately confront: Who will be friends with whom, how to earn spending money, mastering a two-wheeler, or planning a surprise birthday party. In Sarah's unsophisticated world, teachers and parents are authorities, little brothers are pests, and girlfriends are accomplices when they aren't fighting.

This volume is loaded with all kinds of advice that is useful not only in our own lives,but also in our patient's lives. Much of it would not be accepted if it were just listed here without the lengthy development that the Medveds do so well. The first step in their marriage counselling is frequently getting the TV out of the bedroom. That is one of the barriers for couples seeking to increase their closeness since it interferes with "talk" which is intimacy for most women and it interferes with "sex," which is intimacy for most men. Even the TV in the family room interferes with family closeness. They recommend eliminating the family channel and replacing it with the Medved channel which is important in raising kids--to save their childhood, and give them a sense of wonderment and identity.

Restoring religious rituals gives timeless and universal elements in providing children with a secure, solid understanding of their place, not only in the family, but also in the world. If a child attends services with his parents in a strange place and hears familiar prayers or hymns, that place becomes less strange, the youngster will feel more confident and rooted to discover that other members of the same faith throughout the world share behaviors and values that play a part in his life. Best of all, religious practice can connect a child not only with parents who follow the same rules and procedures, but even with great-grandparents he might never have known and other unseen ancestors. This time-honored observance shows consistent patterns going back hundreds if not thousands of years which greatly enhances the security that is an essential element of innocence. Even in a move to a new house or community, religious traditions perform comforting, protective functions relieving anxieties and downright dread.

As physicians were are all involved in the raising of children, whether in caring for the child and counselling the mother or as others of us in being a source of sage advice for fathers and grandparents that come into our offices even for unrelated reasons. We need to recommend this book to them as well as our colleagues. We look forward to meeting and hearing the Medveds at our annual meeting next month so we can spread the word more effectively.