Cleaning up a Toxic Childhood
past 20 years, teachers in North America began to wonder if it was their
imagination or if children really were becoming less healthy. It seemed
that kindergarten children were thinner, more nervous and oversensitive,
as if they had grown thin-skinned, with nerves uncovered and exposed to
a world intent on overstimulation. Doctors and therapists were also seeing
the same problems, which are now such a widespread phenomenon that major
newspaper and magazine articles appear regularly calling childhood today
a toxic experience. In the past two decades many books have appeared on
this subject and have made a significant impact, such as The Hurried
Child, Endangered Minds, Evolution's End, and, more recently,
The Shelter of Each Other, Failure to Connect, Saving Childhood, and
The Child and the Machine.1 These books
describe a serious decline in children's overall health and make concrete
suggestions for healthy changes in families, schools, and communities.
The central message is clear: Childhood is endangered and children need
our protection and healing.
are the problems which children manifest today? Some of the strongest
reports come from Germany and the United States. The picture in both countries
is similar. Children today show a much higher incidence than before of
nervousness, stress and hyperactivity, of eating and sleeping disorders;
of eczema, allergies and asthma. There is also concern about the growing
incidence of learning disabilities, and a suspected increase in autism.
In Germany there are reports that about 25% of children at age four have
significant speech difficulties. 2 Similar statistics
have not been found for North America, but for some years, kindergarten
teachers have commented on the growing speech problems they are seeing
in their children.
more detail at one example from this list of problems, hyperactivity was
recently the topic of a two day consensus meeting at the National Institutes
of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C. Experts were gathered to discuss this
nearly epidemic problem, which is estimated to affect about 2 million
children in the United States alone. The general consensus was that there
are many factors which contribute to hyperactivity, and it takes different
forms in different children. No one is certain of the cause, and there
is no simple test for diagnosing hyperactivity as there is for diabetes,
for example. There is research going on now, however, which will compare
brain images of children who are considered hyperactive with those who
are not. It is especially challenging for the researchers to find children
who are considered hyperactive but have not been given Ritalin or related
drugs which may themselves affect the brain images. Through such a study,
researchers hope to pinpoint brain changes which are indicative of hyperactivity.
finding at the NIH meeting was that Ritalin was successful as a short-term
aid for hyperactive children, but there is no evidence that it cures the
problem. Even as a short term help, it is more successful when combined
with behavioral changes. Perhaps the greatest outcome of the meeting was
that it focused attention on the problem and showed that the long term
answers were not simple or self-evident. Ritalin was not touted as a long-term
solution, and this opens the door for alternatives, including healthier
ways to raise and educate children, better understanding of the impact
of television and poor diet on hyperactivity, and new medical treatments
for the problem, both mainstream and complementary.
to children 25 years ago, today's children exhibit new illnesses in alarming
numbers, yet there is another side to the picture if one wants to understand
the children and youth of today. Many show a remarkable degree of spiritual
awareness and a highly sensitive social conscience. Many young people
take a deep interest in the problems of the earth and of the poor. Well
over half of college students do volunteer work in these areas, and many
young people have founded organizations which work locally or globally
on a broad range of social concerns.
had a chance to meet some of the more well known of these young people
when I attended the State of the World Forum in San Francisco. One day
I had lunch with Craig Kielburger, a clear-eyed, upright fifteen-year-old
from Toronto. At age twelve, Craig had read about a ten-year-old Pakistani
boy who had been chained to a rug loom since age four and forced to weave
rugs all day long. I had read the same article and was appalled. Craig,
in a way typical of today's children and youth, was not only appalled,
but addressed the problem directly. He formed an international youth organization
against child labor. 4 During the Past three years
he has traveled widely and raised much awareness about the dreadful plight
of children forced into labor.
argue that he is too young to take on such tasks, that he should have
more time for youthful activities while he is still in high school. This
may be true, and certainly one does not want him to burn out or become
ill through his activities. Yet Craig seems calm, focused and unstressed.
He is doing what his heart and mind dictate. Indeed, the message of the
young people at the forum was, do not tell us we need to wait until we
are in our 30's or 40's to become leaders in our fields. We are active
and already leading. This can sound brash and arrogant, but when you meet
these young people and see what they are actually doing and the modesty
and inner maturity with which they do it, you find yourself reassessing
the conventional view of youth and making room for this new and unusual
generation of youth is often called Generation X, presumably because they
were a mysterious generation and not easily described. Now social commentators
are saying that the X stands for excellent and extraordinary.
This generation stretches downward into the children of today. It even
seems that each new wave of the generation is more remarkable than the
previous one in terms of openness to the world, both earthly and spiritual,
and a willingness to be a full participant in it. As a kindergarten teacher,
for instance, I was often amazed during the 1980's by how many kindergarten
children became vegetarians of their own volition. Five-year-olds would
tell me, "I don't want to eat animals anymore," and would stick
to it despite family pressure to continue eating meat. I have heard similar
stories from other teachers and feel this to be a phenomenon worth studying
in order to understand this generation more fully.
this generation is so open, sensitive and committed to helping the earth
and humanity, it is doubly tragic that they must also cope with so many
society-induced illnesses. Humanity is in great need of the gifts and
capacities that this young generation brings, but we create every possible
obstacle to prevent them from bringing their gifts. There is an urgent
need for social change so that today's children have the opportunity to
grow up in safe and healthy ways.
It has become
clear that for the sake of children's well-being and healthy, significant
changes need to occur in the wider society. Children cannot remain healthy
in the face of the growing onslaught of commercialism, media and technology,
particularly when combined with inappropriate education, inadequate child
care and a hectic home life. The total sum of stress facing most children
is simply too great and results in a wide range of illnesses. These and
related concerns give the impetus for founding an Alliance for Childhood
that will bring together parents, educators, doctors, therapists, researchers,
and social activists.
It is clear
that many others also recognize the need to work together to tackle a
wide range of social and economic problems affecting children, and coalitions
have been formed. 5 Yet there are many issues which
are not yet being addressed by coalitions. We see them as underlying factors
in the decline of children's health and want to address them as directly
and positively as possible. Central topics of concern for the Alliance
for Childhood are:
- The overexposure
of children to media and technology rather than their growing up with
sufficient opportunities for creative play and family activity;
- The extensive
commercialism directed at children which orients their attention too
strongly toward material objects and away from the sacred and the socially
- The emphasis
on early academics rather than creative play as a foundation for learning
in early childhood;
- The need
for families to lessen their hurried lifestyles and become a shelter
that nurtures the growth of the whole family, both children and adults;
- The inadequacy
of much of today's child care, which needs to be transformed into healthy
ways to offer nurture and warmth to children;
- The concern
that antibiotics, Ritalin, Prozac and other medications are being over-prescribed
for children, leading to serious side effects, and that more natural
remedies need to be used when possible.
Is the time
ripe for change? There are a number of indicators that the public is ready
to hear about these issues and work for social change. One sign is the
growing number of articles in mainstream publications during the past
two years highlighting the problems of children. Other indicators are
the new and surprising directions being taken by a number of organizations,
such as the Parents
Television Council, which urges parents to pressure sponsors to clean
up television. 6 Another new organization called
Alert was created by Ralph Nader to tackle the problems of commercialism
directed at children and youth. 7
It is too
soon to know if the following examples indicate a new trend, but it seems
that even young children are getting concerned about the impact of television
in their lives and are ready to take action. During a recent Thanksgiving
gathering, my six-year-old nephew hid the remote control to his grandparents'
television. He later explained that he did it because "television
rots your brain." A few weeks later, I visited a former neighbor
who had recently had surgery and allowed her four-year-old twins to watch
more television than usual. At one point she urged them to watch television
so she could rest. "No," cried one of the boys, "let's
have a TV Turn-Off Week."
refers to a week in April organized by TV-Free
America 8 when millions of families turn off
their television sets and replace passive viewing with family activities.
There is a growing concern that families focus far more on television
than they do on each other, and this focus is taking its toll on social
relations within the family. In addition, many other activities such as
civic duty and volunteerism are neglected because of the massive amounts
of time spent in front of the television. In the United States it is estimated
that viewing is now in excess of 350 billion hours per year. 9
Imagine how much socializing and meaningful activity could take place
in families and communities if that number were cut even in half.
impacts children on many levels - physically, emotionally, socially, and
mentally. Kindergarten teachers have often noted that children who watch
television or videos tend to have difficulty with creative play. Their
imagination and fantasy seem weakened by regularly viewing other peoples'
imagery. Considering how important creative play is for the development
of language and social skills 10 as well as for
creative thinking 11, the loss of play is a very
significant factor in the life of a child. At the same time, teachers
have seen amazing results within days of parents' turning off the television
for their children. Children may need a few days or a week to get over
the addiction of media, but they then begin to blossom and play again,
and parents will often say after the initial week of adjustment, "I
never knew what a wonderful child I had."
for Childhood is based on the thought that all children are wonderful
but they need a chance to develop in healthy ways. What are some of the
first steps the Alliance will take? In February 1999, a small Alliance
meeting was called under the dual sponsorship of the Center for the Study
of the Spiritual Foundations of Education of Columbia University's Teachers
College and Sunbridge College, a Waldorf teacher training center. The
consultancy, as it was called, brought together about two dozen people,
including doctors, University professors, teachers and social activists.
During the two day meeting they explored ways to bring social change to
some of the problems affecting children. This meeting was followed by
a third day devoted to the concerns about the flood of computers entering
American schools to the detriment of children's healthy development.
focusing on the impact of computers in the lives of children is now underway.
The first of the Alliance's projects, it will place a spotlight of concern
on computers in early childhood and elementary school. The whole issue
reminds one of the "Emperor's New Clothes". Everyone is convinced
he is well dressed, or in this case, that computers are a great help to
children. Evidence and experience are accumulating, however, which show
the opposite. There is little help and a lot of harm arising from computer
usage in the early years and elementary years The Alliance hopes to wake
people up to the reality that the Emperor has no clothes and bring changes
in school policy regarding computer usage.
conferences for the Alliance are taking place in a number of countries,
including Switzerland, Hungary, Italy and Australia. A major international
conference will take place at the Brussels Convention Center October 11-14,
2000. We would also like to see more community-based Alliance endeavors
begin, such as the Los Angeles Alliance for Childhood, 12
which uses as its starting point parent courses and conferences focusing
on the health and nurture of young children.
for Childhood is developing as a partnership of individuals and organizations,
working together on specific projects. For more information, please write
Alison and Charles Casement, The Child and the Machine, Beltsville,
MD: Robins Lane Press, 2000).
The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley,
Preschoolers at Risk (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).
that Stress: The New Family Imbalance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Endangered Minds: Why Our children Don't Think (NY: Simon &
to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and
Worse (NY: Simon & Schuster).
and Diane Medved, Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from teh
National Assault on Innocence (Zondervan: HarperCollins Publishers,
Chilton, Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence
(San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992).
The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (NY: Ballantine
Barry, A Is for Ox (NY: Random House, 1994).
Stephen L., The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines
in Our Midst (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly and Associates, Inc., 1995).
1. See Suggested
in Erziehungskunst [September 1998, pg 1001], a magazine for Waldorf
parents. In an article entitled "Zeichen der Zeit" (Signs of
the Times) Peter Lange and Susanne Pühler describe a German Waldorf
initiative called Recht auf Kindheit, which is part of the international
Alliance for Childhood.
Post, Health Section, December 8, 1998, pp. 12-17.
Keilburger's organization which is "a network of children helping
children" is Free
the Children, 16 Thornbank Rd., Thornhill, Ontario L4J 2A2, Canada.
Voice: (905) 881-0863; Fax: (905) 881-1849.
5. One such
broad-based alliance with 450 organizational members is the Coalition
for America's Children, 1634 Eye Street, NW, 11th Floor, Washington,
D.C. 20006. Voice: (202) 638-5770.
6. For information,
contact the Parents
Television Council, 600 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA
7. More information
can be obtained from Gary Ruskin
Alert, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 3A, Washington, D.C. 20009.
Voice: (202) 296-2787; Fax: (202) 833-2406.
8. For more
information, contact Mimi Noorani
at TV-Free America,
1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 3A, Washington, D.C. 20009. Voice (202)
887-9436; Fax: (202) 518-5560.
Keith, The Children of Cyclops, (Fair Oaks, CA: Association
of Waldorf Schools of North America, 1998, pg. 55).
10. See the
research of Sara Smilansky in Children's Play and Learning, edited
by Edgar Klugman and Sara Smilansky (NY: Teachers College Press, 1990).
11. See article
by Joan Almon, "Educating for Creative Thinking: the Waldorf Approach."
Originally published in ReVision, Vol. 15, No. 2 and reprinted
as an appendix in School as a Journey by Torin Finser (Hudson,
NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1994). Also available as a reprint from the
Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, (916) 352-1690.
12. For information,
contact Wiep deVries at the
Alliance for Childhood, 647 Devirian Place, Altadena, CA 91001. Voice:
(626) 798-1592; Fax: (626) 797-1709.
© Alliance for
Joan Almon is Coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood in the United States.
Alliance for Childhood
P.O. Box 444
College Park, MD 20741
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