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Think. Discuss. Act. Children

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Review: Reinventing Childhood

Elkind, D. (1998). Reinventing childhood: Raising and educating children in a changing world. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press.

Summary

Elkind’s wise insights were clear in two of his earlier works: The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Soon Too Fast (1981, 1988) and All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers In Crisis (1984, 1998). These books analyze important changes that took place in families (communities and schools) in the 1970s and 1980s. Most children have little safe and quiet time with parents. Media and peers take on a large part of the nurturing process. Latchkey kids come home to television-“a former nanny” and on-going “family member.” The inter-relatedness of overburdened parents and schools, exploiting media, and necessary friends-all push them to pseudo-maturity. Without the time and mentoring it takes to integrate a secure sense of selfhood, children learn by imitation (of many scenes and conflicting values) rather than integration. Hurried children become “patchwork-selves.” The result of such compartmentalized lives is stress. Unhealthy means of relieving stress (alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.) only produce more stress.

Elkind explains a central thesis of his earlier books in his own words:

Briefly put, my thesis was that during the “modern” era, perhaps best represented by 1950s America, children’s needs took precedence over those of adults, whereas now, in the “postmodern” era, the needs of adults tend to take precedence over those of children. It is the context of the new “need imbalance,” which results in children feeling that their needs are not being met, that we can understand the upsurge of problematic behavior among young people. (p. i)

Reinventing Childhood is, therefore, a book about the transition from modern society and families to postmodern. The author is arbitrarily and implicitly making the 1960s the transitional decade through which culture-having played for some time with postmodern ideas-actually became postmodern in terms of its basic systems. Generally negative about that change, Elkind does see positive postmodern emphases on individual differences within given age groups and cultural differences. “My main goal in this book is to provide a comprehensive overview of the postmodern reinvention of childhood.” (iii)

Childhood-and Elkind would say the same for adolescence-is “a social invention.”

How children are perceived, as opposed to how they are conceived, always reflects a social consensus…The modern invention of childhood necessarily mirrored the basic assumptions and beliefs of that historical epoch. Now that we have moved-roughly since mid-century-into a postmodern era, we are reinventing childhood to reflect our contemporary perspectives and circumstances. To briefly summarize and contrast these visions of childhood, modern childhood was an abstract ideal based on norms of behavior, while postmodern childhood is a diverse collection of individualized portraits. (p. 1)

Modernism, Elkind explains, is based on three assumptions:

  • belief in human progress,
  • faith in a world regulated by universal laws, and
  • trust in the world’s regularity.

Postmodernism is losing faith in truth, order, science, and authorities. It looks for and accepts, from media and other purveyors of meaning, a collage of paradoxical and ironic suggestions in order to make sense of the world’s evident disorder. It is more open to complexity and even chaos, its accepts relativity, and pursues pragmatic self-interest. Elkind is particularly interested in how this affects society’s basic social system, the family.

“The modern nuclear family, with one parent working and one parent staying home to rear the children, was taken to be a further evolutionary advance. (This nuclear model was) regarded as the family form that would eventually be universal and predominate in modern civilization.” (p. 2) Attending notions can be advanced as describing the sentiments of the modern nuclear family (if we do not try to push these ideas too far). These would include the sentiments of romantic love, maternal love, domesticity, togetherness. It was also assumedthat parents were intuitively knowledgeable regarding child-rearing, and that children grew up in a state of innocence.

Elkind describes the postmodern family as “permeable.” An increase in the divorce rate, blended families, unmarried parents, adoptive parents-as well as the emergence of gay parents-have established new family boundaries that are “permeable.”

Generally, the traditional nuclear family, when psychologically healthy and financially secure, may still provide the least stressful pattern of child-rearing-at least for children. Nonetheless (Elkind continues) all the permeable family configurations can provide equally effective support for the successful rearing of children, given the same preconditions. (p. 12)

Elkind is thus dealing with the reality that “diversity of kinship patterns is now the rule.” (p. 13) In this new postmodern reality, sentiments of romantic love have given way to consensual love, maternal love and parenting to shared parenting, domesticity to urbanity, parental sacrifice for the sake of children to autonomy of all family members. Losing trust in innate parental wisdom has created the need for learning techniques of child rearing. Whereas once the innocence of childhood was assumed, children are now assumed to be competent to deal with life on their own. Such radical changes in childhood cannot be charged to one factor: “The postmodern reinvention of childhood is both part of, and the result of, profound changes that are reshaping our families and society.” (p. 17)

It is instructive to read the author’s description of childhood socialization in terms of cultural frames and familial scripts. Some of the frames with which children must become familiar are situational frames, people frames, teaching frames, and travel frames. Children these days suffer from both “frame clashes” and “spoiled frames.”

Culture, ethnicity and class, contribute to the differences in family scripts. These include birthday scripts, illness scripts, foul language scripts, personal property scripts, disciplinary scripts, and parenting scripts.

These are very helpful factors to consider. “By broadening our conception of childhood socialization to include frames and scripts, we can gain a better understanding of today’s postmodern children and provide instruction and classroom management more effectively.” (p. 86)

What Elkind has attempted in this book is clarification of the change in childhood as we have moved from modern to postmodern social structures. He encourages combining modern appreciation of order with postmodern insights into differences.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What interest or concerns bring you to this article? What story would you tell to illustrate your concern about children? What was your most recent or impressive encounter with a child?
  2. Is this article about David Elkind’s book of any help to you, or does it suggest a way for further reading or exploration?
  3. What most impressed you in this article? Do you agree that childhood (or the situation in which most children find themselves) has changed significantly?
  4. Has childhood become a much more hurried condition since the 1950s? Are we pushing children too fast and expecting too much of them? Do you see one of the results of this change in the stress experienced by children?
  5. Do you agree generally with the description here of a movement from modern to postmodern era?
  6. Do the author’s ideas of frames and scripts provide a way to understand children’s response to their hurried, complex situations, as well as a way of responding to their complicated lives (i.e., as parents and teachers)?

Implications

  1. Childhood is a most important stage of life-for every other stage of life is built upon it.
  2. Parents, daycare and schools, the media, religious institutions-and all of society-are responsible for protecting and nurturing the growth of children.
  3. Betraying the trust of children is heinous; neglecting their care is a shame. The many ways children are being exploited from slavery and child labor to the manipulations of advertising are the responsibility of us all. We are all to some degree culpable for the difficulties and suffering presently experienced by children all over the world.
  4. David Elkind’s books on childhood (and adolescence) have been an important help to many.
  5. See the Encyclopedia’s Resource Lists for the various topics (Children, Boys, Girls, and Adolescence) for further reading.

Dean Borgman
© 2017 CYS

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