Life is, frankly, no longer simple. It is no longer centered in the home. It is no longer centered in the family as a close-knit unit.
There was a time when that was true. There was a time when you grew up on a farm, and you basically lived your whole life there. You ate breakfast with the family. You probably went to a little school down the road with all your neighbors and were taught by a teacher or two from the local area. You went back home, worked on the farm, sat around the house at night and were instructed in life by that family relationship. And that home would be only marginally influenced by the outside world.
Even families living in more urban areas still had a predominant influence in the home. Parents, churches and schools had community standards which were established for childhood training, where children received measured increments of exposure to reality that suited their age and capacity to deal with issues.
In other words, there were secrets the children didn’t know. And it was very important to unfold those secrets at reasonable times so they were not blasted with things for which they were neither intellectually or emotionally prepared. We could say the children had controlled exposure. And the family, the church and the school (and thus the local community) were in charge of that.
All of that is gone now according to Neil Postman, a writer and professor at New York University who authored the book, “The Disappearance of Childhood.”
The thesis that Postman sets forth, and I think ably so, is that childhood as a unique period of human development is disappearing.
In the past we were convinced the children needed to be protected. They needed to be processed in a series of sequential developmental opportunities, and we called those grades in school. Information was phased out to them, carefully prepared and dosed in prescribed degrees and amounts, as the child was being shaped into an independent individual.
“The maintenance of childhood,” Postman says, “depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.” A child only knew certain things, and there were secrets about life that a child didn’t know yet – until one great invention: electronics.
Before that, parents and teachers could decide what children heard and saw, and when, in their development, they heard and saw it. But then came electronics, and with electronics came electronic media. Radio, recordings, tapes, CDs, television – all forms of modern media directly produced by electronics. Now, we can’t even conceive of life without electronics.
What does that produce? It produces an uncontrollably overexposed population of children, overexposed to everything without regard for any plan or any sequence. All of a sudden, in your home, your children are no longer only able to know what you tell them and what their teacher tells them. They can turn on the television and be blitzed with any information about anything, at any time, at any level. Computers and the internet personalize the world’s best and the world’s worst for anybody who can access it, and the whole educational sequence has collapsed.
“Television,” says Postman, “is without any secrets, and therefore there can be no such thing as childhood.”
Childhood is all about secrets. It’s all about not knowing. Innocence toward the issues of life is completely lost in this environment.
A group is largely defined by the exclusivity of the information its members share. What do I mean by that? Well, if everybody knew what lawyers knew, there wouldn’t be any lawyers. If everybody knew what doctors knew, there wouldn’t be any doctors. And if children know what adults know, there aren’t any children.
So, children are overexposed to things their minds and emotions cannot handle. They are consequently hurried into massive temptations which they are unable to deal with. And under the onslaught of this corrupt world with its wrong ideas, its wrong desires, its wrong words, its wrong deeds and its wrong attitudes, children can become severe problems to parents and society. They are exposed consistently to what they are not able to handle, and they do not have the self-control to deal with the issues that arise because of this information.
Postman says, “In having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, they are expelled from the garden of childhood.”
The result is tragic. The rate of serious crimes (such as murder, rape, aggravated assault and armed robbery) committed by children has skyrocketed since 1950. Crime, like most everything else, is no longer an exclusively adult activity. It has become a child’s activity.
Our children live in a society whose psychological and social contexts do not stress the differences between adults and children. As the adult world opens itself in every conceivable way to children, they will inevitably emulate adult criminal activity and adult immorality.
So we have an immense problem here. We have an overexposed generation of children who have to be treated like adults because they have all the adult information.
Now, this immense challenge put upon parenting from the outside is compounded by an even more immense challenge put on parenting from the inside. That will be the topic next time.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1996, titled “God’s Pattern for Parents, Part 1.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
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