Cleaning Up a Toxic Childhood
by Joan Almon, 2000
Over the 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.
What specifically 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.
Looking in 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. 3
The overall 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.
Compared 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.
I recently 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.
Some might 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.
The current 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.
Given that 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:
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 Commercial 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."
His remark refers to a week in April organized by TV-Free America8 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.
Television 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."
The Alliance 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.
A project 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.
The Alliance for Childhood is developing as a partnership of individuals and organizations, working together on specific projects. For more information, please write us.
Armstrong, Alison and Charles Casement, The Child and the Machine, Beltsville, MD: Robins Lane Press, 2000).
Elkind, David, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1981).
---, Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).
---, Ties that Stress: The New Family Imbalance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds: Why Our children Don't Think (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990).
---, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and Worse (NY: Simon & Schuster).
Medved, Michael and Diane Medved, Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from teh National Assault on Innocence (Zondervan: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998).
Pearce, Joseph Chilton, Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992).
Pipher, Mary, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (NY: Ballantine Books, 1996).
Barry, A Is for Ox (NY: Random House, 1994).
Talbott, Stephen L., The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly and Associates, Inc., 1995).
1. See Suggested Reading List.
2. Reported 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.
3. Washington Post, Health Section, December 8, 1998, pp. 12-17.
5. One such broad-based coalition has been the Coalition for America's Children.
6. For information, contact the Parents Television Council at www.parentstv.org.
7. More information can be obtained at www.commercialalert.org
8. For more information, contact TV-Free America now called Center for Screentime Awareness at www.screentime.org.
9. Buzzell, 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).