David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, recently offered a perspective on how our understanding of childhood and maturity are changing and what this means for the children in our society. Elkind believes that as the baby-boom generation ages, society seems more concerned with the developmental stages and needs of adults than of children. Educators and psychologists at the beginning of the century emphasized the unique and changing developmental needs of children and youth and the developmental nature of mental ability. Children were seen as needing developmentally appropriate support and guidance from adults.
Elkind says the advent of child-friendly technologies such as television, VCRs, home computers and computer games, etc., has added to the perception of child competence and adolescent sophistication. Many psychologists now challenge the validity of developmental stages and have set out to demonstrate that children can do things earlier than previously believed.
These new perspectives are reinforced by the growing numbers of divorced, single-parent, and two-parent working families who need and use child care and before- and after-school programs and who leave preadolescents and adolescents home alone. Parents assume that young people are mature enough to cope with these experiences.
On the other hand, a new appreciation of adult development is under way. As the life span lengthens, there is a growing appreciation of the stages of adulthood and the ability to continue to develop mentally. Elkind contends that the needs of adults are now weighted more heavily than those of children and youth. Until mid-century, adults were allowed only a narrow latitude of behavior. However, the range of normality has expanded for adults, and many kinds of behavior that were taboo are now acceptable.
Meanwhile, the latitude allowed children has narrowed. The increasingly stringent demands for academic achievement and the focus on diagnosing deviance have meant a decreased understanding and appreciation of the wide range of normal development. Young people attending trade and technical schools in the first half of the century were accorded considerable respect and admiration.
Nonacademic skills devalued
Today, the enormous value placed upon academic achievement has devalued all other kinds of skills. Children are allowed less time for unstructured play both during and after school. School playgrounds are used less, and more after-school time is given to participating in highly competitive sports. And there are fewer and fewer appropriate, safe places for adolescents to congregate with friends, a necessary and developmentally important adolescent activity. At the same time, adult health clubs, malls, restaurants, and tennis and golf clubs are proliferating.
Elkind concludes that on every measure — health, education and welfare — children and adolescents are doing less well today than they did 25 years ago. Changes in society seem to benefit adults at the expense of children.
Elkind does not call for a return to previous times. He acknowledges increased acceptance of different cultures and ethnic groups and more provisions for disabled persons, but he calls for broadening the range of normality for children and youth and providing new, safe spaces for them in our society.
The Social Determination of Childhood and Adolescence”, Education Week, February, 24, 1999, pp. 48-50.
Published in ERN May/June 1999 Volume 12 Number 5