Last summer a polite, articulate 11-year-old friend of my daughter's went off eagerly to a week of summer nature camp--and found herself ridiculed and ostracized for what the other children considered her peculiar manner of speech. "She was mocked," the girl's parents recounted, "for speaking in complete sentences."It is possible to raise kids these days who aren't preening, searching for sex, and speaking in suburban Ebonics. I teach such kids every day. But it does take involvement in your child's life and some control of the TV remote.
I had largely forgotten this sad little anecdote until I happened on an online edition of Girls Life Magazine. "Girls Life?" thought I, all innocence. "Why, that must have something to do with the Girl Scouts." An image of wholesome do-goodery, of scrubbed cheeks and Norman Rockwell freshness, rose obediently in my mind--only to sink instantly under a deluge of inane headlines: "Too cute suits!" "Guys, Life, Friends, Body: Real Advice Just for You." "Wanna sound off about GL mag?" "Win FREE stuff! Feelin' lucky? Enter now!"
Guys? Wanna? Feelin'? Ugh! Yet it turns out that Girls Life is indeed the magazine of the Girl Scouts of America (GSA), that high-minded organization originally modeled on Britain's Girl Guides, which itself sprang from the rib of Lord Robert Baden-Powell's turn-of-the-century Boy Scout movement.
...."If an article comes in and it's a snore, and just needs to be funned up a little, I fun it up," the executive editor of Girls Life, Kelly White, told the online writers' magazine, The Purple Crayon. "I inject it with words like 'swank' and 'stoked.'" Girls Life, Ms. Kelly emphasized, is "not condescending. Still, we try to speak our readers' language."
No wonder my daughter's friend had such trouble at summer camp. When adult editors talk of "funning up" the English language, when the vast panoply of info-tainment aimed at children parrots and reinforces the cheesiest pubescent vocabulary and preoccupations, what chance does a well-read, well-spoken child stand? In the terrible, gleaming world of adult-facilitated teen culture, talking calmly in complete sentences marks you as a freak.
Teen People asks, "How Sexy Are You?" and "Gotta Hottie Next Door?" Cosmo Girl hosts a "Battle of the Boys: Who's the Hottest?" and Bop magazine online offers a male-as-sex-object game called Frankenboy: "Build your dream boy and e-mail him to a friend!"
But magazines are only a part of it. Watch television aimed at the young and it is difficult to escape the disquieting sense that too much children's programming exists to--well, program children. Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel teach children through precept and relentless example how to preen, how to diss and how, if d''ark-skinned, to talk Ebonics. Virtually every girl sashays in heels, miniskirts and lipgloss; virtually every adult is an easily outsmarted villain or an eyeroll-worthy chump.
I'm not sure that the job of a parent is tougher these days, but we do have a set of different worries. Talking and reading about history all day gives me a longer view. When kids complain to me about doing homework and how hard school is, I remind them that at least they aren't living in the late 19th century when most kids their ages would have been working 12-14 hours a day on the farm or in a factory. They roll their eyes but accept my point that they don't really have it all that tough. Well, we as parents can use the same sort of logic. Sure, we have to worry about how the culture might be corrupting our sweet babies. But we don't have to choose between sending them to school or sending them out to work. We don't have to worry about diseases like typhoid carrying them off or their losing limbs as they work around heavy machinery every day on long shifts. It's a tradeoff I'll accept.