Does America hate children?
I’ve been wanting to see that question in print for a long time, but when I pitched it to an editor recently, my idea was rejected on the grounds that we could just as easily point to other dismal statistics and write, “Does America hate black men?” or “Does America hate disabled people?” True enough. But today it’s my turn and I want to know why are we so disrespectful of children’s bodies and physical wellbeing.
Sometimes a headline will grab me in a certain way and distill everything I’ve been thinking about into one fabulous eruption of baffled outrage. In this case, it was the story a couple months ago about a little girl whose ears were deliberately “re-pierced” by a caregiver while she was at day care.
Before we go further, let me first me step back a bit to a recent conversation I had with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch politician and human rights crusader, who has written movingly about her traumatic and mutilating “circumcision” (sic) as a young girl in Somalia. I came away from the evening full of admiration for a woman who has transcended a horrifically scarring life experience, in every sense, to be a champion of the unchampioned.
But it was a different story – a relatively silly story about the five-year old girl who was left in tears following the ear piercing – that really got my blood boiling. Actually, it wasn’t even the fact that her ears were “re-pierced” that got to me so much (although it did) but, rather, the moronic response from fellow parents at the daycare center who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and insisted it really wasn’t a big deal at all that a child’s teacher would insert her own earrings, painfully and unhygienically, into a child’s partially scarred-over ear holes. Why would an adult think this was a reasonable thing to do to a small child at school, and without a parent’s permission? Why would the teacher and other parents not understand that a professional, physical, and health boundary had been crossed by an adult in whose care a child had been placed?
It got me thinking about the unbelievable disrespect that people have for children’s bodies – not just the Penn State rapes that our media still squeamishly insist on calling “abuse” or the horror show clitoridectomies and honor killings that Ms. Hirsi Ali tells me are happening right now in immigrant communities in the United States – but the smaller, home-grown outrages we inflict on kids every day: taking away recess even though we know that physical activity enhances cognition and academic success; calling cafeteria French fries and ketchup “vegetables,” which we’ve been doing since the Reagan administration, despite a tsunami of data documenting the devastating effects of poor nutrition on young children; the unwillingness of our society to face the unimpeachable evidence of violent and rapid-fire media on early brain development; the tiresome ‘debate’ every election cycle about whether the wealthiest country in the world should provide health care to its youngest and most vulnerable because they haven’t yet “paid in” to the system.
And speaking of health care, what about the absurd convention among health care plans that eyes and teeth are somehow not connected to the rest of the human body? 26 million children lack dental insurance, with seven percent experiencing significant unmet dental needs that can affect sleep, eating, and speech. Surely it’s obvious that chronic dental pain (which most adults would find incapacitating) can cause children to fall behind or act out in school. How many of us really care?
I could go on and on but, instead, I’ll leave you with a few things to ponder. The first, is a TEDx talk by Dimitri Christakis (yes relation), a famous pediatrician and expert on the media and child development. If you’re not frightened by the findings from his mice studies, you have been watching too much TV. And I can’t resist a headline from the satiric Onion. As usual, they say what most of us can’t even bring ourselves to think. And, finally, all you “market forces” folks out there, how about raising teacher salaries? It works for South Korea, and it’s probably the single most effective intervention we could make to improve our schools.