The Potential Evils of Mother's Day and Ballet

...are just two of the many assaults on childhood from which the Medveds want to protect our kids.

I know two Michael Medveds. As a fellow movie critic I sit with him through screenings and talk to him before the film rolls. I find him kind of a doppelg䮧er. He was a radical '60s protester who became an archconservative, and I was a redneck who became a moderate liberal. One of the Michaels (the one I know best) is a very smart and decent individual. I once watched him let two cars in front of him on crowded Denny Way. I like that in a person. The other Michael is a bombastic and hypocritical talk show host, nationally syndicated from local station KVI. I once, to my horror, heard him take to the air to say that the film Amistad "promoted violence against whites." A few days later he attacked the film on Face the Nation, but on national TV he changed his tune, saying he thought well of the film but smeared a study guide that was distributed along with it. I loathe that in a person. Now both Michaels have teamed up with their wife, Dr. Diane Medved, to write a book. Saving Childhood: How toProtect Your Children from the National Assault on Innocence by Michael Medved and Diane Medved (HarperCollins, $24) Part cultural tract, part "Puzzled Parents" hints column, Saving Childhood represents the Medveds' combined knowledge of conservative child rearing and observation of the forces intent on destroying that objective. It also, admirably and successfully, pleads for the protection of innocence. The parents of three children, the Medveds are well qualified to speak to the topic. Michael Medved frequently discusses the matter on his show, and writes about it as a contributing editor to USA Today. He is also the author of the controversial 1992 book Hollywood vs. America, which in a low-grade feverish way made many of the same points put forth in Childhood. Dr. Diane Medved is a Seattle clinical psychologist in private practice and a full-time mother. Saving Childhood is an interesting, often infuriating, sometimes precious tome. It balances its didactiveness (get ready for a lot of poll percentages) with amazing displays of cognitive dissonance and a warm earnestness that's hard not to enjoy. Two-thirds of it alarms and aggravates, while the last third soothes and placates. In the first 200 pages, the Medveds address what they refer to as "the Assault," a barrage of attacks on children by the modern four horsemen of the Innocence Apocalypse: the Media, the Schools, Peers, and Parents themselves. There are points both salient and absurd here. The Medveds correctly measure the nation's weariness at our no-limits media and give parents wise cautionary notes about the Internet, movies, and cynicism. Yet they also warn against the potential evils of ballet (only the lithe and coordinated allowed), environmentalism (scares children with doom and gloom), Mother's Day (one day is too restrictive), attractiveness (sets unreasonable standards), the DARE program (makes children afraid of strangers), and time-lapse photography. Don't believe me on the last one? Here's the quote: "You can't watch a real-life caterpillar make a cocoon and hatch into a butterfly in half an hour, yet on TV nature shows, little kids watch as time-compressed cinematography makes it all flash before their accepting eyes. When children from their earliest years see quick and neat resolutions on dramas and sitcoms, it's hardly surprising that so many young Americans later feel frustrated when their personal projects—in romance, weight loss, or career advancement—fail to produce results as ideal and immediate as those they witness on TV." That's a lot to hang on a metamorphosing caterpillar. As with many conservative arguments, there's a DAM (Doesn't Apply to Me) relief valve for every case that the Medveds make. They say divorce is destructive, but DAM, not for themselves (second time 'round for both) or Michael's parents. (On his radio show, Michael has given credit to his father for staying with his mother so long.) Relocating your family is disastrous and should be avoided, but DAM, not when you've got a new job in Seattle like the one Michael secured. The Medveds impugn the immediacy and accessibility of talk radio. Michael's own show, he writes, reminds him "of the impact of his every word." But Medved's show is frequently peppered with just the sort of double entendres that make a parent cringe when listening with a child. When Al Gore hosted a cavalcade of entertainment figures at the White House last year, including supermodel Christi Turlington, Medved opined, "Christi Turlington meeting with Al Gore in the White House? If you thought he was stiff before . . . uh, never mind." So much for the impact of every word. The subchapter "Violence Begets Violence" claims a clear connection between television and aggressive behavior. That TV violence causes aggression is, the Medveds write, "clear and indisputable. And contributes greatly to children's departure from what would be their more gentle inclinations." This would be all fine and good if, DAM, Michael didn't admit, nearly daily on his show, to his puzzlement about his own son's fascination with guns. This is a boy who has rarely seen television, yet has a mini-munitions dump of plastic rifles and pistols. How were his boy's gentler inclinations so swayed? This hypocrisy reaches a crescendo in "Parents," where the Medveds criticize parents for refraining from taking action in their kids' lives. They cite William Kilpatrick's Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, which lists five reasons why parents have a "widespread reluctance to confront children with clear behavioral guidelines." The third point blames "Parents deferring to 'experts' on how to raise their kids." But what is Saving Childhood but two experts telling people how to raise their kids? Are the Medveds now part of the problem? DAM, you can read these "experts," but only if they happen to be conservative. How does all this play out at home? According to the Medveds themselves, they have done such a proficient job at laying down behavioral guidelines and insulating their children from the outside world that their daughter covers her ears and screams at news reports, and the "bookworm" of the family is only allowed to bring home library books with copyright dates before 1960 (it's the seal of quality). Perhaps the most extreme example of this cellophane-wrapping of their children is the case of Rebecca. Rebecca was an 18-year-old baby-sitter "well experienced in child care." After a phone interview, the Medveds found her "charming, respectful, and full of good ideas for entertaining the children." Punctual and gregarious, Rebecca "had flowing, curly brown hair and wore no makeup. She was clean and neatly dressed. She carried a bag full of goodies and games for the children. So why did we have a problem relating to her? We just couldn't keep our eyes off the silver ring through her left nostril." Rebecca explained to all that her jewelry was "an affectation of her young years . . . a fad she might later regret and allow to close and heal." The Medveds' reaction? "Our children were fascinated and we hope undamaged, but the fact that we had this young lady in our home desensitized them, perhaps in a subtle way but nevertheless irretrievable, to 'the new barbarism' and treating one's body with disrespect." The Medveds may be concerned about keeping one's body a temple, but they're not very concerned about judging others. In "The Defense," the book's final hundred pages, Saving Childhood succeeds in providing "positive and practical strategies for parents" to help them combat "the Assault." Essentially a longish Parent magazine piece, "Defense" recounts how the Medveds have achieved that goal. They emphasize "Security," "A Sense of Wonder," and "Optimism." They urge creating each family as an entity of its own, with its own traditions and ways. The simple suggestions—enjoying family dinners together, not answering the phone while eating, sharing religious observances—are sensible and seem less quaint ideas than beloved, forgotten mores. What's perhaps most interesting, and revealing, however, is how seamlessly the Medveds slip from the realm of childhood to the realm of adolescence, almost not recognizing the difference. Children must be shielded from alarming news reports the way that teens must be shielded from peer pressure to drink. But they're such different things. It's critical to remember that for all their good notices the Medveds haven't raised a teenager yet; their eldest is 11, just entering the age. God knows how many parents have wondered, "What happened to my darling boy/girl?" while rebuffing a surly 15-year-old. Maybe the Medveds won't have any problems. It just seems awfully like those drone psychologists who've counseled teens and then written a journal paper on how to talk to your high schooler, to give such good advice on a topic they haven't really experienced yet. In my acquaintance with Michael Medved (the decent one), I have seen him with his children and it's abundantly clear that they adore him. From what I can tell, they are very well behaved and happy. I hope that I can raise my child as well as he has his children. I plan to. And if I do, I also hope to resist the temptation to tell other people how to do it.

 
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