As this year's money-starved state legislative session winds down, the serious ammunition is being pulled out in an effort to move bills through committee and on into law. Good public policy or fiscal prudence is never enough—to be a truly effective piece of legislation, it has to be done for the good of the kids.
The latest example of the political pimping of mythic preteens comes with a controversial bill to ban smoking in restaurants, card rooms, bowling alleys, and other public places where kids are found. You see, secondhand smoke, a proven carcinogen, is not enough of a danger on its own. For it to be a true public menace, kids must inhale it. "It's a child-safety issue," says Rep. Laura Ruderman (D-Redmond).
Now, I happen to think that the combination of cigarette smoke and food, as in restaurants, is repulsive. So do a lot of other people, which is why lots of restaurants have boosted their business by becoming "no smoking" establishments. A lot of other businesses—for example, the food sides of casinos and sports bars—cater to people who like to smoke and eat. I don't eat there, and I wouldn't take my kids there (if I had any). I don't need a state law to help me, or a business owner, make that choice. (It could be worse. A lot of lawmakers admire the 1998 California law that, among other things, banned smoking in bars—places people go in order to ingest toxins.)
But of course, we need it because of the kids. The secondhand smoke they breathe is ever so much more tragic than what adults inhale. Naturally, a kid at a bowling alley is getting far less of a snootful than a kid whose parents smoke—which is why smokers rights groups fear, with some mixture of paranoia and acute awareness of government run amok, that banning pregnant women from smoking, followed by banning parents from smoking, comes next. It makes perfect public health sense. And it's for the kids. With the state as parent.
And so it goes. In every legislative session, all manner of proposed laws—good ideas and dubious clunkers alike—that would affect adults far more than children are justified by the tear-jerking idiocy of protecting young 'uns from everything (other children, adults, the world, and so on). Strikingly, at the same time, state and local government programs that actually should be helping kids go begging: The children of migrant farmworkers live in shantytowns, affordable day care is almost nonexistent, the foster care system is a shambles, juvenile justice does more to harm than help, school districts pay administrators CEO salaries while classrooms go without textbooks, and so forth. When you get right down to it, our governments, at nearly every level, hate preteens and fear and despise teens. But the concept of them makes a great prop at press conferences. Kiss that baby.
Politicians are hardly the only ones who do this sort of thing. The use of children to sell unrelated consumer goods in advertisements—TV especially—is nearly as pernicious as the use of come-hither women, and given that the parents are putting the child actors up to it, it comes perilously close to child abuse.
Even community groups fall prey to this impulse. Those of us old enough to remember the Reagan-era nuclear freeze movement will also recall that "nuclear war is bad for children and other living things"—as though the lives of 4-year-olds are somehow more valuable than the other six billion or so people and millions of species also at risk of incineration. Violins, please.
This instinct is so ingrained we usually don't even notice it. It's certainly a familiar feeling for parents, who (for good reasons imprinted in our biological circuitry) usually consider their offspring the most precious things on the planet. But when we start exploiting the imagery of children to sell ideas, or consumer products, that are nearly totally unconnected to them—without attending to kids' actual needs—what are we teaching them? And how are we valuing (or not) the lives of adults? Is the corollary of the intrinsic goodness and innocence of preteens our own guilt and disposability?
The real thing
Meanwhile, last week I had the pleasure again of spending a couple of days with three journalism classes at Garfield High School. I do a fair amount of speaking in local schools, in a variety of different types of classes, and I always enjoy it. My experience has almost always been that any given class has a number of students who are sharp, inquisitive, thoughtful, and have finely honed bullshit detectors. They lack the experience of adults, but also, frequently, they lack the blinders. I learn a lot.
That image of teens—smart, hooked into the world around them—almost never shows up in our media. We get the stereotypes of disengaged, materialistic, sexually obsessed airheads—stereotypes sometimes true but also useful for all sorts of political and marketing reasons—and we rarely hear about or see images of kids who have their act together. After Mardi Gras, there was much discussion of the feral youth preying at will on their victims, as though it was somehow representative. Ditto the teen shootings at places like Santee and Columbine. For many adults, these stories are their only exposure to the world of today's teen. It's misleading, unfair, and tragic.