At Christmas, childhood deserves a special appreciation.
So much of the season's message centers on the promise of innocence represented by a child two millenniums ago.
Yet so much in today's world runs counter to an appreciation of childhood.
Subtle and not-so-subtle influences - on the playground and in the media - tend to undermine a child's need to remain a child. The line between growing up and grown-up has increasingly become blurred.
The rush of advertising during Christmas, designed to take advantage of the spirit of giving, often treats children as the key to their parents' wallets and credit cards. Toy companies tap into peer pressure to rope children into joining the latest fad.
Movie companies have begun to make an effort to stop marketing R-rated films to children. But much more can be done, both by the industry and vigilant parents.
Valuing childhood takes extraordinary commitment - particularly the commitment to help children see life as more than the pursuit of consumption. This can mean taking the time to carefully show how Christmas represents the birth of the idea that giving to others is an expression of our innate goodness.
Families are critical instructors, often needing support from communities and schools. Such guidance equips children to grow more gracefully toward adulthood.
One sign too many youngsters in the United States are not receiving guidance can be seen in the growing number - it more than doubled between 1985 and 1997 - who are tried and sentenced as adults. Their childhoods end abruptly.
In many less-developed nations, tens of millions of children are forced to give up school and work on farms or in factories. Others are sent into the global sex trade, or forced to fight in civil wars, or are made refugees by such wars. A new report from Amnesty International details instances of torture of children in various countries, often by police or other agents of government.
Individuals, organizations, and nations need to muster the moral and political will to end such atrocities.
Helping parents in the US
Protecting childhood in this country will take practical steps.
At a time when two-worker and single-parent families are the norm, laws or company policies should allow parental leave for births or other child-related needs and encourage better-quality child care.
To a significant extent, a meaningful childhood requires meaningful time with parents and other caring adults.
Community programs can give "latchkey children" options other than hours in an empty home after school. Well-staffed recreation or homework tutoring programs can help safeguard childhood.
Unsupervised time, spent alone or hanging out with peers, too often becomes a time for getting into trouble. That was one conclusion of a major study of adolescent behavior recently published by the federal government.
States and cities pass laws to help keep kids out of trouble. For example, many localities have teen curfews. Various age restrictions are put on the use of alcohol and tobacco. Parental-consent laws or parental-accompaniment rules try to make clear the limits of children's judgment.
The path to adulthood
But when are children ready to take on increasing levels of adult judgment, to take greater responsibility for their actions?
That question seems, sometimes, to have as many answers as there are children. And, certainly, a suburban family in the US will have a different answer from a conservative Muslim family in the Middle East or a rural Chinese family. The common thread is that every child's innocence and openness needs to team with an adult's hard-won common sense and wisdom. And vice versa.
The world often appears very far from this fundamental collaboration of childhood and adulthood. But individuals and societies can start moving toward it with a renewed resolve to protect childhood, and a fresh commitment of resources - public and private - toward that end.
And at Christmas, especially, thinking about childhood comes easily as the story is retold of a child whose birth drew wise men, whose learning as a youth was in the temple with sages, and who as an adult emphasized that anyone who wanted to understand his teachings had to become as a little child.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society