"What became of childhood innocence?" The question echoes hauntingly beyond the cover story in the latest New York Times Magazine. It brings the further question "What willm become of childhood innocence?" And here every adult can have a share in checking the abuse, neglect, exploitation, and setting of bad examples that have contributed to the poignant situation now getting increased, and sometimes sensationalized, coverage in the news media.
The Times article deals with contemporary American in a historical framework going back to European medieval times before children were placed in the category of protected innocence that has been breaking down in recent years. The problem is not confined to the United States, as any traveler knows who has seen children in various places made adult before their time under the pressures of poverty and corruption. The international trade in child pornography is one stark symbol of a challenge at many levels in many lands.
Yet America has particularly idealized childhood, and now it threatens to allow its ideals to go by the boards as many adults pursue their own ambitions and satisfactions heedless of the impact on the young. With immorality more open both in "real life" and in media-manufactured fantasy, children can hardly be expected not to notice. Cynicism or emulation tends to come at earlier ages.
No one wants children to be sheltered plants so insulated from the larger world that their ability to cope with it is weakened. And the ideal of letting children remain children in knowledge is no prescription for sentimental swaddling clothes. It is rather a reminder of adult responsibility for placing new knowledge in a framework for accurate understanding by children in relation to a stable pattern of values.
Many parents, teachers, and other adults still accept the responsibility for not leading children astray by word or deed. Many children retain their innocence in the best sense while learning to separate the good from the bad in the welter of examples and images to which they are exposed. As noted by sources quoted in the Times, children have resilience and a sometimes overlooked capacity to contribute constructively in family councils and family difficulties.
What America can do for its children is to improve the moral and cultural environment in which future generations will grow up. To the extent children have lost their innocence so has the rest of America. It can be regained for both if people don't ju st throw up their hands and tell the kids to go watch TV.