Children on a Split Screen

TWO faces of American children are projected by the media, as contradictory as a smile and a scowl. One is disarmingly idealistic, the other grimly realistic.

One face, that of the Fantasy Child, shows up everywhere in the make-believe world of network television. In sitcoms, adorable children and cheerful teens charm their way through minor family crises, solving all problems in 22 minutes. In commercials, cherubic tots with engaging smiles and endearing antics help to sell everything from cereal and carpets to appliances and brakes.

Explaining the popularity of children on television, a video research expert notes that they bring "warmth and security" to advertising. Call it the cute-tyke syndrome, and color it lucrative.

But open the pages of big-city newspapers and a different face stares back - the face of the Problem Child. Week after week, headlines and photos offer grim accounts of students shooting classmates and teachers in school corridors. Other stories focus on such controversial issues as condoms in schools, citywide curfews, and parental consent for teenage abortions. Headlines also paint a dark picture of young lawbreakers: "Sex Offenses by Juveniles Rise in Area"; "Five Juveniles Charged With Shooting at Ca rs on I-95." Call it the troubled-teen syndrome, and color it menacing.

Even statistical portraits of teenagers tend to focus on negative behavior - how many drink, smoke, use marijuana, and engage in sex. Only infrequently do positive statistics make news, drawing attention to the number of suburban teens who participate in community service, for instance, or the number of urban students who graduate.

News is news. Guns, gangs, condoms, and AIDS deserve serious coverage. But simply focusing on the sensational and the deviant - the "social ill of the week," complete with support groups and hotlines - without giving space to normal achievements distorts the image of American youths. So pervasive are the negative portrayals of children (and parents) in the press, in fact, that "dysfunctional" threatens to become a permanent modifier for "family."

There is a subtle connection between the life that is shown and the life that is lived - to some extent, what you get is what you see. Recording even small successes and modest achievements serves as a reminder that somewhere between the extremes of the Fantasy Child on television and the Problem Child in newspapers and news magazines, a huge group of basically good children and teens exists.

When I was growing up in a medium-sized Midwestern city in the 1950s, our local paper regularly covered student activities. You didn't have to be a juvenile delinquent or a National Merit scholar to get your name or picture in the paper. Reporters covered youthful crimes and extraordinary achievements, to be sure. But editors also found room for photos and stories of ordinary children and teenagers engaging in everyday activities: a sixth-grade puppet show at a branch library, a day-long YMCA trip to a state park, a Girl Scout troop's visit to an orphanage. We tacked these clippings to bulletin boards and pasted them in scrapbooks. These fleeting accounts of modest events might not be what Andy Warhol had in mind when he stated that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame, but in our youthful innocence they came close.

The world has grown more complex since then, and so has media coverage of it. Youthful athletes still make the sports pages, and suburban papers still find room for honor roll lists.

But where are the stories of students who volunteer at a local nursing home or spend a Saturday collecting litter along the highway? Where are the faces of "normal" children and teens?

In "Life's Little Instruction Book," a collection of "reminders for a happy and rewarding life," H. Jackson Brown Jr. advises parents: "Let your children overhear you saying complimentary things about them to other adults." Other family experts offer similar advice when they say, "Catch your children doing something right."

What is positive media coverage but a widely overheard compliment - a public recognition of young people caught in the act of doing something right, even if it isn't extraordinary?

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