A Species Survival Plan for Childhood

As a proud zoo-loving biology nerd seeking to raise the next generation of such nerds, we talk about SSPs on our frequent visits to zoos. Species survival plans. Every species that is somewhere on the endangered spectrum receives an SSP, an intentional plan created to help bring the species back to thriving.

Being as I find motherhood my full-time job these days, I try to read as much as I can regarding parenting, children and families. I do this both as a form of self-induced continuing education and also as an attempt to not lose my mind amidst the potty humor and silliness which often seem to engulf me.

Recently, I read Neil Postman’s fascinating book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. Postman includes an entire chapter on children, which he opens by writing the following:

“Childhood was invented in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, it began to assume the form with which we are familiar. In the twentieth century, childhood began to unravel, and by the twenty-first, may be lost altogether – unless there is some serious interest in retaining. This summary of the rise and fall of childhood will strike some readers as startling, especially those who believe that where there are children (that is small, young people), there must be childhood. But this is not so. Childhood is not a biological necessity but a social construction.”

Postman follows by painting in broad strokes the different historical views of children including the Lockean or Protestant view and the Rousseauian view. I know my teacher friends had to learn all about these fellas in their history of education classes; however, most of us mom-folk haven’t learned these things. While I found the history lesson interesting, the point Postman was leading to is alarming.

Today, according to Postman, “Children are neither blank tablets nor budding plants. They are markets; that is to say, consumers whose needs for products are roughly the same as the needs of adults….The point is that childhood, if it can be said to exist at all, is now an economic category. There is very little the culture wants to do for children except to make them into consumers.”

Ouch. That’s a scathing and scary indictment of where our culture is and is heading regarding childhood.

If childhood is truly endangered, which from a sociological standpoint is what Postman suggests, then what are we to do? What is the species survival plan?

Postman concludes the following:
“If parents wish to preserve childhood for their own children, they must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture…to insist that one’s children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend.”

I so desperately need to hear reminders that childhood and family are species worth fighting for.  Sometimes these reminders come from Biblical studies and a Christian worldview, but sometimes they come from the corner of common grace through the social sciences or biological research.

Recently, I hit a momma wall. I was worn out from the tedium and the seeming insignificance of playing “Catch the Orange” in the kitchen or spending an hour with my toddler using wipes to clean and re-clean every plastic animal in the house. I wanted out or I wanted easier. In my flesh, I want to have my cake and eat it too. Even though I want balanced, healthy children, on the long and lonely days, I don’t always want to have to give of myself to create an environment and home in which healthy and balanced children grow and thrive.

It is a fight to limit screen time and to load up my kiddos to find some green space where they can roam and be wild. It is hard to keep Christmas gifts and birthday gifts limited and reasonable in our culture. It is excruciating to hold a high standard (with high tolerance for mistakes, as they are only tiny humans) when the bar seems to be set so low. Many days I fail. But I know that this is an endeavor worth fighting for, this species survival plan for childhood and family.

The Lord, through Neil Postman, gave me the encouragement I needed this week.

“Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help keep alive a humane tradition. It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it has children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service for themselves and their children.”

Oh, God, you are the one who created children and families. You alone have the SSP needed to help them thrive. Give us the grace that we need, the supernatural strength to treat our children as you intended and to give ourselves to the survival of childhood, not for their sakes or for our sakes, but for Yours. 

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