Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book: "Toxic Childhood" (Sue Palmer)

Title: Toxic Childhood
Author: Sue Palmer
Published: London: Orion Books, 2006, (357pp).
Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It

Sue Palmer's book is a fascinating look at how the world we are living in can 'toxicate' our children. Presenting multiple statistics from a wide range of disciplines, the author provides a reader a compelling look at the slow and dangerous potential, ordinary stuff can harm our kids over the long run.

Brief Notes About the Book
This book contains several things that are considered 'damaging' to children. Firstly, Palmer attacks the kinds of food children are eating nowadays. Things like the long term effects of junk food. This phenomena is driven by a crazy rush for fast-food that is cheap, gratifies short-term needs, is quickly and readily obtainable. When the hunger comes, feeding the stomach overrides any conscious awareness of cultivating a healthy brain. Modern eating is full of unhealthy calories, from sugars to saturated fats, from junk fast-food and snacks to the demise of the family meal.

Secondly, in playtime, children's play habits are increasingly more INSIDE rather than OUTSIDE. Fear and insecurity pushes many parents to turn their children into couch potatoes. When Palmer describes 'decline of the free-range children,' it gives me a terrible comparison to the kinds of eggs that free range chickens produce compared to caged chickens. Given such an image, it is easy to conclude that if children do not play and exercise enough, they can be likened to being 'caged' at home and not able to fully develop their growth, leading to a decline not only in physical abilities but mental prowess as well.

Lack of sleep is the third major toxic element. From infants to 11 years old elementary school children, there is an alarming decrease in the actual hours of sleep an average child receives. All reflect at least 2 hours below the recommended daily hours of sleep. Such lack of sleep results in learning problems, unproductive school hours, anxiety, and illnesses such as ADHD.

Fourthly, even though technology has advanced in many ways, people seems to talk less with their children. This results in a lower language skills, literacy and learning aptitudes.
"In all communication and language, the key is interactivity." (119)

This requires a human touch, amid the potpourri of technological choices. Given the choice between virtual communications and human talk/touch, the latter is most vital.

The four toxic factors above call for all to notice the four things children need; namely love, stability, attention and time. The fifth factor hones in on these four factors via the family unit. Palmer asks the question:

"One of the biggest questions facing all parents today is: how do we define the roles and responsibilities of mothers and fathers within the rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of the twenty-first century family?" (137)

She is pointing to the need to let children know the precise ROLE and RESPONSIBILITY of parents. Thus, communications within the family ought to remind all about this role to avoid ambiguity that confuses innocent children. Palmer argues for an intentional 'physical presence' of parents for their children (155). Her conclusion:
"The family - love it or hate it - is where the grown-up generation forms the generation to come. it's where the parents, and other adults-in-charge, develop children's sense of self, security, and self-esteem, their ability to get along with other people, their knowledge about life and life skills, and an inner code of conduct to guide and protect them when we're no longer around. So far the human race hasn't come up with any better way of passing on these essential elements of our culture. The family is where, in the words of the old adage, we give our children 'roots to grow and wings to fly.'" (158)

There is a separate section about technology. Palmer appears to belong to the same camp with Neil Postman, a moderate skeptic of technology. Yet, she is a little more optimistic than Postman. She makes a few sharp observations about the threat of using technology like TV to be a babysitter of children. She lambasts the inclusion of electronics within the bedrooms of kids, and warns us about the dangers of social isolation called hikikomori (withdrawal from human society) currently experienced by Japanese society (258). While she does not dismiss technology totally, her prescription for the 'right' use of technology is through community accountability. she advises families NOT to let technology be the 'default activity' the moment one steps into the home. In fact, she goes further to advise all that the use of technology be 'always purposeful, intentional and finite' (271-2). I think this statement is worth the price of the book.

My Comments
Even though this book views modern structures negatively, such as our tendency toward fast-food and junk food culture; our culture of self-gratification and various toxic childhood symptoms, Palmer has a lot of positive things to say about our attitude toward them. In each chapter, she gives a load of tips on how to detoxify ourselves from these things. She has a list of good advice on how to treat an addict of any of these elements. Moreover, she provides parents with a helpful way to police, to guide, and to wean their children away from any dangerous addictions. List of resources are provided followed by an insightful closing of any gap. Like a surgeon, Palmer identifies the problem and symptoms of erratic childhood behaviour. She prescribes redemptive steps and ideas toward recovery. Following the surgery, she suggests post-operational therapy and continued steps to strengthen family, and parent-child interations. In this way, the book is rather balanced and forward looking. Let the title of the book shock our bored minds and dreary hearts. Do not let the incisive cuts and criticisms of the book discourage you from reading beyond the negative views of modern living. Instead, see it as a means for us to recognize our tendency to become intoxificated unconsciously. Then we can positively recover and do preventative measures to live a healthy life, in body, in mind, and in spirit.

If I were to critique this book, I think it is focused more on the Western culture, a society of haves rather than the have-nots. The 'modern world' the book assumes is only about one-third of the world's population. There are other more serious problems the rest of the world deals with. Things like poverty, and basic water and electricity resources. Physical pollution and environmental concerns are also high on that list. If I were to exclude all of these, there is still a missing component in this book. What about the soul? What about the spiritual realm? On what basis of moral thinking do we view toxic childhood? On this basis, 'Toxic Childhood' sees the whole situation more from a scientific and psychological perspective. I assert that this alone is insufficient. We need more. Yes, I will readily admit that I am biased toward seeing life from God's perspective. In other words, Palmer's motivation to write the book stems from a desire to help us care for the next generation. If we see from God's perspective, we will learn to care for ALL generations.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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