Formation of Children

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What's Wrong with This Picture?

About Appropriate Public Behavior


Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

The Southern California Living section of the Los Angeles Times can still be astonishing in its capacity to report as extraordinary news what is obvious to any man or women with an ounce of good sense remaining. Let me give you an example from the front page of the July 30 Living section.

The article informs us that it is good to read to your children aged 5 and under. Based on a new government report, reading experts are instructing parents and family members to sit down and read to children. There is no need to comment on the banality of the conclusion, or the absurdity of relying on expensive studies and multi-degreed experts to point out the obvious. A fool in a gown is none the wiser, as the saying goes.

book literacy children

What seems a more interesting exercise is to analyze the picture that illustrated the article. In it, little Kristin "thumbs through" a book at a bookstore in a local shopping mall. She is presented as a role model for children who should become interested in books.

"Now what in the world could anyone find to criticize about this sweet little girl?” some readers must be thinking. This writer does not criticize the child, who indeed appears to be a sweet little girl, and even compliments her serious attention to the book she has chosen to examine for possible purchase.

What is worthy of critique are two general tendencies away from what used to be considered a proper way to behave in public that the picture displays. I use the word tendencies to refer to behavioral patterns that are beginning to develop in a certain way.

First, this little girl, even though she is young, shows a lack of proper respect for an item that does not belong to her. She is visiting a bookstore; she sees a book that appeals to her; she takes it from the shelf; she lays it on the dirty floor; then she props herself down beside it. Her arm, perhaps sticky or sullied from contact with other floors in other stores, is laid in proprietary fashion across the page. She seems to have no sense that the book is not communal property; it does not belong to her, and thus it should be treated with even more care than if she owned it.

One can't help but wonder where her parents are. Perhaps they are nearby, proudly smiling at their young daughter who likes to read. Perhaps they are watching the photographer pose their daughter for the picture. The fault in this case does not lie with Kristin, but with those who should be instilling her, young as she is, with a respect for public property.

The lack of respect for the property of others is becoming common and much more radical in many children than our quiet little girl in the bookstore, in whom one only observes the tendency. The action of numerous children today with regard to public property is strikingly abusive. Like Indians in tribes they assume that whatever they see is communal property. Whatever appeals to them they can treat as if it were their own. Many modern children – who are more than old enough to know better – heedlessly climb on and over chairs and sofas in waiting areas, open and experiment with toys on store shelves, impulsively pick up and play with whatever gadget attracts them. These are the children of the children of the Cultural Revolution, which dictated man or child be permitted to satisfy every impulse and whim the instant it is felt.

Second, the picture reveals a tendency toward the loss of the sense of what is appropriate public demeanor. This is a little girl who seems to have no sense of how to sit and conduct herself in public. Her private and public worlds and ways of behavior are one. How she sits in the liberty of the sand pile in her back yard is how she sits in a public upscale bookstore at the mall. She sprawls on the floor with all naturalness on the same floor where countless strangers with their dirty shoes have been walking. It seems no one has bothered to instruct her on a ladylike way to sit, especially for a photograph that will be published in the largest Los Angeles daily. Again, her actions are guided by impulse, not the discipline of a Christian civilization, and there is no one to correct her. Quite to the contrary, her picture is snapped as the model of a young child who likes to read.

At the end of the LA Times article, the reporter became optimistic in good old liberal style. Let parents read to their children and the children will become literate. Then, with increased literacy, the youths will leave the streets, eschew drugs, go to college, and become cultured citizens. It might have been a new Rousseau speaking. "It takes a generation to bring about a cultural shift," the article concluded.

I do not think giving this generation of children books to read will magically effect a cultural shift back toward Christian civilization. A child must also be taught Catholic morals and manners and instilled with a profound sense of appropriate behavior for both the public and the private spheres. If the spontaneous and naturalistic behavior celebrated by the Revolution of the '60s is not consciously rejected, we may indeed have children who can read, but not necessarily children who are civilized.



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