About Children


A Colombian boy with his gymnastics uniform. Photo by Gloria Cecilia Bulla

Our Ongoing Conversation

By Felton Earls and Maya Carlson  

Dear June,

Our wonderful conversation over lunch the other day got Maya and me to thinking about how some of our best friends are children. Through these friendships we have entered a world we all know as adults but appear to forget quickly. It goes without saying that our three grandchildren top the list. But through our work we also have friends who live and work on the streets of Brazil and Mexico City. Others are children in primary schools located in remote areas of Costa Rica. Still others are children of Mexican immigrant families in Chicago. The list goes to include many other children in countries in Europe, Africa and the East. All of them will be interested to know that ReVista is dedicating an entire issue to them.

With all these children as friends, we've noticed how little say they have in the real world, even in matters that directly affect their lives. They don't get to say much about what they study, how their playgrounds should look or what kinds of questions researchers like us should ask them to improve their chances in life. They certainly don't get asked their opinions about policies concerning children in their towns and countries. If half the world's population is children, they represent a pretty silent community. So if you will permit us, we would like to offer a few cautionary notes for you and your readers to think about as you enter the world of childhood. In writing to you we have not directly consulted any specific child, but offer these comments as a reflection of our accumulated experience in working directly with children (and regularly taking care of our grandchildren).

From an early age children are energetic. This we have learned the hard way from trying to keep pace with our grandchildren. We also know that they are curious, thoughtful, fun loving, creative, daring and competitive. Above all, they are loyal. This loyalty may be a consequence of their exquisite dependence. Most children would claim that adults see them as undisciplined, naughty and frivolous. Few adults seem to notice the striking loyalty children display, even to persons who are not kind to them.

The value we place on children relates to their future and ultimate status as adults. They are, by definition, a temporary phenomenon, a transient necessity. Children are suspended just long enough to reach maturity. But maturity is a vague and varied destiny. Any child can tell you that for most adults they're "well-becoming" matters more than their well being. This gap between how well I am doing now and what eventually becomes of me creates the sense that childhood is a waiting period. It is as if the true value of the little person is postponed until the bigger person is realized.

A process of simultaneously speeding up and slowing down complicates this waiting game. Children acquire all types of skills at an earlier age in our fast-paced society, whether it be reading, solving puzzles or learning about sexuality. Thanks to good nutrition and the control of many common childhood infections, their bodies develop more quickly and are stronger than ever before in human history. But what accelerated growth and development get you these days is a longer period of preparation for adulthood. Our postindustrial economy has drawn out the period of education and training well beyond high school and even college. If adulthood were defined as reaching the age of independence and self-sufficiency, then one could reasonably argue that the definition should be set at around the chronological age of 25. We adults are obviously confused by when maturity is reached. How else can we explain having a drinking age of 21, a driving age of 16 and a voting age of 18? This is where friendship comes in. It would be constructive for us to have regular and amicable conversations with children and adolescents about their place in this world now and in the future.

Teenagers justifiably complain about being unappreciated, underrepresented, and feeling detached. But despite this apparent barrenness, they have plenty of amusement thanks to an awesome dose of sexy marketing and violent imagery in the media. We now know that this media exposure is mostly bad. Obesity, violent behavior and irresponsible sex are some of the negative consequences.

So where do we go from here: taming television, giving parents more time to enjoy their children, smaller high schools, raising the voices of children, lowering the voting age. There will no doubt be many clues in your volume on children. But you should know that to be certain that these insights are on target, we will read ReVista to our grandchildren, send copies to our friends and ask for their advice.

Once this issue is out, let's do lunch again.

Warm regards,

Tony and Maya

Felton (Tony) Earls is Professor of Social Medicine and Maya Carlson is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Their current research projects are based in Chicago, Costa Rica, Tanzania and the Gaza Strip.