Why Do We Love Children In Peril?

Anticipating the release of My Sister's Keeper, about a girl conceived as a donor for her sick sister, a Times profile of author Jodi Picoult asks why Americans today love stories of children in trouble.

Picoult wrote the novel on which My Sister's Keeper is based, and a rundown of her other books reads a bit like The Gashlycrumb Tinies (hi Hortense!). Her child characters suffer from the bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta (and a wrongful birth lawsuit), sexual abuse, murder, cancer, and multiple operations designed to save a sibling's life. One of her protagonists experiences such profound isolation that he shoots up his school, creating, of course, a whole new group of child victims. The message of much of Picoult's work, according to Ginia Bellafante of the Times, is that this world is a terribly dangerous one for kids, and that even well-intentioned parents may make mistakes with dire consequences.

Bellafante sees this message as one that permeates American culture at large. She writes,

The endangered or ruined child has emerged as a media entity within a culture that has idealized the responsibilities of parenthood to a degree, as has been exhaustively noted, unprecedented in human history. The more we seek to protect our children, the more we fear the consequences of an inability to do so.

She locates the obsession with "children in peril" in parental anxiety, and devotes a lot of ink to what Picoult's fiction says about the dangers of misparenting. But our preoccupation with children as victims of violence and misery may have more to do with our conception of what it means to be a child. Bellafante writes,

It is worth noting that growth of children-in-peril literature (and its companion programming) has correlated with a rising judicial tendency to regard children as especially vulnerable victims. Community notification laws requiring law enforcement to make public information regarding registered sex offenders were introduced in the '90s. By 2006, the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named after a 6-year old who was kidnapped from a Florida mall and killed 25 years earlier, strengthened registration requirements and increased punishment for crimes against children. Jessica's Law, an aggressive 2005 Florida statue, copied by other states, did this as well, introducing a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and a lifetime of electronic monitoring for adults convicted of "lewd or lascivious" acts against children under 12.

And yet:

Some children's advocates argue that such legislation makes manifest an inherent paradox in our treatment of children, given that a number of states have lowered the age at which children can be tried as adults and given that our foster-care system can best be described as broken.

We see children as so vulnerable that they are in need of all kinds of extra protections — and yet when they commit crimes, we hold them responsible for their actions as we would adults. This may have to do with ideas about the specialness of children that didn't exist when, say, kids worked alongside their parents on the farm. We now think of childhood as a time of such unique innocence that children are constantly in danger of harm, and that any harm done to a child is deserving of especially harsh penalties. At the same time, we believe that when children behave in non-innocent ways, they must not be real children at all — if they do something evil, they must be adults.

The truth is, children are plenty evil. They're vulnerable, certainly, but they're not necessarily innocent, and while they are definitely deserving of protection, we can never protect them as much as we want. Our fascination with failures of protection stems not from how children actually are, but how we've come to see them, as paragons of all that is innocent and good — until suddenly they're not. "Children in peril" stories become stories of absolute good versus absolute evil, stories that make the universe seem comfortingly simple.

Some of this children-as-innocents mentality has been good for kids. Children in America today are lucky to grow up in a society that deplores child labor and that (usually) encourages people to delay marriage until they're out of their teens. But we don't do kids any favors when we make them into symbols, symbols that feed our desire for simple, black-and-white narratives. Kids are people too, and sometimes people suck.

Jodi Picoult and the Anxious Parent [New York Times]