Book cover of Michael and Diane Medved's <em>Saving Childhood</em>

This book review appeared, in somewhat different form, in Our Sunday Visitor, January 9, 2000. It was posted here in 2001.

Review of Saving Childhood, by Michael and Diane Medved. HarperCollins, 1999, 336 pp., paperback.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

"We may not succeed in creating a childhood Eden," write Michael and Diane Medved," but we can at least provide a fragrant garden....May all our children linger in the garden."

These words are from the Medveds' valuable book, Saving Childhood, originally published in 1998 but still available in paperback. Michael Medved, a film critic and talk-show host, said in an interview that the book deals with "building up a counterculture" so that people can resist "the toxic elements of contemporary pop culture."

His wife Diane, a clinical psychologist, declared in a separate interview: "Being a mom is the most important task that there is." She and Michael have three young children--Sarah, Shayna and Daniel--who might be called consultants on the book. They made suggestions for "The Well-Stocked Toy Chest" list; and the girls helped explain children's need for security: "Don't ever get divorced. We belong together. We're a family....You tell me and my brother to stop fighting, to apologize. Why shouldn't adults stop fighting and apologize too?"

The senior Medveds are veteran writers. Michael's best-known book is Hollywood vs. America, while Diane's is The Case Against Divorce. (She is happy that divorce has declined somewhat and that "people are taking marriage more seriously.")

The Medveds' joint style is easy and lucid, and Saving Childhood has many examples and anecdotes. It offers parents both a cultural critique and practical suggestions for giving children "a secure, optimistic, and reasonably sheltered childhood."

Like many other parents, the Medveds see sex and violence in television entertainment as a major threat to children's innocence and sense of security. They also worry about TV news, with its sensational approach and its guideline that "if it bleeds, it leads." Television news, they write, offers a "sad, horrific, and harsh view of the world." And even relatively good television is bad in a sense, because "TV inevitably promotes impatience, self-pity, and superficiality." Its quickly-flashing images reduce children's attention span; its commercialism makes them feel deprived; and its stress on beauty and glamour makes them focus on surface appearances. "Can anyone honestly suppose," the Medveds ask, "that the O. J. Simpson trials would have generated comparable interest if O. J. and his murdered wife had resembled, say, Mike Tyson and Janet Reno?"

They also address problems in the schools, where well-intentioned people try to prepare kids for life's problems by scaring them. "Childhood should be a time of confidence," the Medveds say; but sex education, AIDS education, and anti-drug programs rely too much on fear. They complain that social studies often impart a gloomy, propagandistic view of environmental problems and that efforts to prevent sexual molestation of kids make them worry needlessly about even "Grandpa's hug."

They are not trying to keep children forever young or forever ignorant about life's real dangers. They just want them to learn about adult topics at an appropriate age. Michael noted that "people understand that things are sequenced" in intellectual development. "You don't expect kids to read at a high-school level when they're four," he remarked. "So why is it that we expect kids, when they're four and five, to have high-school-level understanding of things like drugs and sex and AIDS?"

As alternatives to mainstream culture, the Medveds suggest specific ways to give children security, a sense of wonder, and optimism. Fathers tend to view security as financial security and believe they add to it "by accelerating in their careers, taking lots of lucrative business trips, working late...But if you ask most moms and any child, Dad provides more security by just being home every night."

Outdoor display of pumpkins and Halloween decorations

Instead of terrifying children with drug education and crime information, they suggest, parents should teach safety by giving their children simple rules. And they should teach them resistance techniques, especially "the courage to be different." The Medveds note that their Jewish faith sets them apart from the dominant culture and enables their children to be different from an early age. (In many parts of the country, the same is now true of committed Christians.)

Children, they say, are "natural conservatives" who need routines, traditions and rituals. They describe the comfort their children received from a Sabbath meal after they moved from Los Angeles to Seattle and--because of moving-van delays--had to live in an unfurnished home and use sleeping bags for six days. On Friday evening, Diane lit the Sabbath candles; the family sang "Shalom Aleichem"; Michael blessed the wine and then blessed each child. The oldest child, "who'd been sniveling all day...finally began to brighten....Seattle seemed less menacing, less cold, less alien when her immediate environment took on a loving flavor and an ancient essence that she'd known all her life."

They recommend everyday prayer, noting that children "who pray and recite blessings regularly connect their daily activities to God's majesty." They also suggest telling Bible stories to children.

The Medveds approve of Santa Claus, saying that he involves adults "in a positive conspiracy to enhance children's sense of wonder and hope." While they realize that some Christian families worry about "the commercialism and selfishness that turn a religious event into a retail feeding frenzy," they believe that parents can present Santa in a way that "maintains the dignity of the day as well as the joy of the fantasy." (I'm not convinced that this is so. I believe it would be better to retire Santa Claus and bring back St. Nicholas, who was noted for helping poor people--not middle-class and wealthy people who already have more possessions than they know what to do with.)

They like old-fashioned children's stories such as "Hansel and Gretel" and the poetry in A Child's Garden of Verses. "Choose books to read to your children specifically with a sense of wonder in mind," they advise.

They approve of old-fashioned toys as well: coloring books, Lincoln Logs and Legos, toy soldiers, bubbles, dress-up clothes, blankets to make forts and houses. They do not recommend battery-operated toys, believing that they dull a child's natural creativity and discourage playing with other children. "We're becoming a solo culture," they remark, "sadly free of tea parties, teddy-bear picnics, and kid-staged extemporaneous dramatics."

Some of their most radical suggestions relate to television. Take all televisions out of bedrooms, they say, or--better yet--get rid of them altogether. Their own family does without TV. They do have a set, but the "absence of any antenna or cable makes TV reception impossible." They use it, instead, for "selected and approved videos," which their children may watch no more than six hours a week.

They advise limiting children's time on computers, too, because they--like television--"pull children away from face-to-face interactions with their families and friends and substitute a phony world on a screen." After years of ultra-hype about computers, many people may welcome this word of caution.

On the positive side, they suggest spending much time with children outdoors, both in sports and in exploring the wonders of nature. "Our family day is Sunday," Diane said in an interview. "We go out on field trips. Michael has always made it a point, since we moved to the Northwest, to try and explore a different area of our region every Sunday."

As an antidote to what they see as "a crybaby culture, a national orgy of whining and self-pity," the Medveds urge more stress on the many blessings Americans have. "Encourage patriotism," they advise. "Fly the flag. Sing patriotic songs in your home." Many parents will agree with this, although some might say that patriotism must include the ability to criticize one's country. Albert Camus once wrote that "I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice." Children should be taught, in an age-appropriate way, that many people have used their countries' flags as a cover for injustice and that this should never be done again.

The Medveds stress gratitude, especially gratitude to God, as a remedy for pessimism and whining. And they recommend a Jewish commandment that is supposed to be remembered upon waking each morning: "Rise up like a lion for the service of the Lord!"

Lion statue