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Speaking up, and speaking out, to let children be children

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Every now and then, a provocative voice comes along that quietly commands attention and respect. Intelligent and eloquent, it rises above the din of clich├ęs and talk-show shouting matches, offering a moral imperative that whispers: Listen. Heed.

These days, that voice belongs to Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England. Concerned about the well-being of children, he launched a strong attack last week on the ways in which a consumer society affects the lives of its youngest members, stripping them of their childhood.

He laments a pervasive marketing culture that "openly feeds and colludes with obsession." He mourns the premature sexualization of children. He objects to expensive computer games. And he opposes the commercial tie-ins that link movies and television with toys, comics, and food. In particular, he singles out the Walt Disney Co. for developing this to an "unprecedented pitch."

Disney officials refute the charge, claiming that they strive for "community, decency, and optimism."

Dr. Williams, the current Archbishop of Wales, initially outlined some of these concerns in "Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement," an essay on modern culture published in England in 2000.

For him, such family-centered concerns are far from theoretical. He and his wife have two children, ages 14 and 6. Their presence, in fact, will mark the first time in 120 years that children have lived in Lambeth Palace, the archbishop's residence in London. In another reality check, Williams is also a fan of "The Simpsons" on television.

His is hardly the first voice to lament the loss of childhood. Twenty years ago, social critic Neil Postman mourned the decline of innocence in his bestseller, "The Disappearance of Childhood." And David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University, has explored similar themes in "Reinventing Childhood" and "The Hurried Child."

Today, Professor Elkind says, parents face a difficult role. Until several decades ago, society supported parents. The education system was child-centered, he notes, and adults routinely screened books, TV, and radio to make sure children were not exposed to inappropriate material.


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