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Loving Children: A Design Problem
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By David Orr
Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College
Author of Earth in Mind, Ecological Literacy, and more than 90 articles

The Skymall catalogue, conveniently available to bored airplane passengers, recently offered an item that spoke volumes about our approach to raising children. For a price of several hundred dollars, parents could order a device that could be attached to a television set that would control access to the television. Each child would be given a kind of credit card, programmed to limit the hours he or she could watch TV. The child so disciplined, would presumably benefit by imbibing fewer hours of mind-numbing junk. They might also benefit from the perverse challenge to discover the many exciting and ingenious ways to subvert the technology and the intention behind it, including a flank attack on parental rules and public decency via the internet.

“We spend, on average, 6 hours per week shopping, but only 40 minutes playing with our children.”

My parents had a rather different approach to the problem. It was the judicious and authoritative use of the word “no.” It cost nothing. My brother, sister, and I knew what it meant and the consequences for ignoring it. Still, I sometimes acted otherwise. It was a way to test the boundaries of freedom and parental love and the relation between the two.

The Skymall device and the word “no” both represent concern for the welfare of the child, but they are fundamentally different design approaches to the problem of raising children and they have very different effects on the child. The device approach to discipline is driven by three factors that are new to parenting in the postmodern world. It is a product of a commercial culture in which we’ve come to believe that high-tech gadgetry can fix human problems, including that of teaching discipline and self-control to children. Moreover, the device is intended mostly for parents who are absent from the home for much of the day because they must (or think they must) work to make an expanding number of ends meet. And, all of our verbal assurances of love notwithstanding, it is a product of a society that does not love its children competently enough to teach them self-discipline. The device approach to parenting is merely emblematic of a larger problem that has to do with the situation of childhood within an increasingly dysfunctional society absorbed with things, economic growth, and self.

We claim to love our children, and I believe that most of us do. But we have, sheep-like, acquiesced in the design of a society that dilutes the expression of genuine love. The result is a growing mistrust of our children that easily turns to fear and dislike. In a recent survey, for example, only one-third of adults believed that today’s young people “will eventually make this country a better place” (Applebome, 1997). Instead, we find them “rude” and “irresponsible.” And often they are. We find them overly materialistic and unconcerned about politics, values, and improving society. And many are too materialistic and detached from large issues (Bronner, 1998). Not infrequently they are verbally and physically violent, fully adapted to a society that is saturated with drugs and violence. A few kill and rape other children. Why are the very children that we profess to cherish becoming less than likable and sometimes less than human?

Some will argue that nothing of the sort is happening and that every generation believes that its children are going to Hell. Eventually, however, things work out. Such views are, I think, fatuous because they ignore the sharp divide imposed between the hyper-consumerism of the postmodern world and the needs of children for extended nurturing, mentoring, and imagining. It’s the economy that we love, not our children. The symptoms are all around us. We spend 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. We spend, on average, 6 hours per week shopping, but only 40 minutes playing with our children (Suzuki, 23). It can no longer be taken for granted that this civilization can pass on its highest values to enough of its children to survive. Without intending to do so, we have created a society that cannot love its children, indeed one in which the expression of real love is increasingly difficult.

“No society that loved its children would create places like the typical suburb or shopping mall.”

No society that loved children would consign nearly one in five to poverty (New York Times, August 12, 2000). No society that loved its children would put them in front of television for 4 hours each day. No society that loved its children would lace their food, air, water, and soil with thousands of chemicals whose total effect cannot be known. No society that loved its children would build so many prisons and so few parks and schools. No society that loved its children would teach them to recognize over 1000 corporate logos but fewer than a dozen plants and animals native to their home places. No society that loved its children would divorce them so completely from contact with soils, forests, streams, and wildlife. No society that loved its children would create places like the typical suburb or shopping mall. No society that loved its children would casually destroy real neighborhoods and communities in order to build even more highways. No society that loved its children would build so many glitzy sports stadiums while its public schools fall apart. No society that loved its children would build more shopping malls than high schools (Suzuki, 23). No society that loved its children would pave over 1,000,000 acres each year for even more shopping malls and parking lots. No society that loved its children would knowingly run even a small risk of future climatic disaster. No society that loved its children would use the practice of discounting in order to ignore its future problems. No society that loved its children would leave behind a legacy of ugliness and biotic impoverishment.

Of course we do all of these things in the belief that they are the necessary price of creating a better world for children. But at some level I believe that our children understand that such arguments are phony. I think this awareness explains what often appears to be their unfocused anger. Our children often mirror the larger incivility and rudeness that we inflict on them. They mirror the larger self-indulgence of a society organized around machines, instant gratification, and excessive individualism. They know that mastery of, say, Shakespeare counts for considerably less in this society than making it big in sports or business or drug-dealing, devil take the hindmost. They understand intuitively that the real curriculum is not what’s taught in schools, but what’s written on the face of the land. It is remarkable, in fact, that they are not angrier.

What would it mean to make a society that did in fact love all of its children? This is, properly understood, a design problem that calibrates what we intend as parents with how we earn our living, conduct our daily lives, build homes, design communities, manage landscapes, and provision ourselves with food, energy, and materials. I would go so far as to say that the well-being of children in the fullest sense of the word, not gross national product, is the best indicator of the health of our civilization. And I believe that it is the ultimate standard for ecological design. How do we design a civilization for children?

“Mind and body are imprinted in the most fundamental ways by the “pattern of place” experienced in childhood.” Paul Shepard

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April 7th, 2006

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