Over the past few weeks, something has been gnawing at me: The way that people talk about children in the media. Maybe they never were, but in my mind, children used to be off-limits. To bash a child would yield admonishment from the public and actually motivate people to speak the truth. How ironic is it that we say we teach our children good manners, sportsmanship and behavioral practices, but we demonstrate the opposite, not only in how we conduct ourselves in multiple settings, but also in the way that we treat children in this country?
Think about it. We claim children are our future, but allow the majority of them to subsist in substandard schools. We claim we protect our children fiercely but invite relatives and strangers into our homes to molest, mistreat and murder them. In some instances, we take them to the abusers and help cover up their misdeeds with a code of silence. We teach our children that good health is paramount to a happy existence, yet millions of our children are uninsured or underinsured. Some parents would rather spend money on bling and unnecessary luxury items than make sure that their children have health insurance.
We love our children so much that we enter into mortgages that we know that we cannot afford. Our houses get foreclosed on, and we destabilize our children's lives by moving from place to place. We then blame the banks and the government instead of admitting that we should have settled for the house that we could afford. Is the government to blame? Hell yeah, but so are we. What's the result? Children are returned to impoverished lives that we told them they had escaped. How do we cope? By overcompensating with gifts, parties for every occasion, and spoiling them to such an extent that they become a burden on society and us.
The rhetoric of how we feel about our children does not match the reality of how we treat children, which is truly paradoxical. What is more maddening is when adults pick on or bash children, especially in the media. Over the last few weeks, I have been appalled by pundits' treatment of the names of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's children. Blog writers have called them everything under the sun and have mocked their names mercilessly. Palin is fair game because she is a politician with a platform and is an adult who has chosen her path in life. But her children should be off-limits.
The way that the Palin children are talked about reminds me of how some in the media chided Chelsea Clinton for being an "ugly duckling" when her parents were in the White House. I think about the Bush girls who were torn from limb to limb for doing what teenagers do -- push boundaries and get into trouble while doing it. But something is different about picking on children because of their names. That is inherently personal because the naming of a child in many cultures is considered a sacred act. This is obviously not the norm in our country, but people do imbue names with meaning.
Perhaps, I am being overly sensitive. Although I am named after an African queen (Congo/Angola) who is amazing, I am often chided about having a "made-up name." Nsenga means "bold," "brave" and "courageous." My middle name, Kilolo, is also African (Swahili) and means "youthful happiness." Because of a character on the TV show Martin, people laugh hysterically when they hear my name because people associate the name with a "ghetto girl" character on the show, played by rapper Yo-Yo.
Their frame of reference for my name is a television show, not the cultural meaning of the name and its African roots. I take my name seriously because my parents thought long and hard about naming us (my two sisters also have African names) so that we would have some connection to our African roots. The irony is that folks with "made-up" names with no cultural value -- or first and last names that reflect those of their ancestors' slave owners -- laugh at my very real, African name.
As I am an adult and perfectly capable of sticking up for myself, I can handle this. For children, who were basically born and assigned names that mean something to their parents, the same cannot be assumed. For adults to pick on children for their names is mean-spirited, especially in such public spaces like e-mails, blogs, television and radio.
Ironically, some of these e-mails and posts came from folks named LaQuisha, Summer, Damonte, Skipper, Sage, Shateka, Alexus, LaDonna, Dornell and Tuesday. What these adults are saying about these children is the same thing that has been said about them, probably as children. Most of the critiques are wrapped in issues about class, like Palin's nomination, which folks don't want to talk about. Adults with "made-up" names have no room to talk about children with "made-up" names. Not to mention that if Palin's kids were black, we would be up-in-arms over how they are talked about. But that's another column.
The way that we treat children in our society is reflected in "big" things like school systems and "little" things like names. Like children themselves, names really should be off-limits, and if we cannot wrap our small minds around that, then we have a big problem.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.