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Is It Ethical to Deny Children a Traditional Childhood?
by Steve Aldersley

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a story that deals with a number of important themes. This essay will focus on whether it is ethical to deny children a traditional childhood. It will also examine whether too much pressure is placed upon children. Card's story is an extreme example of a situation in which children play a vital role in the survival of the planet. I will examine whether the world governments were justified in their treatment of the Battle School children, and I will look at some real life situations in which pressure is placed upon children. There is an increasing tendency to try and develop the abilities of children from a very young age. Soldiers, athletes, and musicians can begin their training at the age of five, or even earlier in some cases. Schoolchildren are often given enormous amounts of homework. Another trend encourages small girls to behave like women, and many wear cosmetics or revealing clothing as they attempt to emulate teen pop stars. This essay will discuss whether it is morally correct to encourage such behaviour in children. Is it damaging? Should children have to think about those things from such a young age?

Let's begin by looking at the role that children play in Ender's Game. The book begins by revealing that Ender Wiggin is a Third (Card 5), meaning that he was an exception in a society that only allowed two children per family in most cases. So before he was even born, Ender was a potential tool of the government. By making him wear a monitor, nothing that he ever did as a child went unseen. At the age of six, he was taken away from his family and transferred to the Battle School (Card 19-27). By placing Ender in a competitive environment and removing the family unit, the government denied him the experiences that a normal child would go through. Every friend he made was temporary as he was continually promoted to different armies within the school (Card 187). Furthermore, Ender was forced to fight his own battles. The teachers allowed Bonzo Madrid to corner Ender and challenge him to a fight (Card 219-233). So a child that was essentially portrayed as fair-minded and innocent was forced to become a killer in order to survive. The justification was that the world would need its military leaders to have that killer instinct in the battle with the buggers. The government also hid the truth during the final battle with the buggers by failing to tell Ender and his team that they were directing real ships (Card 326-327). The result was that Ender was largely responsible for the destruction of an entire alien species while he was just eleven years old. How could he be expected to deal with that knowledge? Ender's life was manipulated from the moment his birth was authorized, until the time he was finally made to leave Earth after he had led his team to victory. Although Ender's Game is a work of fiction, it is a plausible scenario. If Earth needed military leaders capable of beating an enemy with superior forces, it seems reasonable to genetically engineer children and train them from a young age. While it seems monstrous to condemn a child to a life of intense competition and loneliness, wouldn't we be capable of taking such extreme measures if the future of the entire human race were at stake? I believe that we would, and that it would be justified.

Card encourages readers to interact with him on his website, www.hatrack.com, and it even has an area that deals with research questions. One reader asked the following question (OSC Answers Questions): "I was wondering whether you were attempting to make a statement about children and the effects of being pushed too hard (growing up before they are ready)." Card replied: "I wasn't 'making a statement,' I was telling a story -- but it was a story about children being pushed too hard into adult roles. I've seen it many times, in the lives of friends and of ancestors who live on in family lore: When a child takes on adult responsibility too early, it deprives the child of vital stages of development. Often such children, when they grow up, are torn between the need to be responsible and the yearning to have the irresponsibility and freedom of adolescence, which is an important stage of life. I am impatient with the way that children are constantly the victims of our national moods and the guinea pigs of our experiments. Right now my kindergartner is being given homework, for heaven's sake, and has to make up any work she misses because of illness or family trips. This is kindergarten! Have these adults lost their minds?" He went on to address his intentions in the book itself: "In Ender's Game, I was simply exploring a believable (to me) situation in which sending children to war is believed to be necessary for the survival of the human species, and what the costs of such a situation might be on some of the key characters involved. I was following where the story led. It is only afterward that I can find 'statements' that might validly be made about the story. And those statements are only valid to the degree that I was following my unconscious beliefs in the process of writing the story rather than trying to bend the story to fit my conscious beliefs. But now we're getting perilously close to the realm of philosophy." So while Card seems to agree that too much pressure is placed upon children, that was not his message in Ender's Game. But the question still remains: Do we expect too much from our children? In some parts of the world, children are expected to fight. Human Rights Watch reports that "In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts. These young combatants participate in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts. Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make obedient soldiers. Many are abducted or recruited by force, and often compelled to follow orders under threat of death. Others join armed groups out of desperation (Human Rights Watch - Child Soldiers)." Most of the conflicts happen in Africa. While they are not fighting for the survival of the human race, it seems likely that they believe that they are fighting for their own survival. How different is that situation compared to the one portrayed in Ender's Game? I don't believe that war ever has a truly satisfactory outcome, and it seems wrong to demand that children should be involved at all; but while I disapprove of the actions of countries that recruit children in such a way, I can at least understand why it happens if they believe that their very survival is at stake. War is often a last resort and is not something that individuals can control. Adults and children will often have no choice in whether they become involved in a conflict. But in order to explore the roles of children further, let's investigate situations in which children choose to accept responsibility at a young age, or are encouraged to by their parents.

Consider the rewards that an elite athlete can earn. The PGA list of career money leaders shows that the top hundred players have all earned in excess of $7,500,000 (2007 PGA Tour Career Money Leaders). Bear in mind that those figures only include prize money. Top golfers also receive appearance money, as well as revenue from advertising and sponsorship deals. Forbes estimated that Tiger Woods earned $87 million in 2005 from his sponsorship deals with Nike and Buick (Tiger Woods, Forbes). In order to become the number one golfer in the world, Woods began playing the game at the age of two. His website has a detailed biography which contains the following information: "Born on December 30, 1975, Woods grew up in Cypress, California, 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He was not out of the crib before he took an interest in golf, at age 6 months, watching as his father hit golf balls into a net and imitating his swing. He appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at age 2, putting with Bob Hope. He shot 48 for nine holes at age 3 and was featured in Golf Digest at age 5. He won the Optimist International Junior tournament six times at ages 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 and 15 (About Tiger - Biography - Par. 14)." Tiger Woods does not appear to have been damaged by his father's encouragement, but how many children will be forced to try and emulate his achievements by parents that may only have their own interests at heart? Gymnasts, swimmers, and musicians are required to begin training at a young age if they can expect to compete with the best. Parents may force children to enrol in music lessons in the hope that they will one day develop into a musical genius; but the dangers are clear. The Piano Education Page has this to say: "There are of course exceptions to any and all claims of appropriate starting ages for children. I have had excellent students start as early as just under three years old. Others were not really ready until later. Don't let your expectations and desires be the sole determinant of when the child begins lessons or how fast you feel they should progress. The most common frustration of the parents arises because they have forgotten that their child is taking the lessons and doing the practice. Remember, the child is a child, not a miniature adult (The Piano Education Page - Tips - Your Child and Lessons)." The world is becoming an increasingly competitive place. Many businesses are required to compete on a global level, and children are educated with those needs in mind. Job applicants are usually expected to have a college or university degree to apply for an entry-level position. CityNews had this to say about the trend: "The Toronto District School Board has guidelines on how much homework students should be doing. By the end of grade 3, no more than 30 minutes, and in grade 6, 60 minutes. By the time a student hits grade 12, they can be assigned two hours of homework a night (CityNews)." Is it fair to place so much pressure on children? Are these increased expectations in any way responsible for the increased level of violence in American schools? Does it have any bearing on drug abuse? Whether those things can be proved or not, there is no question that children are being raised in a more competitive environment than in the recent past.

Another disturbing trend concerns the way in which young girls are being dressed as miniature adults by their parents. Some girls aim to mimic their favourite teen idol, and are allowed to wear cosmetics and provocative clothing. This can be illustrated by the rise in popularity of junior beauty pageants. "More than 3000 beauty contests are held in America each year" according to British newspaper the Daily Telegraph (Telegraph 1). The contestants wear make-up, heels, fancy costumes, and swimsuits, and the youngest age category is for one year old babies (Telegraph 2). Does it seem right to place so much pressure on a child? Are the parents seeking fame through their children? This is hardly a case where someone's survival is at stake; it's a conscious and unnecessary choice.

It can be seen that a lot of pressure is placed upon children. In Card's novel, there was a reason for putting children under so much pressure; the future of the planet was at stake, and the government sought a solution that would present the world with trained military minds at the time when leaders would be vital for survival. It can be argued that countries that currently recruit children and train them to be soldiers believe that it is necessary, although I would have to disagree. It seems totally wrong to say that a child is too young to vote, but old enough to die. One of the most disturbing aspects of this study concerns the role of parents. How do we distinguish between a loving parent genuinely encouraging a child, and those parents that would force activities on their children in the hope that they will benefit from the child's success? It is a very difficult distinction to make because we can't trust a young child to know the difference. The example of junior beauty pageants highlights that concern perfectly. It seems obscene that a young girl should be presented in such a fashion. Although some girls would undoubtedly enjoy the experience, too many others are being exploited. Stress is becoming more and more prevalent in modern society, and I believe that our expectations of children are at the root of the problem. Childhood is an important stage in our development. A child needs to learn how to play, develop friendships, and socialize with others. Many are already denied parental attention if both parents are in full-time employment, and it seems cruel to take stunt a child's growth further by demanding too much too soon. Ender Wiggin was a genius, and the Earth was in dire need of a leader. The average child should not be asked to be another Ender Wiggin.

Works Cited

(2007 PGA Tour Career Money Leaders) - "2007 PGA Tour Career Money Leaders." PGA.com. 22 July 2007.

(About Tiger - Biography - Par. 14) - "About Tiger - Biography - Par. 14." Official Website for Tiger Woods.

(Card 5) - Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Legend 1992. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. Page 5.

(Card19-27) - Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Legend 1992. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. Pages 19-27.

(Card 187) - Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Legend 1992. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. Page 187.

(Card 219-233) - Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Legend 1992. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. Pages 219-233.

(Card 326-327) - Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Legend 1992. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. Pages 326-327.

(CityNews) - "CityNews: Are Kids Doing Too Much Homework? Par. 4." CityNews.ca. 18 June 2007.

(Human Rights Watch - Child Soldiers) - Human Rights Watch. January 2007.

(OSC Answers Questions) - Card, Orson Scott. "OSC Answers Questions." Hatrack River - The Official Web Site of Orson Scott Card. 06 April 2000.

(Telegraph 1) - "Are America's living dolls still living a nightmare? Page 1. Par.8. - Telegraph." Telegraph.co.uk. 17 November 2006.

(Telegraph 2) - "Are America's living dolls still living a nightmare? Page 3. Par. 1. - Telegraph." Telegraph.co.uk. 17 November 2006.

(The Piano Education Page - Tips - Your Child and Lessons) - "The Piano Education Page - Tips - Your Child and Lessons Par. 7." The Piano Education Page. 28 May 2007.

(Tiger Woods, Forbes) - "Tiger Woods, Forbes Top Celebrities." Forbes.com. June 2005.

[Copyright © Steve Aldersley, 2009. Reprinted with permission.]

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