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America is schizophrenic when it comes to dealing with children

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It’s surely coincidental that within days of the Food and Drug Administration banning flavored cigarettes on the grounds that they are dangerously attractive to children, Disney Corp. should begin offering refunds to parents disgruntled that “Baby Einstein” videos will not, in fact, make their infants smarter.

Well, of course it’s a coincidence because the two events have almost nothing in common. Nothing, that is, apart from the way each speaks to opposing aspects of America’s schizophrenia when it comes to dealing with the vulnerabilities of children.

On the one hand, our society insists that children must be hyperprotected at all times. Six-year-olds are threatened with reform school for bringing pocketknives to class. It’s an act of criminal foolhardiness for a father to lock a child in a parked car, even with the windows cracked, while he runs into the grocery store.

This week, I watched customers in a CVS cluck disapprovingly as a European mother cluelessly left her baby a dozen feet away from where she was standing by the cashier. Where did she think she was, Denmark? Doesn’t she know it’s dangerous to leave a baby like that?

On the other hand, American culture is remarkably relaxed about putting children before the flash-and-blare of mass media. Hundreds of thousands of parents think nothing of taking small children to whatever new film is coming out, regardless of whether the images will be frightening, subversive or simply incomprehensible to young minds.

Regular experience of video and television starts shortly after birth and only gets more intense as children progress to such sophisticated phases as, say, toddlerhood. American children ages 2 to 5, according to a study released this week by the Nielsen Co., now watch more than 32 hours of television every week.

It’s an odd state of affairs. We require that the outer selves of children be bubble-wrapped and car-seated. Yet, we leave their vulnerable inner selves exposed, as it were, on the side of a Hollywood hill, to be shown rapid-cut images chosen for them by strangers.

Now, in protective mode, the revivified Barack Obama-era FDA has banned cigarettes enhanced with exotic flavors “from licorice to grape,” as The Wall Street Journal wryly said.

The idea is to prevent American children from stepping through a fragrant gateway to the presumed gateway drug: nicotine. If adults are inconvenienced by the ban, well, that’s just too bad.

Yet for children, the gateway to media is wider than ever. Adults bridle angrily at any suggestion that their babies would be better off without time in front of a screen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be kept away from all screens, but specialized products salve the consciences of those adults who agree, with Disney, that the idea of keeping under-two’s away from the box does not “reflect the reality of today’s parents, families and households.” That would seem uncontroversial, given the recent Nielson findings, if unspeakably sad.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.