Today I stumbled upon a controversial YouTube video of the 4-year-old Kanon Tipton from Mississippi that has been dubbed the ‘world’s youngest preacher’. Is this a dramatic sign that childhood is changing rapidly in recent times, or does a closer look learn that there is more than meets the eye?
Children have always and will always mimic adults around them. This is the main way through which they learn. From this perspective, it is not difficult to comprehend the case of preaching 4-year-old, which doesn’t make it less of a sad history however. If anything, this ‘pint-sized preacher’ is a sign of the times, not because of the fact that he is mimicking, but because of the fact what it is he is mimicking. As part of their learning curve, children aged 4 are only just considered capable to play with LEGO that contains slightly smaller pieces than a 3-year old is allowed to play with, so where does preaching in front of a congregation fit in? One YouTube user commented: “I’ve always said a preacher’s job could be done by a 4-year-old”. And indeed, either this display says something about the job of a preacher, or it says something about those being preached to. Either way, it is quite a telling story.
The little boy obviously cannot be held responsible for this, and it’s debatable whether his parents or the rest of the congregation can be held responsible, seeing that they would been brought up in the same sort of context and would all suffer from tunnelvision. This is however not a matter of finding out who is to blame for not taking action against this, as it is quite evident that the presence of a whistle-blower objecting to these kinds of display is highly unlikely when one is preaching to the converted. The fact that MSNBC devotes an item to this is both worrying and reassuring. It is worrying because MSNBC supplies a podium for these practices, but the fact that these practices are considered rare enough to deserve attention is reassuring. The comments on the MSNBC website and YouTube display plenty of criticism, unfortunately not always of the argumentative kind.
Influencing pre-matures, if not manipulating and indoctrinating them, takes on different guises depending on what it is that a child is exposed to. If not exposed to views of a religious nature, another major influence on children is their infusion with patriotic and nationalistic feelings. Quite harmless, perhaps, unless the patriotism and nationalism (it already sounds scarier when you add -ism) have a good dose of imperialism added to them. GI Joe is a telling example of this, showing children fighter jets, tanks, rifles, explosions and real American hero’s that fight to protect human freedom against ruthless terrorist organisations determined to rule the world. One can’t help but wonder how many American patriots this cartoon has created since it was first aired 30 years ago, and how many of those are American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It would be unfair however to only point at American religious groups and patriotic citizens exposing their youths to these grown-up matters. GI Joe has his counterpart in ‘Jihad Joe’, if you like. On 21 July the newspaper The Australian headlined “Al-Qa’ida aims to recruit children into network by distributing animated terrorist stories”. In the article it is explained how al-Qa’ida plans to roll out a cartoon aimed at recruiting children to the terrorist network. A rather upsetting tale, but this too seems to be mimicking observed behaviour: in this case of al-Qa’ida mimicking the American GI Joe cartoon. And although Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse seemingly never portrayed any religious or political thoughts, although some are convinced Walt Disney was an anti-Semite, Mickey Mouse’s Middle-Eastern counterpart ‘Hamas Mickey Mouse’ prepares the children for the ruling of the world by an Islamic leadership.
At first sight, GI Joe does not appeal to children in the same way that Jihad Joe or the middle-eastern version of Mickey Mouse do. Quite evidently, the latter mentioned ‘kids’ shows target children to play an immediate role and contribute to an ideology whilst they are still children. GI Joe essentially does the same, it encourages children to participate actively in an ideology, but it does so by way of preparation: it gives a role model that children can adopt, ensuring that they can be play an active and desirable role for the sake of the nation in later times. Because of these reasons, without a doubt many would argue that the middle-eastern examples given are by far more outrageous and manipulative.
Coming back to the 4-year-old from Mississippi however, it is indisputable that this child is playing an immediate role and is contributing to an ideology by preaching in front of the congregation. This is indeed a sign that childhood is changing rapidly in recent times, but what we are really seeing is the change in America, internalised by kids and being reflected back to us. More specifically one can see the influence of religious conservative movements like the Tea Party, that feature the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin, and of GOP presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann, who is of the opinion that the hurricane and earthquake were God’s warning to Washington, and Rick Perry whose answer to drought is to pray for rain.
We live in interesting times.