OUTSIDE MY LOCAL shopping centre I watched two young men, in the twilight of their secondary school years, walk past. One had a skateboard under his arm; the other was flying a small soft toy through the air. "Man, Super Grover is cool," said Grover's pilot to the other.
There was no obvious shame in parading around with a toy meant for pre-school children. In fact, Grover has "street cred". For those young adults reluctant to grow up, Grover, Elmo and a host of children's TV characters provide a tangible connection to childhood. They brand themselves with character T-shirts in larger-sized kindergarten fashions. At ecstasy-fuelled parties they dance, free of responsibility, sucking on dummies in a doof-doof utopian return-to-the-womb.
Once upon a time, childhood was a state of mind: you were only as old as you felt. Today, childhood is a lifestyle choice. Obsessing over childhood is not just for newly post-adolescent teens. In a world weighed down by responsibility, idolising the perceived lack of responsibility of childhood is an enjoyably escapist pastime.
The "midlife crisis" is bracket-creeping into younger adulthood and, in response, we seek perfection in our warped concept of childhood: a time of innocence, free from responsibility and uncorrupted by the ravages of knowledge and time.
CHILDHOOD ISN'T THE utopian start to life we like to pretend it is. Our children are suffering under the weight of societal idolatry.
Parental desires automatically seek to provide the mythical "perfect childhood" for their kids. Frank Furedi documents this obsession in his book, Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane, 2001).He explains there is little that parents won't do to ensure their children have every opportunity in life. Consequently, children's lives have become full of supervised activity. Current evidence indicates that children play outside less, are supervised more and provided with more stimulation than ever before. And because children are exposed to our competitive culture at a very early age, childhood has become as much about performance (if not more so) as adulthood is.
Parents, Furedi notes, are in a state of hyper-anxiety as the pressures from childhood "experts" mount. Study after study claim the formative years are crucial to a successful adulthood. Today's childhood is saturated with gymbaroo, early music classes and birthday-party extravaganzas – and none of it comes cheap. Our excessive adoration of childhood starts at the hip pocket.
"Spoiled" doesn't begin to describe the material wealth showered upon increasing numbers of only children. Parents spend thousands of dollars on excessive children's parties with full catering and entertainment.. Little thought is given to spending a few extra grand for a jumping castle, petting zoo and balloon-modelling clown. And that's without considering the massive amount spent on nursery renovations, private-school fees, musical tuition and designer clothes.
It's no surprise that in our consumption-based society, parents spend up big to cater to their children's needs. Pressure to be "good" parents is further exacerbated by parenting literature that, while claiming to support parents, instead undermines their confidence and understanding of children's resilience. Furedi notes that childhood professionals "intensify parental anxiety and encourage excessive interference in children's lives".
Our desire to idolise childhood is so entrenched we have forgotten that the role of parents and communities is to prepare children for adulthood and support them through the early stages of life. Our culture is so estranged from this idea that we don't really want our children to grow up – and increasingly, they aren't growing up. Children and adults alike are victims of this "Peter Pan" obsession: an obsession that leads us to misinterpret and misrepresent the reality of our children's world.
IT HASN'T ALWAYS been like this. Only 50 years ago, today's Grover-wielding teenagers would probably have been working their way towards trades. More than 100 years ago, they'd have been tilling soil on their families' farms or working in factories. Children have not always been treated the way we treat them today.
In 1960, French historian Philippe Ariès suggested that childhood didn't exist. In his book, Centuries of Childhood (Vintage, 1962), he argued childhood was something modern societies had created. He referred to medieval society, citing examples to prove children had entered the world of adults as soon as they were weaned.
The history of childhood has been a battleground ever since, producing some fine examples of academic warfare between those on Ariès's side and those asserting that childhood is – and has always been – a time of innocence, imagination and no responsibility. As always, the truth exists on many levels, somewhere in between.
Childhood is obviously real. Even those children working in factories or living on the edge of starvation escape their situations through imagination. Children across the world cling to the narratives and stories that have been the conduits for human learning since before people drew their stories on the walls of caves. But our modern world's increasing affluence and sophistication have expanded the time frame of childhood. A greater number of age hierarchies have developed. Once, there were children who became adults who in turn became elders. We now have, for example, the "early years", childhood, tweenagers, adolescence, the teenage years, young adults, generation Y, generation X, baby boomers, older adults, retirees, grandparents and the frail aged.
And with each generation, childhood and youth are expanding. Thirty years ago, turning eighteen or 21 introduced you to the adult world. While those landmark ages are still celebrated, their meaning has diminished. Today, many youth organisations put their upper age limit at 25 and a growing number close their books at 30 years of age. These structural changes have been informed by broader demographic changes as society evolves to provide greater educational opportunities. Greater numbers of secondary school students go on to university, enter the workforce later and have children later – or not at all. As the average age of Australian first-time parents increases (30.2 years for women, 33.5 for men) and the birthrate falls, we are left with an extended "youth" and fewer children. Children have become valued due to their scarcity.
Affluent societies watch the birthrate falling without too much alarm. Pragmatists point to longevity and see the expansion of some age groupings as a natural progression of society that expects to see human life extend beyond 80. But as the birthrate decreases, our interest and obsession with childhood increase. Our desire for youth and our need to protect it continue to grow. Ironically, while we strive to preserve the "innocence" of childhood in the 21st century, children are capable of understanding far more than society is willing to acknowledge. They are emotional and intelligent human beings, who need support and respect rather than just a good time. They need to experience the depth and breadth of human emotions, rather than being encouraged to always be happy. Children need to know that sadness and dissatisfaction are a part of life.
Children learn from what adults do and from how the world around them works. And the reality is they understand that while adults may feel superior, they still have their youth – and therefore they have one up on a society that idolises childhood.
The drive to preserve childhood "innocence" seems foolish when our children watch war and tragedy on the TV news, are sold products that introduce them to adult-like consumer identities and are expected to understand sophisticated concepts like fear and trust to ensure their safety in a world of predators.
A culture of idolising not only gives children the wrong messages, it leads to a society that treats children in the wrong way. The experts may overstate the fact, but childhood will remain a key developmental stage of every human life. It is important that we respect that, and instead of catering to our children's every want and desire, we provide them with experiences that will help them to grow and develop.
HISTORICALLY, CHILDREN HAVE not been economic liabilities. They have been earners and productive members of society. While child-labour practices are certainly abhorrent, in our rejection of the idea of child labour, many children now don't even have to lift a finger. In the United States last year, a couple of parents went on strike because their adolescent children wouldn't help around the house. This is a product of idolising children. Instead of instilling an ethic of responsibility and importance in contributing to family and community, these parents catered to their children's every need. It is not surprising that trouble ensued when the parents finally told their 16-year-old: "Right, time you did the dishes."
The baby-boomer generation is the most affluent generation of any in history – and baby boomers continue to financially support their adult children. In doing so, a whole generation is growing up in a false economy where working and saving for something isn't usual. Many young Australian adults have their first cars bought for them and are equipped with a myriad of electrical goods received for birthdays, Christmases or for getting good exam results. Some parents match their children's overseas travel funds dollar for dollar, and even financially support their children to buy their first homes. The process of growing up and developing social, emotional and economic independence from parents has diminished. Is this what our society really wants?
Children have very little control over the decisions made about their lives. John Marsden's recent Griffith REVIEW essay, "On feeling superior" (People Like Us, Winter, 2005) highlights the Australian inclination to comedy make fun of characters who are naïve and stupid – like Dad and Dave, or Kath and Kim. He explains: "It's very similar to the way we regard our children, and helps explain why we like children so much: we feel superior to them."
The problem is we won't leave childhood alone. We desperately desire a connection to it. But simultaneously, we want to assert our dominance over it, and try to control it.
The challenge of our society is to give children greater respect and responsibility to enable them to become capable and sophisticated adults. They need an adult society that imparts wisdom and knowledge – not one that desperately tries to re-create itself in the image of a child. Capable and sophisticated adults will be comfortable leaving their childhood behind and will treat their own children with respect. They will see childhood as a time of learning and development, rather than a time of freedom and innocence. And we may start to see a change in the next few generations of young adults.
If we are to support our children to navigate their childhood, we ourselves must let it go. Parents must properly navigate the perpetual desire to keep our children happy and provide them with their every want. Adults in our culture must stop waiting until their thirties to grow up and realise that having children isn't a stage in life but part of the continuum. We must consciously react against the propaganda selling childhood as some sort of responsibility-free utopia. And our children must be allowed to develop without the pressure and stress of living up to an ideal that doesn't exist.
Children need to be treated as contributing members of a family and society. They need to be given praise where it is due and discipline when necessary. Managing those blurry edges is the challenge of parenthood but children must be allowed to push the boundaries. Despite the best efforts of parenting and childhood "experts", the many and varied tomes ostensibly imparting the secrets of raising children are selling snake oil.
There is no secret, no answer to how we should treat and support children. It is a different adventure for every one of us. But with a bit of respect and commonsense, childhood might actually move a little bit closer to our perception of it.