Children, then, are not freer than adults. They are burdened by a wish fantasy in direct proportion to the restraints of their narrow lives; with an unpleasant sense of their own physical inadequacy and ridiculousness; with constant shame about their dependence, economic and otherwise (“Mother, may I?”); and humiliation concerning their natural ignorance of practical affairs. Children are repressed at every waking minute. Childhood is hell. The result is the insecure, and therefore aggressive/defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child.
—Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, Chapter 4, “Down with Childhood”
I tutor high-schoolers for a living, so I’ve devoted a lot of thought over the last few years to the life of the typical American fifteen-year-old. Two strange features of this life which are rarely noticed just because they are so universal:
Segregation. Literally everyone with whom an ordinary fifteen-year-old in 2013 interacts socially was born between 1996 and 1998. My students are ten years younger than me and might easily go months without having a conversation with anyone my age. By the same token, they simply do not know any twelve-year-olds, never mind toddlers. With the exception of parents, teachers and siblings, the 15-year-old’s world consists entirely of other 15-year-olds. We as a society have apparently decided that it’s extremely important to isolate our children, not only from adults, but even from other children just a year or two older or younger than themselves.
What are the consequences of this isolation? The most obvious one, the only one that makes the news, is the Lord of the Flies quality of childhood that we all lived through and have all done our best to forget: the social life of a bunch of bored 13-year-olds carefully cordoned off from the rest of society is extraordinarily vicious, and the consequences (quite commonly, intense misery, constant fear and depression; not infrequently anorexia, self-harm, suicide) are dire. When a child’s suicide makes the news we’ll say sometimes—if only she could have known that the people bullying her were stupid children, that someday it would all seem small; if only she could have found some perspective. This is the motivation behind the “It Gets Better” campaign: remember, in a few years you’ll be free of this hell and it will fade into the realm of anecdote and occasional nightmare. But we’ve designed childhood in a way that precisely denies children any such perspective: for them, the world of 13-year-olds is the world, period. Adulthood is a vague rumor, something they learn about through PSAs and TV shows. In the meantime they’ll have to endure a social nightmare that no adult could sustain without risking his sanity. The mere presence of a few 16- or 18- or 22-year-olds, not as occasional authority figures but as purveyors of sane perspectives on the social world of middle school, would instantly dissuade bullying and render its consequences manageable; but their presence is forbidden.
Bullying, however, is no more than an indicator of the larger effects of rigorous age segregation—effects so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to take their measure. Put simply, in the years when a child is forming his impressions of the world he is cut off from the world. Her sole knowledge of the reality for which she is preparing will be routed through the (biased, partial, mendacious) words of her parents; her understanding of what adulthood means, what love is, how work works, will come through them, to the extent that it arrives at all. School curriculum represents a tiny fraction of what a person learns before she turns 18; in these years she learns how to be a person. Given that she’s specifically and elaborately denied the resources with which to do this, that her whole life is organized in such a way as to offer a breathtakingly narrow view of the world, it’s amazing that she manages.
Evaluation. A fifteen-year-old spends the majority of her energy and the best of her waking hours being evaluated. For example, she has written hundreds of pages of prose over the course of her life, but has very likely never written anything with the intention of conveying ideas or information; on the contrary, her sole audience, her English teacher, has always been supposed (rightly or wrongly) already to know the things she has been required to tell him in writing. She writes not to communicate but so that someone can render a judgment on whether she would in principle be able to communicate. Once the judgment is made, the essay itself will be thrown away; the purpose of the essay is its grade. Likewise, she reads in order to answer questions on what she has read—uninteresting questions whose sole purpose is to determine whether and to what extent she can read. To be evaluated in this way once or twice might well serve a purpose, for example in demonstrating her qualifications for a job which requires that she communicate in writing. But such evaluation doesn’t take place once or twice; on the contrary, it’s the primary occupation for virtually everyone in our society for more than a decade.
Given the enormous quantity of time and resources devoted to this evaluation-machine, by the evaluated themselves and by society at large, one might expect that the consequences of such evaluations would be weighty indeed. Not so! As a matter of fact, both the student who receives an A on his essay in seventh grade and the one who receives an F will in all likelihood find themselves a year later sitting in the same classroom writing another essay. To be sure, in the very long term the sum of several thousand evaluations will add up to a college application, for the 33% of students in the US who attend college—for the other two thirds grades are literally meaningless, and even for these one wonders whether more than a decade of careful grading is really necessary. I recall that my ninth-grade English teacher, handing the first papers of the year back, informed us that in his experience, with few exceptions, the grades we received on our first papers were the grades we would receive at the end of the year; a harsh prediction for those of us who got C’s and D’s, no doubt, but who doubts that every teacher would say the same? Year after year, school produces primarily the knowledge that the good students are good students, the bad ones bad.
These judgments are to all appearances ends in themselves. School functions to isolate students, as thoroughly as possible, from the teleological and functional relations which organize society as a whole. In the real world one writes to communicate, whether for money or for pleasure; in school one writes to be evaluated on one’s writing. This isolation from teleological function is equally an isolation from other people. In the real world one’s work serves a function which connects one to a broader community; it matters to someone whether one’s work is performed adequately or inadequately. In school one works to receive information about oneself. In the real world seeking out information from others on a subject one needs to know is a virtue; in school under many circumstances it’s considered cheating, since it disrupts the arbitrary but carefully controlled conditions under which one can be informed about one’s worth.
* * *
The life of the child is characterized by isolation from the rest of society to an extraordinary degree: social isolation in the form of extremely fine-grained age segregation, functional isolation through mandatory participation in an evaluative/pedagogical institution. This isolation is doubly justified, as preparation and as protection. Children are not yet quite human beings, are not ready for exposure to the world as it is; they exist in a time (a very long time) of preparation. Just because they are not ready, children must be protected—from adults, certainly, and also from whatever it is they would do if left to their own devices.
School is the organizing institution of modern childhood, but it is not my purpose here to pursue a polemic against school. Don’t get me wrong: School is awful, and an attack on the entire institutional apparatus of modern education would be richly worth pursuing. But my concern is less with the institution than with the institutionalized: school exists and must exist insofar as children exist to attend it. What I’m attacking here is childhood itself.
In his renowned work Centuries of Childhood, Phillipe Aries traces the consolidation of a concept of the modern Western concept of childhood in the 17th and 18th centuries. The consolidation is at once conceptual and institutional. Conceptually, a new phase of life emerges as an object of fascination and concern. Youth is no longer a general category incorporating all human beings under twenty, more or less physically formed, more or less able to bear children, etc.; “childhood” emerges as a specific concept of the pre-pubescent. The new child is innocent in many senses—morally unblemished, sexually pure, practically naïve; he or she is ideally happy and yet incredibly vulnerable, in need of cherishing and elaborate protocols of care and concern. Childhood as subject of art and object of nostalgia, childhood as a phase on whose management one can write pedagogical treatises, childhood as the phase of life in which one’s character is formed and becomes one’s fate, are concepts of quite recent historical vintage. Adolescence, of course, is even younger, an invention of the twentieth century.
Institutionally, the advent of childhood meant the rigorous and ever-increasing isolation of children from contact with adults. The invention of childhood corresponds to the emergence of specifically child-style clothes, of games which only children play, of toys designed specifically for children. School in its modern form arose, removing children from the age-integrated family for days or months at a time, often justified specifically as a way to protect innocent children from the corrupting influence of adults and mold their unblemished character into moral fiber. These developments, like many social innovations, began as the preserve of the wealthy before growing to incorporate all levels of society; it was only in the twentieth century that the institutional isolation of children penetrated the lower classes. (To read a Dickens novel is to witness a society facing up to the contradiction between a profoundly sentimentalized and isolated bourgeois childhood and the ubiquitous fact of child labor.)
The category of childhood, then, is certainly not naturally given—in its fully developed modern form it is to be dated to the 18th century. And yet its newness, its contingency and oddness, is quite difficult to bring into sharp relief, for the simple reason that childhood organizes our everyday lives to an extraordinary degree. We spend our first 18 years directly in its grip, and most of us will spend much of our adulthood oriented by it in a different way, as parents tasked with providing someone else with a childhood.
* * *
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex is devoted largely to a quick, dirty and viciously effective takedown of the ideology of family. Some of her attacks have lost a bit of force in the intervening decades: the denunciation of romantic love is less pungent now than it must have been at the time, since we all know that that idol is hollow, even if we continue to worship it faute de mieux. One element of her assault, however, retains all its disturbing freshness: “Down with Childhood,” she says. And so she must, of course, if she wants to destroy the family. Nuclear families produce childhoods the way sex produces children: that’s what they’re for. Today, as in n 1970, people get married (no matter how great their trepidation) and stay married (no matter how deep their misery) for the sake of their children’s childhood: to provide the trappings (stability, safety, role models of the appropriate genders, a big house in the suburbs with a swingset in the back yard, the money required to support decades of dependence, the comfort that comes from recognizing oneself in a hegemonic and therefore telegenic social form) considered necessary to a happy childhood.
Firestone’s position on childhood is, briefly, that it’s pretty much made up. The notion that little humans require full-time attention and protection through age 12 and can’t be trusted with any serious responsibility until they’re 18 is ridiculous. She takes her inspiration from the aforementioned Centuries of Childhood. But she reads Aries’ book with the eyes of a revolutionary: if children were once entrusted with a freedom which is now denied them, this isn’t a cultural development to ponder but a form of oppression to be overthrown. Children ought to be granted all the freedom of which they are capable.
For Firestone, childhood is among other things an alibi of patriarchy: the more childish children are, the more they are in need of constant care and protection, the more time and dedication will be involved in motherhood. Childhood is a stratagem in the war of the sexes: its temporal extension and cultural intensification is what permits and requires women to see motherhood as their destiny. Only through the grotesque exaggeration of children’s helpless neediness can motherhood become the work of a lifetime. Childhood functions to draft women into semi-permanent reproductive service and exclude them from the broader realm of productive labor. Thus the feminist revolution requires the socialization of childrearing and the evaporation of childhood: children ought to be integrated as thoroughly as possible into society at large and given the rights and resources to care for themselves rather than made into a dependent class whose care and feeding is a full-time job.
The opposing view—that whatever the cultural history of the issue, it is simply a biological fact that children require protection and cannot be entrusted with self-determination, that if this was not recognized in previous eras it is evidence of our moral superiority that we recognize it now—sounds all too familiar to a feminist like Firestone. The idea that children (women) are too innocent, too weak and too irresponsible to be exposed to the cruel world, that they must be denied control over their own lives for their own protection, is in part a gross exaggeration of natural facts (very young children do indeed need care), in part a simple falsehood (children are far more capable than we give them credit for). But most of all it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: placing children (or women) in a position of irresponsible dependence prevents them from developing their capacity for responsibility and freedom. It’s an old trick: deny a person all power and responsibility, then use his or her failure to learn to exercise power responsibly as a justification for this denial. Worst of all, in the name of protecting children from what threatens them, the system delivers them defenseless into the hands of their protectors—unsurprisingly, the very people who are most likely to take advantage of them. Women traditionally and children to this day are stripped not only of the legal and economic capacity to defend themselves from abuse but even from the social and conceptual resources to recognize it as such.
* * *
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.     They may not mean to, but they do.They fill you with the faults they had     And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn     By fools in old-style hats and coats,Who half the time were soppy-stern     And half at one another’s throats.             —Philip LarkinMan hands on misery to man.     It deepens like a coastal shelf.Get out as early as you can,     And don’t have any kids yourself.
If childhood is a myth, it’s not children who believe it. They know very well that neither our praise nor our slander have much to do with being ten: they are not happy, carefree, morally pure, nor are they irresponsible, foolish, helpless. Or at least—no more so than the rest of us. It takes a good deal of willful blindness to believe such things, along with the care taken to ensure that we never really speak to children, that they’re safely sequestered in childhood so that we can go on believing what we like.
Firestone observes that every ex-child encounters a contradiction: childhood is supposed to be a happy time, and yet most of us can remember well enough to know that our own was not. Hence every adult is on a mission to deliver to their children the joyous innocence that their own parents denied them. A task doomed to failure, of course, alas: everyone fucks their children up.
Partly the failure of any particular childhood to really be a childhood reflects the simple impossibility of the child: a 7-year-old is already too human to be protected from much of anything. You can’t keep her safe from every gust of life and innocent of the wide world’s winds for the very same reason you can’t keep an adult safe: she’s already apart and alone and intensely alive, she already understands too well to be shielded. No amount of coddling will keep her as stupid as we think a child ought to be, to think the world is safe and warm when it’s really simply not.
But for just this reason, “childhood” is a particularly difficult place to grow up. The child cannot be protected, and yet he finds himself isolated in that strange autistic folie a trois, the nuclear family: his parents are his world. He is dependent on them not only for food and shelter but for interpretations and words: the way they understand him is the beginning of the way he understands himself. Under such circumstances, pity the parents—because who is prepared to be the fount of all knowledge and value? Who wouldn’t fuck it up, fuck the child up? We all know that the ideal parent feels disinterested, “unconditional” love: “We just want you to be happy.” But that kind of love just doesn’t exist, not for anyone. The parent always brings her own desires, traumas and neuroses to the situation; she’s no more angelic than the child is. The myth of angelic parental love is a requirement of the institution of childhood: if we did not believe it we would be afraid entrust one human being with total responsibility for the physical and spiritual well-being of another. And we should be afraid.
So many adults, in therapy and out of it, devote a distressingly large amount of thought to the question of whether they should blame their parents for who they’ve become, or instead forgive them. It’s sad, really, this refighting of long-dead petty battles, this sense of having been irreparably damaged by someone who’d been damaged himself in turn. One might have thought that the bright spot in childhood is that it eventually ends. But that’s almost backward: the myth of childhood doesn’t teach children what they are, since they don’t believe it. It teaches adults what they once were. Childhood isn’t anyone’s present, it’s just all of our pasts. It teaches us, for the most part, to be damaged and disappointed—in ourselves who used to be happy or should have been, in our parents who should have done better but didn’t or couldn’t. Oh well.
I write from the long strange road between two families—the one I was born in and the one I’ll maybe found. Some of my companions here, more than in generations past, will get sick of the whole blasted enterprise—will follow Larkin’s advice and not have kids themselves. But most of us will have our crack at it, of course, and it’s hard not to be charmed by that. Hope springs eternal, we’re not yet sick of life. I hope that instead of using our children to show up our parents for being bad parents, a tack so many have tried before us with so little success, we’ll try to remember that we were never children—that there’s no such thing.