Commentary

The Loss of Childhood In the New Middle Ages

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Today, after several centuries of childhood as an estate carefully separated from adulthood, it begins to appear that we are returning to a long-ago pattern of undifferentiation--a New Middle Ages, we might call it.

There is little doubt that since the 1960's children have come to resemble adults more closely than they have done for centuries. In the clothes they wear, the language they use, and the things they know, in all aspects of their daily behavior, children today seem less childlike.

Consider the change that has overtaken children's leisure time. Centuries ago, children and adults played games together in the streets and sang songs and listened to stories together indoors. In later times, children and adults went off in divergent directions. Today, in the New Middle Ages, children read books about prostitution and see movies about adult marital problems. They listen to music with a strong sexual beat. And adults and children are again united in their most important leisure-time deployment. No longer do kids play while adults engage in more grown-up activities: Young and old alike these days spend most of their free time watching television.

Consider the complex code of manners that developed slowly over the centuries, serving to separate children's behavior sharply from adults.' There is no law decreeing that what develops slowly cannot be "undeveloped" quickly, perhaps even within a few decades. The shame and revulsion that it took civilized folks so long to acquire seem to have taken them only a single generation to loosen and in some cases slough off entirely.

A new openness prevails. Today we learn from our therapists to feel more ashamed of our repressions than of "letting it all hang out." In the New Middle Ages parents no longer have dinner alone by candlelight while children eat in the nursery, learning the proper way to use their forks and knives. Now the whole family can go out and eat with their fingers at the Kentucky Fried Chicken place down the street.

Consider the demise of sexual innocence among children. We know that the casual integration of children into adult society in the Middle Ages included few sexual prohibitions. Today's nine- and 10-year-olds watch pornographic movies on cable TV, casually discourse about oral sex, and not infrequently find themselves involved in their own parents' complicated sex lives, if not as actual observers or participants, at least as advisers, friendly commentators, and intermediaries--yet another portent of the New Middle Ages.

Consider that curious medieval convention of sending children away from home at an early age to live in other people's houses. Until as late as the eighteenth century, children as young as seven years old were sent off for training to households similar to their own. At the same time that people sent their own children away, they took other people's children into their own homes. In this way the primary ties between parents and children were broken early.

According to our current understanding of child psychology, such a deprivation and loss would serve to make children more docile and malleable, less exuberant and childlike. Had they remained at home, their natural psychological vigor, their healthy egocentrism, might have made them resist their parents' demands for work and service, just as children today frequently go to great lengths to avoid doing any work around the house.

Today too the primary ties are broken early for great numbers of children. Now, instead of sending the children away, it is the parents who go away, their exits precipitated by separation, divorce, or work requirements. The consequences for the children, however, are similar to those that accompanied the child departures of old: depression, a loss of vigor, and the end of childhood as a period of carefree dependence.

Consider, finally, the recent change in the popular iconography of childhood--that is, the way children are represented in movies and books and especially in television programs and commercials. Just as on television today we see children transformed by makeup, clothing, facial expressions, and gestures (sexually suggestive dancing, for instance) into pseudo-adults, so we may begin to understand the strange distortion of children in medieval paintings and drawings that made them look like small, dwarflike adults rather than children. The recognition of childhood as a separate and different state from adulthood did not then, and does not today, suit the inner purposes of society.

It has become fashionable to idealize the distant past, to suppose that when children were integrated into society they were somehow better off. Yet critics of the current nostalgia point out evidence of widespread sexual exploitation, neglect, and abuse of children in the medieval period. Similarly, as we make the transition from an era in which children were separated and protected from adult hardships to one in which they are once again incorporated early into a more casual and undifferentiated society, we cannot fail to observe that child abuse and child exploitation are once again on the increase and that the lives of great numbers of children have not improved but instead have worsened.

It may indeed prove that children have become increasingly useful to adults in modern society as their roles have changed from innocent, dependent, "special" creatures to secret and not-so-secret sharers of adult life's inevitable burdens. But from the viewpoint of children themselves, whether the strengths they may derive from their earlier preparation for adulthood will compensate for the loss of that carefree childhood that people once believed children deserve and require remains in doubt. But there is no doubt that childhood is harder today. As a 15-year-old girl who looks back on a past that included a parental divorce, experimentation with marijuana from 6th grade on, and a troubling experience with sex in 8th grade remarked: "All the kids I see are in a rush to grow up, and I don't blame them. I don't think childhood is a golden age at all. I wouldn't want to be a child again."

This is not to suggest that childhood in the bygone Age of Protection was a continuously blessed, happy state. Rare indeed was the child who did not experience jealousy or terror or shame or anger or any of the other myriad forms of human misery at some time during the childhood years. In his book Growing Up, for example, journalist Russell Baker describes his childhood during the Depression years, darkened by poverty, marital discord, illness, and death. And yet he is able to write: "The occasional outbursts of passion that flickered across my childhood were like summer storms. The sky clouded suddenly, thunder rumbled, lightening flashed and I trembled a few moments, then just as swiftly the sky turned blue again and I was basking contentedly again in the peace of innocence."

It is not by chance that when Mr. Baker paints a scene to describe the overriding mood of his childhood days he peoples it with adults sitting on a porch, rocking and pronouncing beliefs such as "Children should be seen and not heard," interrupting their gossip with reminders that "Little pitchers have big ears." For it was not the complete absence of unhappiness in those early years that allowed him to look back on his childhood as an island of peace and innocence. It was the secure certainty that he was a child and that adults were adults, and that in spite of the wretchedness he might glimpse in their world he could still remain in his different state, untouched by it. This is the essence of adult protectiveness: transmitting to children the sense that they are separate and special and under the adults' careful supervision. This understanding allowed children of the past, even those growing up a mere 10 or 15 years ago, to enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood--of play, imagination, curiosity, and pursuit of adventure--in the most adverse circumstances.

Can the boundaries between adulthood and childhood be once again restored? Can parents today, who sense uneasily that something is missing, try to re-create the different sort of childhood that they themselves once enjoyed? In an Age of Preparation, can individual parents hope to buck the tide and try to bring up their children protectively?

The social processes that helped bring about children's new integration into adult life--changes in family stability, most notably, together with women's liberation and the proliferation of television as a dominant part of children's lives--cannot be reversed. We will never return to the old-style family with the bread-earning father and the childlike, stay-at-home mother minding the house and kids.

Nor would we desire such a step backward. The liberation movement has brought a new maturity and independence to women, forcing them, sometimes against their deepest instincts, to seek to fulfill a greater potential than they had understood in the past. The hope of a simple turning of the tide is an unrealistic and indeed a retrogressive one. Nevertheless, while social change cannot be reversed, perhaps it can be modified and made to work better for families.

Perhaps an understanding of the irreversible consequences of family breakdown for children may cause men and women to readjust some of their original goals for marriage. If their objectives are primarily self-fulfillment, sexual excitement, a deeply gratifying adult relationship, then it might be advisable for them to think twice about embarking on a family in the first place. The thought of a family mainly as a source of fulfillment and gratification for the marriage partners does not bode well for children's future.

Parents need to understand that the successful raising of a family requires a greater focus on the well-being of the children and that they must sacrifice some of their own ambitions, desires, and strivings for personal happiness if the children are to grow up well. It may be the future holds the possibility of a variety of partnerships for men and women, only some of which will be seen as conducive to the raising of children.

Perhaps an understanding that early childhood is not the only important stage of childhood, that the middle years are equally important, may lead parents to compromise their career and social ambitions and devote more time and attention, more care and supervision, to their post-toddler children, capable and unchildlike though they may seem. As child-development specialist Annie Herman proposes, the early childhood years may not necessarily be the most crucial ones, in spite of the orthodox view that the personality is formed during those years. "There is a certain resilience in early childhood," she explains, "but this resilience slowly disappears. When you are resilient you bounce back. Thus young children can recover from physical and mental trauma quickly and can put things aside and turn to other things. But as they grow older their resilience is diminished. At this point the child becomes far more vulnerable to outside experience. Now the child can suffer permanent damage."

Perhaps an understanding of the importance of play in children's lives, not only to the child directly as a source of a particular kind of satisfaction but as an activity that helps define the child as a childlike creature, thus promoting more protective treatment by adults, will provoke parents to take a stronger stand in controlling their children's television viewing, television being the single great replacement of play among today's children.

Perhaps an understanding that children and adults are not equal, and that children do not prosper when treated as equal, will encourage parents to take a more authoritative--authoritative, not authoritarian--position in the family.

Perhaps the recognition that a highly complicated civilization cannot afford to shorten the period of nurture and protection of its immature members will restore a real childhood to the children of coming generations.

Vol. 02, Issue 40, Page 24, 21

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