Oct 15, 2023
“Parents dote on their royal highnesses…and rarely miss an opportunity to damage them in the process.”
I’m sure Art Linkletter (d. 2010) was a wonderful person. Actually, I’m not sure, but shouldn’t we give people the benefit of the doubt? That said, his iconic TV Show, Kids Say the Darndest Things (‘KSDT’), is emblematic of the criminal institution euphemistically known as ‘childhood’.
KSDT assembled a panel of pre-school children; the host then posed questions designed to elicit ‘cute’ responses. If some of these responses were also embarrassing, so much the better! And, of course, those questions were designed to provoke loud laughter from the studio audience.
Where was PETA when we needed them? (Even circus animals are treated better than Linkletter’s kids.)
There are two things you can say about very young children: They know fewer facts about the world than you do, but they think about that world more frequently and more deeply. Being an adult is thinking you have all the answers when you don’t. Being a child is thinking you don’t have any answers when you do! Children instinctively know things about the world that almost every adult has forgotten; they just don’t know they know.
My high school had a motto: mortui vivos docent (“the dead teach the living”). Of course, we interpreted ‘the dead’ as a derisive reference to our still very much alive teachers, not to Homer and Plato as originally intended. But we, too, knew more than we realized!
Our motto should have read, “adults teach children.” That could be the motto of every K – 12 school in America. Curious children ask adults to teach them; for the most part, they are told lies. Sometimes the lies are intentional, but most often they are just occasions of well-meaning adults passing on heartfelt but imaginary ‘facts’ about the world.
I helped raise 4 children and 10 grandchildren, every one of whom dazzled me with feats of intellectual prowess:
A 5-year-old explained the difference between immortality and eternity as well as Augustine. A 6-year-old presented a convincing ontological argument for the real existence of Santa Claus; lie quiet, Anselm. An 8-year-old showed me a model of Trinity, far more cogent than St. Patrick’s famous clover.
A 9-year-old pointed out a heresy embedded in a popular Christmas hymn. A 10-year-old came up with a novel and elegant algorithm for calculating the area of a square. An 11-year-old wrote a play. I could go on… and on! If any of my adult friends had done any of these things, they would have immediately sent their work off for peer review…or for publication. Children do these things routinely while playing with Legos and watching Phineas and Ferb.
An adult’s world is densely forested with facts. Well-worn paths (memes) facilitate travel. Few adults ever wander off these professionally maintained trails; the forest is thought to be impenetrable…and very, very dangerous. “Here there be monsters!”
To continue the metaphor, a child’s world would then be a garden of wildflowers: new shoots rising every night out of rich, moist soil; new buds forming daily on the tips of old stocks. There are no pathways here! In fact, the entire garden is virgin; no one has ever set foot in it before… except perhaps the ‘gardener’ from the Book of Genesis. You are free to wander, and wonder, to your heart’s content (just don’t eat the fruit).
It’s no surprise then that kids and adults can’t communicate. They live in the same, but totally different, worlds. Imagine you sitting down for a chinwag with a stoned stone-ager from c. 50,000 BCE. Sorry, that’s what it’s like for a child to talk with you.
Adult or child, we each have our patch, and apparently that patch ages as we do. You grow, your garden fills in. By the time you’re an adult, your world is enshrouded by the forest canopy.
Today, adults are discouraged from beating children in their charge; if only they were similarly discouraged from humiliating, ridiculing, belittling, and mocking those same children! Older children and adults tease each other from time to time; for the most part, it’s water off a duck’s back. But young children don’t have enough experience to know what’s real and what’s not. If someone says, “you’re stupid,” then that child is stupid, or silly, or naughty, or ‘the bane of my existence’.
Almost every adult I know says that their children are their jewels, the loves of their lives, but you’d never know it. In my day, for better or worse, children were largely ignored. For the most part, we only connected with our fathers when we were being disciplined. Today, parents dote on their royal highnesses…and rarely miss an opportunity to damage them in the process.
It’s a wonder anyone escapes childhood in one piece; many don’t! But it would be too easy to blame the adults. Grown-ups are people too! They have their own lives and their own needs. They are damaged products of their own inadequate upbringings. Plus, supporting a child today, physically and financially, is more than a full-time job. Few adults have any energy left to ‘feed Sally’s spirit’.
It has often been said that youth is wasted on the young. That’s like saying that the Titanic was a big boat; it’s just ‘the tip of the iceberg’. (Too soon?) Instead, we are dealing here with a total generational mismatch. Kids are tiny and defenseless and do not always know the ways of the world. Adults are huge and ferocious and know the precise location of every lever.
Yet we place our children under the supervision and control of parents, grands, teachers, cops, and social workers. Who says child sacrifice is a thing of the past?
Did I mention that I raised 4 children? “I did the best I could,” which means, according to my standards, “I did an absolutely horrible job.” The ‘best I could’ wasn’t even close to ‘good enough’…not even close! Some of my children have forgiven me, “You did as good as could have been expected under the circumstances,” whatever they were; others have not. (I agree with the ‘have-nots’ BTW.) And just for the record, no, I didn’t beat them!
Children are not just ‘shorties’; they are not miniature adults. Children are an entirely different phenomenon from parents. A few decades ago (I date myself), it was popular to say that men and women were from ‘different planets’ (e.g., Mars and Venus). Today, we can say something similar about children and adults.
What makes one planet different from another? Time, for one thing. A year on Neptune lasts 60,000 Earth days. It’s a long wait from one Christmas to the next. On the other hand, a day on Jupiter or Saturn is only about half as long as a day on Earth. As soon as your head hits the pillow, it’s time to wake up again. It would be foolish not to realize that such massive differences in time measurement affect the way sentient beings live and how they understand their worlds.
Children and adults experience time differently. By my calculations, a 75-year-old’s week is subjectively equivalent to a 5-year-old’s day. Failure to understand this simple fact leads to insurmountable conflict.
But time measurement is only one difference. I’m sorry to say it, but children are much, much smarter than you…or me. That’s why they’re so much fun to be with…for short bursts of time. Children never shut down. After about 12 hours, their bodies just give out. You on the other hand…
Now, if you’re waiting for me to end this article with “How to” fix these problems, you’re going to be disappointed. These problems are evolutionary and anthropological, not political. About the best we can hope for at this point is an awareness of the cultural disconnect and a sensitivity to its consequences.
As in many aspects of life, whether we are theists or atheists, we can learn from Scripture: “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt. 18:3)
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.