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Childhood Lost

David Cowles

Mar 19, 2024

“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but children are from the planet Mercury.”

Everybody ‘loves’ children, well almost everybody. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of raising a baby to adulthood. Then they spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire others to raise that baby for them: baby sitters, nannies, au pairs, governesses, teachers, camp counselors, scout leaders, coaches, etc.

I was loved as a child, but I was bundled off to camp (day, then overnight) for a full 8 weeks every summer for 11 long and lonely years (age 3 through 13). At the time, I was told that it was ‘for my own good’ but later my parents admitted that it was really ‘for their own sanity’. 

Do you ever watch YouTube videos of competent adults interacting with children? Some of them are awesome! But have you noticed that they all have one thing in common? They never run more than 20 minutes! Because that’s the maximum amount of time that an empathetic and motivated adult can interact happily and constructively with a child. How come?

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but children are from the planet Mercury. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “They’re hot!” Mars and Venus have ‘years’ roughly similar to Earth’s; Mercury’s ‘year’ lasts only 88 days! Yup, children are from Mercury…definitely.

Objectively, children ‘move and grow’ (not just physically) 4 times faster than we do (365/88 > 4), but that means subjective time flows 4 times more slowly for them than it does for us. What we call ‘an 8 hour day’ feels like 32 hours to a child. Alternatively, a child works a full 8 hour shift just between the hours of 9 and 11 in the morning. No wonder child labor is so profitable: 4x the productivity, ½ the cost (wage)!

Suppose someday we do find intelligent life elsewhere in our Universe; now imagine that life operates with a sense of time that is ‘distorted’ (vs. ours) by 400%. Can you envision any problems? Well, we don’t have to wait for SETI to find out; it’s already happened. Every day, flocks of storks bring babies from Mercury and deliver them to Terrestrial parents to ‘raise’. 

My maternal grandmother told the story of an elementary school teacher who said to her, “Marguerite, I know you mean well…but you don’t do well!” For the most part, Earth parents do ‘mean well’…at least they mean to mean well…but almost all of us fail to ‘do well’. 

John Lennon captured the gist of the problem on his Working Class Hero album: “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small, by giving you no time instead of it all.” My parents gave me plenty of time…sometimes more than I would have liked. But 100% of my parents’ time only accounted for 25% of my time. That left plenty of opportunity for anxiety, depression, sadness, boredom and, of course, my favorite, mischief.

Children are born virtually immobile and 100% dependent ‘on the kindness of strangers’ (that’s us, BTW). They have no map of our world; they do not know our customs or our language. They don’t even know what language is, or what it does. Children are ‘barbarians’ – not just metaphorically, but also literally (they don’t speak a word of Ancient Greek).  

Six Mercurial years (18 Earth months) later, most children are mobile, communicative, and incipiently self-sufficient, leaving their parents bewildered and spent…and advertising on Indeed for Help! Yet as every parent knows, 18 months is still early innings

According to the anthropology of the Hopi, children are born (or stork delivered) with two questions in mind: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Big questions! You may still be asking those same questions, even at your overly advanced age. At best, these questions are not easy.

So, of course, we want to help. We want to help our children know themselves and fulfill their purpose in the world. But to help, we would need to know ourselves and our purpose, and of course, we don’t! So instead, we teach our kids what we were taught. Our parents failed us, and we want to make sure our children get no less from their parents than we got from ours. Sounds reasonable? 

Ok, how’s this for a home mission statement: “The purpose of life is to make a constructive contribution to society…to leave the world a better place. The purpose of childhood is to learn to be an adult who can make such a contribution.” Put this on the fridge instead of a list of rules (and consequences).

Harry Chapin said it best, “He’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.” (Cat’s in the Cradle) Unlike many of us, Chapin’s hero-narrator ultimately realizes his own life’s failures; he regrets them as they appear in him but especially as they are reflected in his son.

Be careful what you wish for. Chapin’s hero wanted a son who would grow up to be just like him and he got just that! Too late, he realizes that he failed to make the most of his own life’s opportunities, and much worse, he realizes now that he has ensured his son will never optimize his own life potential either. 

What hubris we display, wanting our children to relive our lives! As youngish adults ourselves, we ask (force) them to internalize our own still unexamined ethos: “Grow up, get an education, raise a family, earn a living, make a career, contribute to society, leave a legacy.” And how did that work out for you?  


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