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The Paradox of Childhood

David Cowles

Nov 9, 2023

“…We treat children…as pets, slaves, snuggle bunnies and proto-adults”.

Children are chronic ‘not-yets’. Not yet walking, not yet talking, not yet reading. Not yet matriculated, not yet graduated. Not yet a crime boss, a hit woman, an investment banker, a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. Not yet!

Children are exactly like us, only smaller…they are us, only ‘not yet’. They are proto-parents, proto-doctors, proto-miners (those who spend their working lives in mines, extracting ore  – in case you don’t remember what a ‘miner’ is), proto-cubes (those who spend their lives working in cubicles, extracting data). 

Children are entirely unlike us. They are curious; we are either bored or overwhelmed or both. They have boundless energy; we’re already looking forward to our next nap. They cry at the drop of a hat; we don’t show our emotions. Children cannot be controlled, and it takes an elaborate complex of rewards and punishments, emotional and physical, just to ‘manage’ their behavior; and yet… 

“Girls are sugar and spice and everything nice; boys are snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.” Maybe, but we treat children of all genders as pets, slaves, snuggle bunnies…and proto-adults. Of course, children are none of these things! How hard must it be then for them to play all these roles at once…and without a single acting class?

Up for a ‘thought experiment’? Who’s your favorite 8 year old? Ok, now replay the hackneyed movie plot: switch bodies (ridiculous, of course). Imagine that now you’re living your life as an 8 year old…for a year. What fun! Who wouldn’t want to be a kid again? No responsibilities, no bills to pay, spending half your waking hours ‘just playing’. 

Not quite so much fun when the giants you live with hurt you, demean you, berate or belittle you.  You’d like to make them happy, but it’s not as easy as they would like us to believe. “Just be Good,” but HOW when the constellation of expectations shifts inexplicably from circumstance to circumstance? 

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My father was an Eagle Scout. When I was 12, I followed in his footsteps and joined the Boy Scouts. One night I came home excited. I had just passed my first test. I was a tenderfoot now, and I couldn’t wait to tell my Dad all about it. He was furious. Something about my story, something I’d said, something I’d done, I still don’t know what, rubbed him the wrong way. Needless to say, that ended my brief flirtation with BS.

Not quite so much fun when you’re forced to idle in school for 6 hours a day. Sadly, we have found a way to make the process of learning boring and its contents nonsensical – not easy to do in a world as wonderous as ours! We’ve figured out how to transform boundless curiosity into unrelenting boredom. We have become death, the destroyer of worlds. (Oppenheimer)

Did you imagine your year would be all fun and games? You’re in a world where everything is either threatening or meaningless, terrifying or boring. Your year will be one of physical fear, social anxiety, and, did I mention it, crushing boredom. Parents, teachers, cops, bullies, pit bulls, bees and bed…and you 4’ 6” and 85 pounds soaking wet. 

Did your tween/teen ever yell at you, “This house is a prison?” That’s because it is! “But my children love me!” Ok, but have they also learned to ‘go along to get along’? And be honest – isn’t that exactly how you’ve raised them? “My boy is just like me; he’s grown up just like me.” (Harry Chapin)

Nothing is worse than being a child…unless it’s being an adult. You want nothing more than to be a kid again while you kids want nothing more than to be… you. I mean, just exactly how crazy is that? 

Do things have to be this way? Clearly not. In ‘less civilized’ societies, for example, things are often different. Take an Amazonian tribe, the Piraha as an example. They impose no expectations on their children and make almost no effort to regulate their behavior. Punishment of any sort is virtually unknown. Of course, there’s a trade-off. Pirahanese children are quite literally ‘out-of-control’ all the time…but they are never malicious. Why would they be? They have nothing to rebel against!

As a 50 year old, you might not choose to live the Pirahanese lifestyle; but as a 5 year old, you’d love it. We take our children to Disney World. Pirahanese children live in Disney World. By current Euro-American standards, Pirhanese children are neglected; but by the standards of the Pirhana, they are simply respected. 

Euro-American adults cannot wait to have children. They’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars to treat infertility issues in hope of a single live birth. But once our angelic children are born, we can’t wait for them to grow up and ‘act like adults’.

We have goals for our children: sleeping through the night, weaned, toilet trained, etc. To Pirahanese parents, the idea that these eventualities should be viewed as ‘goals’ seems non-sensical. All these things will happen organically, in their own time, without any adult intervention. 

Much worse, we plan our children’s lives for them before they know there’s anything to plan. “Sally’s going to be a teacher, I’m sure, and she’ll be good at it; she loves to explain things to other kids, and Skip? Well, he’s our budding little MD. I mean, ‘gag me with a spoon’!"

Everything is upside down. The kids are trying to fashion a personality and a character; they are  deciding, how, where, if at all, they want to be part of the social fabric. And us? Well, we are constantly getting in their way. Tell me, do you see a happy outcome here? 

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