It cannot be forgotten that every child has a full time job: to learn everything they need to know to survive as an adult. In affluent western households, children are often treated like household pets. They are most valued for being ‘cute’ and generally encouraged to remain in that state for as long as possible. Through most of history children have been free labor. The romanticized idea of an ‘innocent,’ ‘magical’ childhood is a relatively recent concept that began to take hold in the late Victorian period among an affluent few. As the West enjoyed mass affluence in the 20th century, this view became dominant and in the 21st century it grows to ridiculous proportions.
Children must be taught early on that they are not pets. They are apprentice
humans who must contribute to the family as soon as they are able. Their parents are there to teach discipline and train them in the habits that will make them strong and successful, not to be their kids’ best friends(this can come later in life). Putting children to work is of critical importance. There may not be a family farm to look after any more, but many children grow up seeing their wellbeing come out of nowhere. They grow up as part of a family they have invested nothing into. As soon as they hit adolescence, family regresses to little more than a part time job. Children are showered with gifts but not expected to give anything back. Thus, they grow up disconnected from the give and take that is the foundation of any lasting human relationship. As adolescents and adults they end up learning that they must earn their way through life in contradiction to an entire childhood filled with ‘magic’. Suddenly, just as they must begin thinking about caring for themselves, the adolescent must in an instant unlearn everything he or she has ever been taught. The adult world they are growing into is jarringly and completely different from the world of children. This disconnect is taken for granted in the 21st century Western world, but certainly it should not be. In generations past, life went through its stages, but from birth, one’s experiences were part of a coherent continuity that fed directly into adult life.
In Victorian times, the ‘magic of childhood’ type of thinking was a reaction to the extremes of the day. With the industrial revolution, children were commonly being placed on adult length shifts in dirty, dangerous jobs. Because children’s hands were small, they were just the right size for reaching inside machines. Because their bodies were small, they were just the right size for crawling through shafts in coal mines. To top it all off, hiring kids was ridiculously cheap and if separated from family, they could be coerced into even longer shifts and into performing especially undesirable jobs. An entire generation of children began to emerge from factories and mines with missing appendages, stooped and beaten frames, and in general, malnourished, sickly, and weak. Those who had the privilege of living above the lower levels of society did everything they could to distance their own children from this nightmare existence. A new ethic of shielding children from the world’s realities and keeping them in a safe, happy place until adulthood emerged.
While the misfortunes of industrialization were important in inspiring modern thought, just as critical were advancements in medicine. Well into the 19th century, child mortality was quite frequent, an indisputable fact of life. Spending lots of time obsessing about one kid just wasn’t worth it; getting too attached was just a way of getting hurt. Chances were high that any given child would be dead before age 5 or 6. As childhood mortality dropped off drastically with the beginning of the 20th century, interest in the early lives of children increased sharply. With the vast move from rural family farms to suburbs in the 1940s and 50s, there was no longer much incentive to have children work, it was actually easier to keep them in the home as ‘innocent,’ ‘magical’ pets. Still, children remained reasonably independent and spent much of their time learning by playing outside all day long, freely taking risks, and occasionally getting hurt.
Unfortunately an attitude that began from revulsion towards backbreaking child labor in hazardous environments passed down unchallenged from generation to generation, its original purpose all but forgotten. More and more laws were made protecting children and their sheltered status. By the 1960s a vast chasm had grown between the world of children and the adult world.
In the 21st century, adult life is an utterly foreign land that many do not truly see until their early twenties, after college.
If given half a chance children will grow to be hardy and strong. However, they consistently fail to thrive when protected to the point of suffocation. The same principle emerges in every aspect of childhood. Studies have shown that children who are raised in a scrupulously sanitary environment grow up to be sickly because they never developed immunities. Meanwhile, children who were allowed to go outside and play in the dirt become resilient and develop strong immunities to the pathogens they come into contact with. Whether it is the immune system or their mind and character, children are inherently meant to be exposed to challenges at an early age. Not only does it not harm them, it is a critical part of healthy development.
In Western society, it is taken for granted that adolescents are dictated by the very laws of nature to be surly, neurotic, depressed, and lazy. Is this any surprise if children are never shown the basic rules of the adult world: that one must work to eat, that one must compete to live, that one must give to receive. Of course they feel put upon when the time comes to work when they’ve never had to do it before. Of course they’re neurotic, depressed, and surly when they finally have to put in their share. Of course life becomes highly stressful for adolescents when the entire life they grew up with turns out to be nothing more than an illusion and they have to begin again from day 1. Having grown up without expectations, they prove to be weak, wilting, hothouse plants when it comes time to contribute as an adult. To even begin to do so they must unlearn every habit they have ever been raised with, a process that is bound to be both tumultuous and painful. Can it be taken as any surprise that the most privileged generation in history is committing suicide and falling to mental illness in droves?
In the past, children, and especially adolescents would have spent plenty of time in company of their peers, but the focus of their lives would have been their family and the need to be able to succeed one day in the world of adults. From the earliest age possible, children were begun in the precursors of skills that would make for a successful adulthood. Their education took place in the presence of adults, their standard of conduct was set by adults, and adults were inevitably their role models. Under the current system, children grow up in artificial third world societies governed by children. I call them third world societies because the notion of merit is foreign; status is decided based on who can claw their way to the top through corruption, deception, and brute force. Personal worth and rank are defined by ‘popularity’ and other arbitrary criteria. This environment is completely isolated from the adult world and the values it encourages are inimical to long term success as an adult. It severs the continuity between child and adult, dividing life into two disparate parts that render one another nonsensical.
In throwing crowds of children into one building so they can raise each other in a dysfunctional civilization of their own making, I reflect that those who implemented the system might have been true believers in the ‘magic of childhood.’ This philosophy contains the notion of child ‘innocence.’ This is an egregious misunderstanding of young humans. Children are not innocent. In fact, they are most likely to openly express humanity’s worst impulses. Children have yet to be socialized. Socialization includes the development of moral inhibitions. Children are amoral. Unless taught otherwise, they feel perfectly entitled to do whatever necessary to realize their ambitions. By the very undeveloped nature of their brains, they are narcissistically self-centered, unremittingly cruel towards any in whom they sense weakness, and willing to forcibly take anything they calculate is not adequately protected against them. They fly into a rage every time they do not get precisely what they want; they have yet to learn patience. They have no sense of justice or fairness. They are outraged when punished for infractions against others and are again outraged when those who wrong them are not punished completely out of proportion to their offense. Childhood is not to be perpetuated, let alone glorified. The correct approach is to instruct children in the ways of adults as soon as possible.
‘Innocence’ is often understood to be a lack of knowledge of the less savory aspects of existence, yet ignorance is not bliss as it is so often said to be. Any reflection on childhood or observation of children quickly reveals the true nature of things—ignorance is fear. Children are typically afraid of everything because they do not yet understand the ways of the world. As far as they know, anything could happen and thus, even the shadows at the bottom of the closet seem a possible threat. In reminiscence on living through that less developed stage, it’s amusing, but if we reminisce a little deeper, we realize the fear was quite serious at the time. It is the lot of a child to live in an open-ended universe with no guarantees and the fearful unknown lurking everywhere until they begin to acquire knowledge and understanding. There is nothing romantic about this difficult phase of development. It is certainly not to be described as ‘innocence’.
Not only is this ‘magical childhood’ perspective blatantly backward, it demeans the rich and rewarding experience of adulthood. This is a pity because adulthood, the chance to be wise, strong, skilled, and loving is the good part of life, not the beginning part where we do all the initial learning. The feelings of confidence, security, and peace we feel as adults are unknown to children. When we have mastered the fears that abound in an inexperienced mind, only then is the way to real enjoyment of life opened.
Ultimately, it is foolish to shower a small child with lavish gifts in celebration of a ‘special’ time of life. Such a new apprentice human is just as happy with two oddly shaped sticks as with the latest primary colored, loudly shrilling gimmick. A child approaching adulthood should be given many gifts that will help him or her pursue their dreams, peace of spirit, and development as a human being.
Since I have made many criticisms, I have also turned my thoughts to solutions. There is no longer a family farm that makes child labor necessary. However, there are still plenty of household chores to be done, especially if both parents are busy at work. There are plenty of ‘traditional’ aspects that could be brought back into life by employing one’s children. One could teach their children how to grow a vegetable garden, how to bake fresh bread, how to fix meals. All of these skills drastically reduce the cost of feeding the family. Since girls are no longer taught to cook and clean, it is an important set of basic skills for both sexes. And to be realistic these are things many adults have never been taught. Thus it has the potential to be a learning experience for all involved. Such skills have the potential to become part of a family heritage, an heirloom that can be passed down to the next generation and give a solid feeling of identity in a liquid age.
If the family owns a business, it is a good idea to get the kids involved right away. For instance, I recently visited a small family run shop where the kids were allowed to work at the cash register with their parents nearby to lend a helping hand if necessary. A business allows children to see the adult working world in action from the very start, and they love having the opportunity to emulate adult behaviors. It is a lesson they can learn while small that many college students still have not been taught.
If one had their home near some local businesses instead of miles away from non-residences in the suburbs, the kids could be sent to get groceries, take clothes to the cleaners, and run all manner of errands. It could be a social experience for the children and an opportunity to deal with adults outside of the family. These sorts of practices could save endless time and fuel for busy parents. The less busy the parents are, the more time they have to actually be around their kids and have more influence in their upbringing. If people are willing to be open to a different lifestyle, it is quite possible to bring change to the current dismal situation that so many people take for granted.
As a final consideration, I do not advocate what many refer to as a ‘soccer mom’ lifestyle: a way of existence in which children are constantly being taken to different activities and lessons. In themselves none of these activities are bad, but children must go out into the world and obtain knowledge and understanding. The explorations they undergo themselves are the most fruitful of all. To have kids constantly locked up in classrooms and learning activities, even outside of school, is just another instance of the social pathology of smothering children through obsession and overprotection. At lessons, children are under the direct control of an authority figure at all times. In an environment that encourages healthy development, children are given responsibility and freedom by degrees as they master the skills they are taught. When their obligations are fulfilled, they ought to most certainly be free to explore their world as they will. It has all but been forgotten that children must be given space if they are to develop as strong, independent individuals. All they need be given is half a chance, and they will grow without the defects, disorders, and neuroses that have become commonplace. It has all but been forgotten that human beings, especially young ones, are incredibly resilient by nature. To be allowed to discover the difficulties of the world for themselves, to have the opportunity to fail, to get scraped knees, and then to learn is all that is required. The widespread obsession with ‘protecting children’s innocence’ is nothing more than taking what’s fixed and breaking it.