Ok, so I’ve just read Firestone’s chapter on Childhood – the basic position of which is that childhood is an artificial and repressive construct, that people below they age of 16 are just smaller, less experienced people, not a different class altogether, and that our institutionalisation of such a separate realm for them, espcecially through ‘schooling’, rather than allowing them access to the adult world, has an enormously retarding and oppressive influence on them.
Now this is a very radical perspective, and very easily prompts reactions of bafflement, amazement, or vociferous denunciation. It seems a bit crazy. So rather than jumping into a the whole issue, I thought I’d develop and discuss two quite specific examples.
The first example is swearing. It has long been thought, and is now still thought by many, that women shouldn’t swear, and that ‘people’ (i.e. adult men) should not swear in front of women. Similarly, and even more commonly, it is thought that children shouldn’t swear, and that adults shouldn’t swear in front of children.
But why? I mean, seriously. Parents often protest that they ‘don’t want my children hearing words like that’ if someone says ‘fuck’ on the TV. ‘I don’t want my children knowing words like that.’ ‘I don’t want my children using words like that’.
If a 35-year-old man didn’t know what ‘fuck’ meant, we would probably laugh at him. If someone spilled their drink and said ‘Fucking Hell!’ and he asked ‘what does that mean?’ it would be ridiculous. Swearing is part of human expressive apparatus – it communicates a certain feeling, a certain attitude.
Swearing all the time or in certain situations is inappropriate, because in some situations you’re expected not to express that kind of violence of feeling – swearing at dinner with the queen would be like crying, a natural thing to do just not at that time and place.
But people seem to want children who are alone or with friends, and who spill their drinks or such like, to not even have the equipment to express that. They shouldn’t even know those words! What should they do to express that attitude? It seems to me that the logic of this parental position is that they shouldn’t have that attitude (same goes for women). That shouldn’t be part of the ‘child’ life. They don’t get angry at the whole world, or express cynical despair at its inhabitants. That’s not what children are like.
Firestone puts it as follows: “a man is allowed to blaspheme the world because it belongs to him to damn – but the same curse out of the mouth of a woman or a minor, i.e. an incomplete ‘man’ to whom the world does not yet belong, is considered presumptuous.”
But that attitude that swearing expresses is a natural thing that everyone feels sometimes. People don’t suddenly start feeling it when they’re 16. It’s this deliberate, active exclusion of the young human from the real world, their bundling up in a world that simply doesn’t contain certain feelings, that Firestone is so opposed to, the attribution to young humans of a completely different nature to that of older humans.
The second example is Father Christmas. Supposedly, the reason why we have childhood is so that humans, who start out not knowing anything, can learn and develop their faculties and their abilities. But what we actually do is deliberately teach them falsehoods, and try to prevent them from learning the truth. Maybe telling children that there’s this magical present-distributer is itself fairly harmless, but it’s still striking that such a practice can exist: that a sizeable chunk of the population is knowingly duped about something, with the rest of the population actively knowing about it. That is literally a conspiracy, and it throws into sharp relief that there is this grouping – there aren’t just humans at different ages and different levels of maturity, there are the two categories ‘child’ and ‘adult’.
And let’s just consider what the existence of Father Christmas would mean. If someone can travel around millions of houses like that in one night, then aeronatical technology is dozens of times more advanced than we thought. If elves live at the north pole, then everything we think about humans, their evolution, their status among other species, is false. If every child’s behaviour is monitored and judged, then there exist surveillance techniques centuries ahead of what there actually are.
Obviously these thoughts are ridiculous and miss the point. But that is precisely the point, that thinking realistically about them is impossible. Yet children are expected to develop an accurate understanding of the world, of what is and isn’t possible, of what is and isn’t reasonable, while believing in the truth of something that throws off all their reasoning if they treat it as the truth that they are told it is.
And what this shows up is that children aren’t expected to develop an accurate understanding of the world. We think ‘that will come later, when they are older. For now, we can let them live in a make-believe world’ and in doing so of course we ensure that those children who would develop an accurate understanding of the world are liable to be held back, because that’s not considered an appropriate thing for them to do.
Also, I do think there’s sometimes a sort of mild cruelty that goes along with this. I remember once seeing a child of about 5 or 6 talking to some amused adults, protesting that Father Christmas didn’t exist. She even tried to explain, inarticulately, how it was impossible. But the adults, with their supercilious smiles, were reassuring her that yes, he definitely did exist, and offering explanations that it was by ‘magic’ that he was able to do all these impossible things.
They just thought it was harmless fun, even though the child was clearly getting quite upset. And they had these stupid grins on their faces all through, which they probably thought weren’t being picked up on by the child. I suspect they were – I suspect that young girl was struggling desperately to work out whether to trust these people, who seemed to be laughing while assuring her of their complete sincerity.
Let us bear in mind that if someone struggles to separate sincerity from deceit, and accuses people of ‘plotting against them’ (remember, the Father Christmas thing is in a very literal sense a conspiracy), we diagnose paranoia. Yet learning not to be paranoid requires a supportive environment, requires people to help teach you the difference between sincerity and deceit.
Looking at that girl, I saw a human being trying to learn and understand and resolve contradictions. I don’t think the people she was talking with saw that. They saw a ‘child’, and consequently a being whose nature did not include (yet) trying to understand the world. A being whose nature was to waddle along for a set number of years with a mind of illusions and blind trust in what pre-planned diet of knowledge their parents and teachers decided to give them, before then miraculously transforming into an ‘adult’, when they would start understanding the world and swearing about it.
So again, rather than letting children be humans in the human world, developing themselves so as to become more adept at dealing with that human world, we put them into their own separate world, where the rules are different, where magic exists, and where swearing doesn’t, and we keep them there, not for ‘as long as it takes for them to grow up’, but for a pre-set amount of time, the same for everyone.
I’m still not totally sure how on board I am with Firestone’s schtick here, but looking at these sorts of small issues helps me to get a grip on where she’s coming from with the big issues.