Firestone and Father Christmas: Thoughts on ‘Childhood’ and young humans

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.

13 Responses to “Firestone and Father Christmas: Thoughts on ‘Childhood’ and young humans”

  1. DOMINO Says:

    I’ve always thought that these ridiculous mythologies that are taught to children only add to their disillusionment later on.

  2. notjustgay Says:

    It’s not just the swearing and father christmas that shula argues about. The conflict between ego and super-ego emerges in childhood, and we are made to internalize a love for norms as a child. We learn to think in divisions – classes, genders, authority vs. those under the sway, we vs. them, etc. We are not supposed to ask too many questions, or express our sexuality (should it develop – some learn to orgasm by age 6, and no, that doesn’t happen just when the pernicious media or the influence of a libertine adult) as children. We are told to do this or that, without letting us ground our morality in any emotion other than that of need of approval…

    Those result in repressed sexuality (which leads to an objectifying lust and on to pornography, rape, etc.), loathing of the the marginalized and the Other (leading to jingoism, etc.), a tendency to unquestioningly follow authority (allowing dictatorship – think about Milgram’s experiments), etc.

    The worst is that at home, children who are in thrall of their parents, let themselves become a victim of abuse – mental, sexual, etc.

    And I’m also blaming this special treatment of children for all the psychological ill-being that can result in children who are raised in a way that is less-than-the-patriarchal-ideal [ children raised by a single mother or homosexual parents, children who have the ‘wrong’ names ]

    Childhood is as much a patriarchal construct as any other. Children need to be liberated so as to end both their and their mother’s oppression.

  3. Lindsay Says:

    I also had some difficulties with a lot of what she said in that chapter, but a whole lot more of it made sense than didn’t.

    For me, the key to it was her analysis of education. Before I read her book, I was baffled as to why it should take twelve years to teach someone literacy, basic principles of math (up to, depending on your ability and inclination, anywhere from algebra to calculus or differential equations), reasoning and critical-thinking skills. From my own educational career, I remembered a lot of redundancy from year to year, and indeed was able to do well throughout elementary school despite being only marginally aware of other people, what was expected of me, or indeed that anything was expected of me. (I am autistic). So clearly, intellectual training is not the primary purpose of school, or else it would be a lot more rigorous and take a small fraction of the time it currently does. Also, they would not group classes by chronological age, but rather by ability or developmental stage. (Where they would have put me, the gods only know!)

    Her contention that school exists to accustom us to hierarchies and institutional settings made all of this make a whole lot more sense to me.

    Also, notjustgay is absolutely correct when s/he says this:
    we are made to internalize a love for norms as a child. We learn to think in divisions – classes, genders, authority vs. those under the sway, we vs. them, etc.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It’s not just the swearing and father christmas that shula argues about.”
    Sure, but it seemed like a way to ease into something that is likely to prompt a lot of resistance. Hopefully my next post will be about schooling.

    “should it develop – some learn to orgasm by age 6, and no, that doesn’t happen just when the pernicious media or the influence of a libertine adult”

    Indeed. The issue of children and sex is a sticky one, so I’m going to have a very long think before writing a carefully-worded post on it.

  5. DOMINO Says:

    Cranks up “Pink Floyd: The Wall”.

  6. freethinker Says:

    i haven’t yet come across any good read on the issue of children’s sexuality. a lot of studies just talk about children’s ‘knowledge’ of sex, which suggests that sex is something the can only know about rather than know. and by sex i mean the sexual desire which people are too afraid to see in a child.

    my question regarding children’s sexuality is – exactly what’s the danger in it coming out of the box? isn’t that danger almost the same as what surrounds women’s sexuality in conservative societies today? and what about all the supposed (and some researched) effects of repressed sexuality on the psychological well-being of humans – couldn’t they be true of children?

  7. freethinker Says:

    oh, and that was me upthread… ‘notjustgay’. i was signed in at my old wordpress blog when i posted that comment.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I suppose the perceived danger is something along the lines of ‘sex can be dangerous and even traumatic, people need a certain level of maturity before they can engage in sex without those risks’. Analogous, I suppose, to the feeling that we should ban all forms of child labour because many forms of labour are destructive and unsafe, and children should be protected from these. All of which invites the question, how about making sex/work something that people don’t need to be afraid of? Still, while I don’t know that I go along with such arguments, I’m also not ready to dismiss them entirely.

  9. freethinker Says:

    ‘sex can be dangerous and even traumatic’ fleck

    the only viable danger i see is in some older person exploiting the child’s sexuality, using it for their own pleasure. also, childhood is the time for early identity formation, and to see yourself as a sexual being is to see yourself objectified in some sense, and i’m not sure that’s a good thing for a child.

    it’s like this: in this patriarchal world where we are obsessed with the idea of possession, we tend to define our sexual relationships in a certain way: my sexual mate becomes the object of my affection, which object i would like to lay a sexual claim to, asking for his/her exclusive sexual interest in me. i think that’s problematic because then my sexual relationship becomes an identity marker, a role that gives me my self-definition. that might be okay for adults, but for children in their formative years, it might limit their…’human potential’.

    so maybe we should wait for a ‘Twistolution’ before we can ask the child question.

  10. freethinker Says:

    i want you to write more about what you read from shulamith’s book. esp about the bit where she argues that art would disappear as a consequence of a feminist revolution. you know i haven’t actually read the book…just so much about it. i’m a youth in pakistan still living on parent’s money, and mostly get to cruise ‘old books’ shops here for secondhand books. and radical feminism is sadly still too novel to come secondhand.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Don’t worry, basically every chapter makes me want to post about it. I’m not sure I’ll be able to discuss the art issue in much depth, art’s never been my thing, but it will definitely get in there.

  12. DOMINO Says:

    *Goes on a rad-fem book drive for needy readers.

  13. Lindsay Says:


    I suppose the perceived danger is something along the lines of, ‘sex can be dangerous and sometimes traumatic, people need a certain level of maturity before they can engage in sex without those risks.’ … All of which invites the question, how about making sex/work something that people don’t need to be afraid of?

    This was my thought process as well. Simply granting children sexual agency under the current system — i.e., rape culture — would just mean that even more children would be raped or molested, since the underlying power imbalances, social pressures and predator/prey model of sexuality would all still be intact.

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