The Disappearance of Childhood

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In the Middle Ages, if you stopped overnight at an inn, chances are you’d be welcomed with ale and stew, and presented with a comfortable bed, which you’d only have to share with bedbugs and a few strangers. Whole families may even have been your bunkmates. Yet you would have proceeded to plop down where you were told anyway. Privacy just didn’t exist in the way it does today.

And because of that, childhood didn’t exist. Centuries ago, children were apprenticed out at seven, did the same work as adults, and often married young, especially the girls. The distinction between children and adults really only emerged later. Children slept in the same bed with their parents (and the chickens), saw what their parents did in that bed, and understood all of Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes.

Then came the industrial revolution when people started to make more money. Children slept away from their parents. Education began to prepare children for more skilled labour. And childhood, as its own entity, was born. Children weren’t just miniature adults; they were a different breed altogether. And what distinguished them was their knowledge. Children didn’t know everything adults knew, and adults tried to keep it that way. The ideal of an innocent was born.

It was great while it lasted.

Neil Postman wrote childhood’s obituary twenty-five years ago in his tome The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman blamed the television, which opened a window into adult lives so that nothing was separate and secret anymore. Video games, the internet, and music have only accelerated this trend.

But it is not just that children are growing up faster today; it is also that adults have become more infantile, as anyone who has ever noticed all the fart jokes in recent movies and TV shows can attest. It once was that only 8-year-old boys liked flatulent or fecal jokes. Now their fathers and mothers find such jokes hilarious enough that a seagull emptying his rectum can be used in advertisements to sell cars. The line between what children enjoy and what adults enjoy is blurring once again.

One major development, though, that Postman now admits he failed to foresee when he first wrote back in 1982 was the sexualization of children. In the 1990s he was horrified by the pictures of little murder victim Jonbenet Ramsay, made up to look sultry at only six years of age. Last month we witnessed Miley Cyrus, better known as Hannah Montana, the “good girl” of entertainment, making headlines by appearing “tastefully” nude in a Vanity Fair photo shoot. The girl who was supposed to be the antithesis of Britney and Jamie Lynn showed herself to be not so very different after all. The idea of sex being something entirely inappropriate with childhood and adolescence has been lost.

We live in an age when sex education is moved younger and younger to try to stop teenage pregnancies before it’s too late, so that now many 9-year-olds know more than their grandparents did on their wedding night. And with children watching television and movies filled with sexual references and innuendo, little is kept hidden.

It’s not just sex, either. I believe most parents yearn to keep their children from learning about the brutality of life at too young an age. We don’t want our kids to witness violence, or crudeness, or malevolence, but too often they do in routine television talk shows, sitcoms, or even the news. Even if we try to shield our kids from such things, chances are their friends see it, so they’ll hear about it anyway. And when children’s eyes are opened to adulthood at too young an age; when they learn of sex, or betrayal, or violence, before they have the capacity to process it, something precious is lost.

Many argue that introducing kids to the facts of life early is progress, because it empowers children. I beg to differ. I think it just steals childhood.

Perhaps you still think that’s a good idea. Maybe innocence is over-rated, archaic, dangerous and even oppressive. But I still think innocence is a gift, something our society only won after much hardship. And I wish we could get that innocence back.

S. Wray Gregoire
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