Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Disappearance of Childhood and an Easy Trick to Bring it Back

Bit of a short post today (stop slavering and scrabbling every couple of hours for updates; they'll be there and you'll enjoy them all the more if you endure a tiny period of delayed gratification).

I want talk about our unexamined tendency to regard children as unformed adults rather than creatures in their own right.  We see them as somehow soft and blobby--"on their way," "sprouting up and straightening,"  and talk blithely of how "they haven't reached that 'crucial' phase just yet"-- bit more maturing--or fermenting--as the case may be.  Always crouched horridly in the background, never far from the clanging gates wherein lie the tombs in rows and stacks splotched with gray-green mold, lurk the hairy mole-sprouting "grown-ups" with their withered genitals and droning mumbling "wisdom."

 Phrases like "when she matures," or "when he reaches full height," or "when his bones lenghthen,"  "you can see brain development daily--you really, really can! Can't you, Miggles!"--all this gives children the status of those novelty sponges you can spray with the garden hose and create an expanding giraffe or T-Rex whose size and scare potential are in hilarious inverse proportion to the advertising.   What I'd like to propose is that the child--age 4, 6 or 16 is a complete, fully-formed being--a slice of the spectrum to be sure, but all you can comprehend for the nonce without invoking cliches like "for a split second he could apprehend the powerful woman she would be when the clan finished gathering the robot mammoths,"  or "in those hard blue eyes the future leader of the galactic rebellion glinted like Rigelian steel forged in the smithies of Commodore Komodo himself."

I've a great deal of respect for Neil Postman's excellent book of media epistemology and historical and elegiac lament The Disapperance of Childhood.   Read the book and see what he was talking about next time you tune in to American Idol or Jersey Shore or see some 7 year-old being readied with all the meticulous  planning of a Jewish bar mitzvah for prison by his extended monkey clan of uncles, dumbfuck fathers and mothers, and unclassifiable grease pit and junk yard hangers-on sporting unwashable grease stains and permanent tattoos of 16 different sorts of Sheol on their filthy bodies.  Central to Postman's thesis was that modern media has obliterated any of the sense of necessary shame that separates adult secrets from childhood innocence, resulting in the shambling, demanding, cell-phone bellowers and complainers you see befouling the neighborhood parks and ruining civil public discourse.

However, Postman, with his media/historical approach--and the biologists who are almost certainly right that humans are wired for specific stages of development (much mystery and hair-pulling frustration has been dispelled by recent revelations that the adolescent brain doesn't become a truly rational decision maker--if there ever was such a thing--until the early 20s), aren't looking hard at children right now:  there, SNAPSHOT! of children loading a pile of rubber toy Santa Clauses into a catapult and launching them at the leaf fire Mr. Cironne has burning next door;  there--SNAPSHOT! of three little girls holding cardboard toy cameras decorated with fake plastic lenses up to their faces, following old Mrs. Takanyaka as she wheels out the recyclables using a paparazzi patois and crouching, crab-walk media gait: "There's Takayaka now as she makes her way toward the bin, doing her part to save the earth, she's nearing the bin now, getting ready to make the dump, she's unstoppable [Cue Mrs. Takanyaka: she SCREETCHES at the girls]; SNAPSHOT!--two boys dump the powder they've taken from 27 peeled toy rocket engines to gather enough explosive powder to disrupt the Easter party next door with a homemade bomb;  SNAPSHOT! Fat Billy Sporesman reads a science fiction novel for the 8th time and this reading plants the seeds of his future Nobel Prize.

But you're missing the point if you see any of this as preparation  for adulthood, the stage when the very existence of bloodpressure, cholestorol, and erectal disfunction drugs are klaxon alarms complete with barking dogs and barbed wire and Martian/Nazi towers stabbing down searchlights whose pitiless beams scream "life is over, nature doesn't need you and your dribbly sperm and aging eggs! pathetic carbon-based biped."   It needs kids trying to jump bicycles over ditches and seeing how many pieces of bubble gum they can fit in their mouths.    Kids aren't developing.  They're now. RIGHT NOW! IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT!

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a wonderful article about the evolution of Mickey Mouse from pointy long-nosed mischief maker in Steamboat Willy to the magic kingdom host we know today.  Gould writes in The Panda's Thumb, "As Mickey became increasingly well behaved over the years, his appearance became more youthful. Measurements of three stages in his development revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium--all traits of juvenility. In addition, a suite of changes pervades the head itself during human growth. The brain grows very slowly after age three, and the bulbous cranium of a young child gives way to the more slanted, lower-browed configuration of adulthood. The eyes scarcely grow at all and relative eye size declines precipitously. But the jaw gets bigger and bigger. Children, compared with adults, have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, a more prominent, bulging cranium, and smaller, pudgier legs and feet. Adult heads are altogether more apish, I'm sorry to say."

Gould references animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, who argues that humans use the characteristic differences in form between babies and adults as important behavioral cues. He believes that features of juvenility trigger "innate releasing mechanisms" for affection and nurturing in adult humans. When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, for we must nurture our babies. Lorenz, by the way, lists among his releasers the very features of babyhood that Disney affixed progressively to Mickey: "a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements."   Surely, "cuteness"--that much over-used to the point of meaningless, word--is a complex of unconcious characteristics and neural cues which bind us to children.  Children draw us irresistibly because they need us at our most tender and nurturing.

My oldest big sister once observed that "our mother never forgave us for growing up."  True.  Another big sister answered simply to my puzzled query, "Why do unfit (translate "obese, stupid, boobs") parents keep having baby after baby? Sex can't be that strong, especially in this day and age with internet porn and contraception and other distractions.  What gives?'

"They want that cute baby stage to give them joy," she said, "They want it over and over until biology makes it impossible."   Once a little girl, 2nd or 3rd grader perhaps, approached me on the playground and shouted in  my face, "Know what I like about being a kid, teacher?"  


"None of your business!"  And she shot off toward the play structure where she sprang onto the hanging row of metal hoops and screeched, "I'm a monkey! I'm a monkey! Hooo!  Hooo! Hooo!"
She was the blessed inhabitant of another realm, untouchable, inviolate.

None of which detracts from my central point.  Pick a child, any child you see today, and what you see is surely a process, its separation from the environment surely an illusory quirk of our poorly-understood central nervous peceptual systems, but the creature is still  there, doing its funky child thing right there and nowhere else for your viewing delectation, just like Mickey and Donald (ever take a look at how long, how adult Donald's beak was in early cartoons?) are there forever, in a magic kingdom immune to biology.

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