Childhood’s End

Which Disney princess is Neil Postman?

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If you are looking for a clear marker of cultural decline, something that represents an inescapable cul-de-sac in the American ideal of forward progress, just ponder the all-too-familiar image of the kindergarten-aged child whose parents have outfitted him (it’s usually a him) with a Mohawk haircut. A friend of mine who teaches young children is forever complaining that the Mohawked boys have chronic self-discipline issues. “They are always the ones who have the behavioral problems,” she says.

When I ask her why that is, she explains that “they are being raised by adult-aged children”—in other words, people who are too immature to know better.

That shocking thatch of hair flanked by pallid scalp, once a symbol of rebellion, marginalization, and class rancor is now being buzzed onto the heads of children in Minion T-shirts who barely know how to wipe their own asses. The problem is not simply an aesthetic one (though the child-sized spikes are undeniably vulgar); it is also that parents are styling their not-yet-literate offspring in the garb of disillusionment. Just what it does it mean when parents use their children as signifiers of their own neuroses about being grown-ups?

The kiddie-hawk represents the ultimate erosion of the modern era: the now completely trampled-down barrier between childhood and adulthood. No doubt, the nineteenth century was full of shit ideas, especially those devoted to shoring up social hierarchies. However, the firm demarcation between children and adults was a decidedly good idea—not just when it comes to manner of dress and speech, but in totality. The world of adults was vested with knowledge, power, authority, restraint, and wisdom, while the world of children was one of wonderment, secrets, mystery, and naïveté. Today those two worlds are all mushed together in a counter-developmental clusterfuck. Not only do adults fetishize the virtues of childhood and adopt the dress of children, but they also resent the liberation that comes with adulthood. In internet parlance, they resent “adulting.” The indiscriminate flattening logic of this resentment—channeled through our mass media, consumer capitalism, and the general impoverishment of public intellectual life—has turned adults into floppy Child-Adults.

The Child Is Babysitter to the Man

And that means, in turn, that children themselves are becoming strange hybrids of infants and adults, with their Mohawks and sticky hands swiping furiously across iPads, getting the sort of instant gratification that no other technology provides. Tweens are now glorified entrepreneurs and pitchmen, hawking gadgets and lipsticks for brands through their social-media empires. Teenage girls wear the clothes of streetwalkers and use the language of ninth-wave feminism to declare their tiny crop tops “empowering.” And young boys dress basically the same way that most adult men now do: in sloppy, baggy hipster attire, with untucked dress shirts or ironic T-shirts, all topped off, as often as not, with a baseball cap. Via the same principle of cranial cultural determinism that gave us the baby Mohawk, consider here for a moment the baseball cap: the one item of clothing a three-year-old and a thirty-year-old could wear without telegraphing any gap in their ages.

I wanted answers: to sex, to violence, to war, to disaster, to death, to the purpose of garter belts.

Now, you might say, “Pish posh! These parents are just letting their children indulge in a little self-expression! And iPads keep them quiet instead of screaming when we go to Whole Foods, or the nearest artisanal coffee bar! Mohawks are better than those horrible bowl cuts that were standard issue in the 1980s; shouldn’t we let the little wigglers have some fun?”

No. Childhood is a relatively new and fragile thing in the history of humankind, and we are fucking it up. Less than a hundred years ago, we stuck children in coal mines or behind spinning mules to waste away for a sub-living wage. Before that, we didn’t expect most of them to live into adulthood. Now the young are the consumer vanguard of first resort, which both diminishes the discrete experiential character of childhood and fatally degrades whatever may remain of the dignity of adulthood.

Anyone familiar with the work of the late sociologist and media theorist Neil Postman will recognize these arguments. In his books The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) and Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Postman makes the case that as society moves away from a print culture—wherein knowledge is amassed in stages, sequentially, forcing greater levels of rigor, maturity, and comprehension on the reader—and toward mass media, we begin to lose the mechanism for civic life. Indeed, Postman contends that greater literacy is inextricably linked with the core defining traits of adult cognition and discourse: “A child evolves toward adulthood by acquiring the sort of intellect we expect of a good reader: a vigorous sense of individuality, the capacity to think logically and sequentially, the capacity to distance oneself from symbols, the capacity to manipulate high orders of abstraction, the capacity to defer gratification.”

Postman was writing in the pre-digital age of the 1980s and focused mainly on the effects of television and advertising. But his arguments fit right in with the rise of the database culture of the internet, where two-minute clips of orgies, the complete works of El Greco, and major historical events are atomized into single-serve pages without sequence or consequence. If anything, his arguments about the steamrolling cultural effect of postwar mass media apply to the digital-age mediascape with redoubled force:

The world of the known and the not yet known is bridged by wonderment. But wonderment happens largely in a situation where the child’s world is separate from the adult world, where children must seek entry, through their questions, into the adult world. As media merge the two worlds, as the tension created by secrets to be unraveled is diminished, the calculus of wonderment changes. Curiosity is replaced by cynicism or, even worse, arrogance. We are left with children who rely not on authoritative adults but on news from nowhere. We are left with children who are given answers to questions they never asked. We are left, in short, without children.

Body Horror School

Here is a current representative example of the promiscuous mingling of the generations: a few years ago, a movement of sorts began to make its way through public schools in the United States and Canada. Young girls started protesting their schools’ dress codes—specifically, the provisions within them that forbade tummy-flashing crop tops.

Of course, this is the wont of all teenagers. They have just come into possession of adult bits and want to show them off. These early bids to flaunt sexuality and skin are a sacred rite of adolescence. I grew up under a similar dress code, and I was sent home more than once for wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops that revealed my conspicuously colored bra straps. A suspension was annoying—but then again, the whole point of exposing my bra straps was to be risky, sexy, and subversive. At no point did I want bra straps to be sanctioned by a bunch of polyester-clad high-school bureaucrats—they would instantly rob my raunchy straps of their verboten power. This was the game we played with adults, testing how much we could get away with until we were restrained. Without such artificially imposed limits, I’m pretty sure my friends and I would have come to school wearing nothing but nipple tassels from the waist up, so profound was our desire for male attention.

The young girls nowadays, however, claim that they are not trying to be seen as sexual objects. Rather, they insist that their schools are punishing and shaming them for wanting to wear shirts that could essentially double as sports bras. In Toronto, a student named Alexi Halket was called into the principal’s office for wearing a very small crop top.

“I told [the principal] that I had a bunch of similar outfits lined up, because they made me feel really beautiful,” Halket told People magazine.

The school’s dress code had a ban on any clothes that were “too revealing.” So Halket created a call to action: a Facebook event, Crop Top Day, encouraging other girls to wear their crop tops to school. Other schools joined in solidarity. The momentum was already there—in 2014, Canadian school kids had put up signs that read: “Instead of shaming girls for their bodies teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”

I interviewed one of Halket’s schoolmates for a women’s site about the crop-top fracas in 2015, and her response floored me. When I asked about why the right to bare navels was a feminist issue, as she had suggested on her social media accounts, this was her response:

The dress code’s perpetuation of females needing to dress “modestly” implies that revealingly dressed females are to be looked at negatively. If a young child sees one of their female peers being pulled out of class and punished for wearing short shorts, they will think that people in short shorts deserve to be punished.

Thus is youthful cynicism dressed up in the rhetoric of adult liberationism. These girls were using the language of empowerment and liberation to justify showing off their bodies. What’s more, many of the girls’ parents supported the crop-top crusade. Several mothers whose daughters joined Halket’s protest agreed that allowing girls to wear revealing clothing to school was somehow dismantling a double standard.

There’s another core, and disastrous, cultural misunderstanding at the bottom of this incoherent stance: children and adults today confuse the concepts of shame and restraint. This ensures that we systematically misread calls for restraint as some sort of petty bureaucratic bullying—or worse, as a deliberate campaign of cultural shaming. Asking children to dress somewhat modestly at school is a perfectly reasonable request. Sending them home when they fall short is not a form of shaming: it is imposing restraint where teenagers (a species not typically known for self-restraint) fail to do so. Further, no one is being “shamed” for their sexuality. Postman is crystal clear on this point:

It is one thing to say that human sexuality is base and ugly, which, in my opinion, is another dangerous idea. It is altogether different to say that its public display deprives it of its mystery and awe and changes the character and meaning of both sexuality and child development.

Here is a sentence I never thought I would have to write: when parents stand against schools imposing some level of restraint on the sex hamsters known as teenagers, that’s a bad thing. Parents who do not understand the difference between shame and restraint are fucking up.

Suspended for Reasons of Passivity

Postman was largely concerned with children—and what was already, in his day, the failing effort to quarantine them from the tawdriness and melodrama of the adult world. My main concern, a generation later, is the degradation of modern adulthood as it surrenders more and more of its waning moral authority to witless youth.

If television crushed the social and intellectual barriers between childhood and adulthood, then the internet has obliterated them.

When I was a child, I craved nothing more than to be a grown-up. While my friends were building forts from pillows, I was practicing smoking in front of a mirror with a piece of chalk, as though I were a femme fatale ready to bump off my no-neck husband for the insurance money. The dream of escaping the tyranny of childhood—of no longer having my body, dress, and studies regulated by an assortment of indistinguishably bland authority figures—intoxicated me. I also wanted answers: to sex, to violence, to war, to disaster, to death, to the purpose of garter belts. When they arrived, some of those answers came too fast to absorb without trauma. Now I wish they had been revealed to me more gradually, when I had more wisdom and maturity to contend with their many implications in full. Now that I’ve come to know (voluntarily or otherwise) the grit and glamour of the adult world, I never ache for the nostalgia of childhood. In other words, I do not participate in flash mobs, pillow fights, or any sort of costume play. Why? Because all this prolonged adolescent posturing is beneath the seriousness of adulthood—a seriousness that I fought years to possess.

This is also why I (again, like Postman) find adults who read young adult books so repellent. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman is a prescient critic of the burgeoning genre of YA literature, particularly the wildly popular works of Judy Blume, which reconfigured the image of childhood into a sort of adult debauch on training wheels:

The work of Judy Blume has been emulated by many other writers who, like Ms. Blume, have grasped the idea that “adolescent literature” is best received when it simulates in theme and language adult literature, and, in particular, when its characters are presented as miniature adults. . . . We are now undergoing a very rapid reorientation in our popular arts in regard to the image of children. One might put the matter, somewhat crudely, in this way: Our culture is not big enough for both Judy Blume and Walt Disney. One of them will have to go, and as the Disney empire’s failing receipts show, it is the Disney conception of what a child is and needs that is disappearing.

As farsighted as his overall social vision was, Postman got the particulars of this prophecy wrong. He underestimated the combined appeal Disney and Blume would have on a generation of Adult Children who pine for the sentimentality and passivity of childhood—people who associate comfort with television and Disney cartoons and who indulge in the dead time of nostalgia. Postman would spin in his grave if he could witness the bacterial bloom of “Which Disney Princess Are You?” quizzes that have become the scourge of the internet—especially if he were to see the overwhelming number of adults, rather than children, who click through such infantilizing surveys and share them in the social-mediasphere.

Nostalgia, however cloying, can be excused as a symptom of ambivalent aging. What’s more disturbing is how many adults prefer to read today’s YA literature because they relate more easily to the inner lives of teenagers (who, to judge by the thematic thrust of said literature, want only to fuck vampires) than to the higher-stakes emotional quandaries of adulthood.

What explains this state of willful cultural regression? Nothing good, but two related trends stand out in high relief here. First, people now entering their thirties were weaned on television when it was at its nadir and was often used as a behavior-controlling device (leaving children stupefied and quiet), so their relationship to print and reading is flimsy. Second—and more balefully—virtually all the cultural logic of digital-age capitalism upholds the conception of a teenager or young adult as the model progenitor and consumer of culture. As a result, the traditional role of the adult has been “childified.” Television is a perfect case in point. While many of us may pat ourselves on the backs for dutifully ingesting prestige dramas on subscription networks, the majority of Americans watch network sitcoms. The sitcom genre, in our age as in Postman’s, hinges on its understanding of adult life as an unrelieved study in terminally arrested development. (It hardly seems an accident that the most reverently fetishized sitcom of our own age is called—in a flourish of self-undercutting irony—Arrested Development.) In the stunted land of the sitcom, Postman writes, adults

do not take their work seriously (if they work at all), they do not nurture children, they have no politics, practice no religion, represent no tradition, have no foresight or serious plans, have no extended conversations, and in no circumstances allude to anything that is not familiar to an eight-year-old person.

As a result of this shared cultural surround, adult behavior is increasingly treated as an aberrant novelty among the digiterati. When people in their early to mid-twenties do things like pay bills, fold laundry, go to the DMV, clean their baseboards, or just go to bed early, they will commemorate the unique event by posting about it on social media under the “adulting” hashtag. In this foreshortened view, adulthood is not a permanent state of existence but a collection of tasks between hobby cons and Snapchats.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many adults find comfort in books that are populated by children caught up in grown-up drama, struggling to cope? (Also, wizards are neat, I suppose.) Did you know, by the way, that if you Google the phrase “literary tattoo,” the results are a wash of adults with Harry Potter phrases and references on their bodies?

If we extend the basic lineaments of Postman’s arguments a bit further, we can safely conclude that if television crushed the social and intellectual barriers between childhood and adulthood, then the internet has obliterated them. Places like Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr have no mechanism to demarcate who is a fourteen-year-old arguing about a meme and who is a stunted forty-year-old wannabe lurker. This is the developmental wading pool that we uncritically endorse as the stuff of self-empowered digital liberation.

The Adult Child, defined by Postman as “a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children” is now a permanent fixture of the digital age. As Postman points out, cultures vary in the degree to which they encourage or discourage adults to act in this fashion. We, of course, encourage it, and we should all be embarrassed. Is there a good emoji for that?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a criminal justice reporter in Los Angeles. She tweets from @natashavc.

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