January 10, 2013

Vanishing childhood: Intro

After seeing my nephew over Christmas vacation, lots of observations snapped together into a single pattern. More or less, helicopter parents are trying to prevent their children from going through a rite-of-passage, of any kind, as they age.

Their emotionally avoidant mindset makes them feel awkward thinking about their son or daughter as belonging to a fundamentally different class of living creatures when they're little, and then changing into something more familiar during adolescence. Dealing with small children is more emotionally taxing if you perceive them as their own class of people -- it requires disrupting your routine of social interaction and emotional investment, since that's almost always geared toward other adults.

Frequently switching modes in any domain of life is always anathema to those with OCD, but especially if you have to make a qualitative switch rather than just dialing some behavior up or down.

They therefore want to avoid giving the child any kind of markers that set him clearly off in some kiddie sphere -- not just physical markers, but also speech patterns, styles of address, and overall treatment. If he is never clearly marked as a separate type of person as a child, he won't need to shed those markers and adopt new ones during adolescence. That palpable transformation is again too much of a disruption to the routine for an avoidant-style parent to tolerate.

I think avoidant types must also have a deep anxiety about ritual in general. It's too corporeal, and bodily sensations excite the emotions. That rush you get when you're stomping and clapping along with the other fans for your team, is not going to fly with someone who doesn't want to ever become attached to other people. By eliminating ritual, and making things more abstract and cerebral, they can maintain their preferred absence of emotional investment in the parenting process.

As a result, today's kids aren't very kiddie. In future posts, I'll go into a little more detail with specific case studies, but consider just a few examples briefly.

Children don't wear distinctively kiddie clothing anymore -- their parents dress them in jeans, cargo shorts, Chuck Taylors, Uggs, button-down collared shirts, hoodies, etc., just as an adolescent or adult would wear. There's also no specifically kiddie hairstyles that you grow out of. They don't have their own physical spaces where grown-ups are not allowed -- parents hover right behind their kids at Chuck E. Cheese's, and adults invade the "kids table" at Thanksgiving (even teenagers sit there now). Their media are no longer distinctly kiddie, as over half the jokes, references, and remarks in children's programming are obviously aimed at the parents in the audience. There's no more kiddie food, all of it now being the miniature version of grown-up food, like fiber-and-yoghurt cereal instead of S'mores cereal.

And of course they don't get spanked or given firm orders (i.e., backed up by a physical punishment). They are reasoned with or have their things taken away / put in time-out as though they were adult workers who have disobeyed their co-adult manager. You wouldn't spank a peer, so you can't spank your own child.

By dissolving the taboo boundaries between childhood and adolescence, helicopter parents believe they are treating their kids more fairly and doing a better job at preparing them for adulthood.

Yet the attempts at fairer treatment blow up in their face. The parent treats the child like a grown-up, the child behaves like children do, and the parent feels betrayed -- like, "After all I've done to not condescend to you and to treat you like a grown-up, this is the thanks I get, another temper tantrum." Then the parent snaps and probably chews the kid out, just as you would get angry at a peer who didn't reciprocate your kindness. All this drama is easily prevented by not viewing and treating the kid as someone near your own level, but rather as some lower thing that can't be expected to treat you as your peers would. If you just expect children to act selfishly, you won't feel betrayed when they do. You have to correct them when they misbehave, but you shouldn't have a seething personal grudge underlying it as well.

As for preparing them better, it does just the opposite. Truly preparing them for adulthood means letting them fly out of the nest on their own and getting hurt if things happen that way. All of these ways of marking children as those who've already gone through adolescence are just rewarding the child for something they haven't accomplished. The whole point of the rite-of-passage stuff is that you're actually changing and becoming an adult, and as a reward, you get to wear different clothes, sport a different hairstyle, sit at the grown-up's table, and so on. By giving them all these privileges in childhood, parents tell them that they don't need to bother growing up -- they're already enjoying all the perks, both material and social. These children end up socially and emotionally stunted, not mature.

Well, that's all the bla bla bla about that. What'll be more interesting is going over all of the many domains of life that this touches. Where possible, I'll also draw comparisons back to the turn of the 20th century, to show how it relates to the trend in the crime rate. As predicted, in falling-crime times parents mark their kids as mini-adults in order to minimize the intensity of age-group transitions, while in rising-crime times they encourage them to live their own separate lives as precious children before transforming into adults. Why the link, is another post.


  1. I think a dad brings more of the expanding boundaries, let them be kids to the table (typically) than the mom, which is an underestimated benefit to having a two parent household. I give my kids much more leash to rough house, dress themselves however they see fit (daughter is 7 so she understands age appropriate attire but however she wants to mix and match is fine), play outside unsupervised with the other neighbor kids than my wife does, though we are both in agreement unstructured kid play is key. Kids need parental attention and love, not parents as playmates in lieu of other kids which seems to be often the case. When our kids are running around the neighborhood on a nice spring or summer weekend day, we rarely see many others out playing and there are a plethora of kids. Most of my own childhood was spent playing unsupervised with my brothers (rural, so not many other kids) and think the benefits are great; creative play, exercise, burning off energy, bonding, social dynamics, etc. that occur in the vacuum without grownup oversight.

  2. I've noticed that cartoon movies have introduced "serious issues", often inappropriate, since the 90s. For instance, Toy Story 3, about letting go of your children - which is weird, cause little kids can't relate to that at all. The movie "UP" had a subplot about infertility and an elderly man recovering from his wife's death - which, once again, small children do not relate to. Whatever happened to just wanting to marry the prince or princess?

    (I watched some of these movies with my little cousins).


  3. That's strange to hear, but I guess not too surprising. I remember the cartoons and kids' movies from the '80s and early '90s had serious issues (the Very Special Episode), but they were more about the problems that young people faced (drugs, suicide, violence, child abuse, etc.).

  4. The sitcoms aimed at teenagers had special episodes. The kiddie cartoons in the 80s were mostly just simple aphorisms, like "Revenge is bad.", "help those in need", etc. I can't remember any little kids cartoon - like He-man, Transformers, My Little Pony, etc. - handling anything like drug abuse or violence.

    Contrastly, Toy Story 3 and UP are purportedly aimed at 5-10 year old kids. Is it really necessary for a cartoon movie meant for 5-year olds to depict a woman learning she's barren? Maybe I'm reaching here...

  5. If you're curious, here's the clip from "UP". Its not such a bad movie, but its content is more appropriate for grown adults. Not children, who could care less about a bittersweet marriage between a childless couple or an old man trying to overcome the crippling regret of not fulfilling his dream - both depicted in the movie.



  6. http://www.toplessrobot.com/2008/08/the_10_best_antidrug_cartoon_episodes.php

    There were drug episodes on He-Man, Jem, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, C.O.P.S., Smurfs, Galaxy High, BraveStarr (where the kid dies), and Captain Planet (where a kid dies).

    Then there was Cartoon All Stars To The Rescue, a one-off special with every character you could think of (aired in 1990 by all three major networks working together).

    I can't remember specifics without a list like that, but I also remember episodes about children running away from home, and getting into trouble with the law (usually stealing, related to running away or to get drug money).

  7. I think the "very special episodes," although overblown, weren't that bad for kids because the normal show was wholesome and so were the characters.

    Only in contrast to a wholesome world does drug use, running away, petty theft, etc., seem like they're worth pushing back against.

    If they're portrayed as a kind of backdrop to a lurid world of youngsters, like in those dumb movies like Kids, 13, etc. You don't feel motivated to do anything about it, because there's so much going wrong all at once, and it's so deeply entrenched in their world. It's only like passively watching a trainwreck.

    These latter types are more fully sensationalist than the occasional cheesy episode from the '80s. It's a revival of the mid-century comic book and pulp fiction media, where they want to immerse you fully in a lurid world where you just get off on voyeurism, rather than present a wholesome world with an unusual problem that it must try to solve.

  8. Pixar films like "Up" and "Toy Story 2&3" are targeted to teens and adults. The kid references are secondary. There are plenty of full-length computer animated films out there that are indeed kiddy fare interlarded with winks to grownups, ("Space Chimps") -- but the Pixar films are not them. In any case, serious cartoons are only a minor landmark in the abolition of serious childhood markers in the contemporary (low crime) world. What about the disappearance of "innocence" and the expectation that children are or should be innocent? This may be so far gone, that someone born after 1980 might not recognize that this was once a powerful cultural norm.

  9. I stand corrected then. Its been so long ago....

    "What about the disappearance of "innocence" and the expectation that children are or should be innocent? This may be so far gone, that someone born after 1980 might not recognize that this was once a powerful cultural norm."

    Kids are more innocent and protected now then they used to be. Google "playing doctor" in this blog's search engine.

    As for the movies, they were targeted towards adults who would bring their children with them. Kids movies are made more for the sake of the parents then for kids.

    Sort of like how nowadays most parties are thrown by adults rather than teenagers.

    I don't think this is because of an aging population. Rather, the younger generation are unassertive, so the older people naturally dominate.


  10. "Kids"

    Larry Clark, who directed kids, was b. 1943 - tail end of the Silent Generation. The movie sensationalizes normal behavior, but also exaggerates(for instance, the main kid turns out to spreading AIDS around, but AIDs was mostly a gay epidemic).


  11. I think "innocent" is hard to pin down in order to study any change over time. People use it in too many different ways.

    Like in the '80s, parents thought we should have an innocent childhood in the sense of a singularly kiddie world that we'd grow out of by age 10-12.

    But then they also encouraged us to play and flirt with the opposite sex, in however wholesome of a way, and wanted us to learn how to take care of ourselves.

    Helicopter parents do the opposite, keeping their children locked away from their peers and blurring the boundaries between how children and adults are treated. But they would frame this sheltering as keeping their kids innocent.

  12. Looking over the past 100 or so years, it looks like a better term to use for how things change is "adorable" or "precious".

    That's close to what you probably meant by "innocent," but helicopter parents can't bend the meaning to make themselves look like model parents.

    Unlike "innocent," there's a simple test for "adorable" or "precious" -- they make grown-ups uncontrollably go "Awww!" These differences are best seen in what children's clothing looks like, whether they're made to provoke an "Awww!" or not.

    Looks like the high points of that kind of clothing for children were the '20s and the '80s, although building up over a few decades. The low points were the '40s/'50s and the present day.

  13. Hairstyles are the other clear sign of a separate space for children vs. adults. Remember how every boy in the '80s had a bowl cut, and the girls had pig-tails?

    You don't see separate kiddie hairdos anymore. And during the '50s boys had either a buzzcut or a slicked side part, and girls had ponytails, like teenagers or adults did.

  14. "keeping their children locked away from their peers"

    I still think a lot of this is because of welfare policies and affirmative action, which moved minorities and white trash up into middle-class areas. This caused people to start cocooning.


  15. Nah, you see it even in all-white, upper-middle class areas. SWPL parents who only live around other SWPLs are some of the most fanatic about not letting their kids have a social life.

  16. Isn't this just the result of half the kids today being bastards? He's nobody's son, and knows it: 'You aren't my daddy!' if you treat him like a kid. So you treat him like an adult, and just avoid him, and the poor bastard never grows into a man.

  17. I never had any rites of passage and I ended up just fine! No wait I'm actually a complete basket case.


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