OH, GROW UP!

5 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

There seems to be some confusion here. 0n one hand, everyone wants to be a kid these days, hence those breakfast cereals that promise to “bring out the kid in you” and the movie genre about 40-year-old bodies inhabited by fun-loving 10-year-old minds. But at the very same time, childhood is being redefined in the news media as a public safety hazard and breeding ground for pint-size “predators” who would just as soon slit your throat as click on for another round of Nintendo.

Naturally, it’s the image of the child as predator that fascinates the presidential candidates. In the past, candidates had platforms; now they offer lists of disciplinary measures. Bill wants to put the little ones in uniforms and subject them to curfews. Bob predicts that “some of today’s newborns will become tomorrow’s super-predators” unless we start punishing juvenile criminals as if they were adults. Most states, he happily notes, already have the option of trying bad kids in grownup courts and imprisoning them right along with the 200-lb. child molesters.

So when did we start yearning for childhood and simultaneously hating so many of the little people to whom it rightly belongs? An even halfway-liberal presidential candidate would point out that despite all the media fuss over “killer kids” and “wolf packs,” it’s the grownups who commit 87% of violent crimes, which include plenty of crimes against children. According to the Justice Department, 6 out of 10 violent crimes against children are committed by adults–often the parents or caretakers of the victims.

Even the worst kids are victims themselves–in fact, it’s usually the worst kids who have been most grievously victimized. A Connecticut study, for example, found that 60% of boys and 90% of girls who are arrested have documented histories of neglect and abuse. Most child criminals are desperately poor; many are the products of multiple foster homes. As Hillary Clinton might say, it takes a village to produce a child predator.

Or maybe the problem goes deeper than our smug habit of attributing crime to individual character flaws. What we seem to be forgetting–both those of us who want to be 10 again and those who want to lock up 10-year-olds in the pen–is that childhood is not just a triumph of miniaturization. Kids really are different, which is what seven-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff’s death last April should have taught us. And the line dividing the kids from the grownups is at least as serious and consequential as that other life-cycle boundary we fuss so much about–the one separating a fetus from a human being.

Among humans more than any other creatures, childhood is, above all, a disability: curable in time, to be sure, but marked, while it lasts, by ignorance, inexperience, inadequate stature and musculature and (especially in the cuddlier stages) incontinence and all-around fumble-thumbed incompetence. Hence the need to set childhood off from adulthood as a condition requiring major investments of resources and energy on the part of all who have survived it. Making full-blown humans out of 7-lb. lumps of flesh is not a job for a slow-witted species: it takes a village, as the lady said, not a village idiot.

But we no longer seem to have what it takes for this definingly human task. Bill Clinton has signed a welfare “reform” bill that will, by his own Administration’s estimate, plunge a million more children into poverty. Most Americans may be fine parents individually, but we routinely countenance spending cuts for the 25% of American children who are in poverty and hence “at risk”–with the result, according to Mike Males’ recent book, The Scapegoat Generation, that the U.S. now harbors both the wealthiest adults and the poorest children of any Western nation.

What makes this combination particularly shameful is that money can buy so much of the pleasure and freedom that ordinarily belong to the young. Poor children living in scary neighborhoods have to grow up fast. But affluent grownups can prolong their own childhoods through years of higher education and sheltered internships. They can spend money on therapies that explore the “inner child.” They get to play too, well into the Centrum Silver years, at the kind of outdoor sports any kid would love. All of which is fine, except when these charming traits are combined with indifference toward the condition of actual children.

Of course, the more we convince ourselves that errant children are subhuman predators, the easier it gets to deny all children in poverty the resources and nurture they need. If they’re the predators, we must be the vulnerable prey–the only real innocents around. And this probably explains why we can blithely identify with the man-boy in the frosted-cereal commercial while demanding that child criminals be punished like actual men. What could be better than being a great big kid, free of both the responsibilities of adulthood and the disabilities of youth, while the real kids are locked up in prison?

The grownups, in other words, are trying to keep childhood for themselves.

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