Childhood’s end?

St Paul tells us that when he was a child he thought as a child but that now, having come to man’s estate, he has put away childish things. We sigh, but realise he’s right. The world we live in requires a full kit of sharp-edged tools. Many of the ideas we valued as children would be lacerated to ribbons merely by being stored in there with the kind of stuff we need to survive. We have all gained much expertise in the use of defensive and aggressive cynicism, of irony as default attitude and scepsis as default position. Criticism and reductive analysis have become the standard approach to anything that appears too good to be true – and thus in all likelihood neither the one nor the other. Indeed, many of us are now so savvy and sharp that Occam’s razor is but a blunt instrument in comparison with our standard mindset. Those who remember “Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy” in Mad Magazine will now recognize therein, not only a diabolical vision of deception, but also a meme for modern society. Trust me; the knife in your gut is there to stop the bleeding. The bomb in the suitcase is there to test your system.

The guillotine and the cross

Jesus taught us that our faith should be childlike and our hearts pure if we are to attain His kingdom. If you feel, as I do, that both Paul and Christ are basically right, then how can we “put away childish things” but maintain our purity and simplicity of faith? And how are we meant to teach our own children to deal with the duplicity and subtlety that surrounds them if we can neither explain nor illustrate it without stripping them of part of their innocence?

I am regularly visited by a sudden jolt of existential fear. At such moments I want to gather all those I love close to me and keep them safe. However, I realise that this desire is irrational, unproductive and restrictive. It is not by saving those we love from the nefarious influences of a decadent underworld that we can help them grow, but rather by providing them with the positive tools – lights and virtues – that can aid them, as they push back their horizons, in discerning truth from lies, the fair-seeming foul from the foul-seeming fair, that which is vital from that which is superfluous, that which shall endure from that which is ephemeral or meretricious.

The French natural philosophers considered conventional morality, together with the Christian ethic of “ennobling” poverty to be hypocritical constructs created by the old order to maintain itself. For the most part they were right. But the French Revolution thereby confused innocence with ignorance and set about the systematic destruction of both. The death of innocence was seen as a natural by-product of the revolutionary struggle, and the universal application of reason would necessarily be the end of all such superstition. As a result, La Grande Nation grew up with a form of children’s literature almost entirely devoted to explaining the duplicity of the world and warning little ones of the fate that awaited the dreamer, the light-hearted, the simple-minded and the trusting. Even today “un innocent” in French is a derogatory expression for someone rather thin-witted and gullible. There is perhaps no one outside the bazaars of the orient who is less likely to trust his neighbour than a French peasant or more likely to cheat him than a Parisian bourgeois

The toothpaste and the tube

In our century the young are confronted with the fallibility and danger of the world at an ever earlier age: poster animals threatened with extinction on the grade school wall, recycling projects to “save the planet” call upon the responsible exertions of every single eight-year-old, therapy sessions take place after a “school shooting” is reported on TV, warnings about the menace presented by traffic and strangers and drugs and deviants and alcohol and sugar and salt and pesticides etc are posted everywhere. Add to this the unseen evil lurking behind the computer screen, ready to steal your innocence or your identity or your pocket money or all of the above. Blake’s garden is now at risk from about age 5. It’s sad, but we have to develop strategies to deal with the new childhood of technical, social and sexual precocity. The toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube. But a great deal can be done to provide a counterweight and antidote to all that neo-sophistication:

-       Read to your kids every night. Classics of children’s literature are not made by accident. Almost all of them have some inherent value to equip your child morally and intellectually to meet the challenges of growing up too fast;

-       Choose a quality or virtue to work on as a family. Assess your progress each day in the practical application of this virtue and reward your children’s’ success;

-       Have a project or goal as a family for each year: something practical and genuinely useful;

-       Encourage the speaking of truth to power and expect to lead by example. Also expect to be critically questioned over your own use of authority;

-       Playtime is sacred, so is day-dreaming time. Respect them. Ditto for friends and privacy;

-       School may be important, but you yourself know you’ve forgotten almost everything you learned there, so be tolerant of lapses and remember that life and experience is going to be the hardest and best school in the end;

-       Pray or meditate with your children if you are religious. Preserve some regular quiet time in a quiet place if you are not;

-       Eat together as often as possible. At such times turn off the TV (better still, ban it!);

-       Tell your kids about your own childhood. This will help them construct theirs and help you to remember what really matters and what is worth saving.

The tentacle and the wire

I was researching something recently that I already know quite a lot about, so the distortions and half-truths I found online were an expected irritant but not too much of a distraction. In other words, if you know where to find the real deal, you will still find it. That much has not changed between old and new media. What has changed is the intrusive prevalence of every possible kind of nutty fruitcake, whacky-wheeled quack, plausible fraudster and smooth-talking snake-oil merchant who now all share equal billing (at least on my browser) with official, legitimate or other reputable sources of information. How can kids be expected to research their school projects in amongst this septic sludge of grudge mongers and rumour millers?

Guaranteeing that a website is “safe” for kids, neither means it tells the truth, nor that its purpose is innocent. Even while they may seem to be general purveyors of sweetness and light, many ostensibly child-friendly sites either seek commercial dominance at a high price in “dumbing down”, or are in the business of ideological vaccination of the most egregious kind. When you discover, as I recently did, a wonderfully moral and upright children’s site, full of colourful games and activities, you might feel secure. But when you realise that it is run by an organization of rabid homeschoolers, whose main aim seems to be a denial of the scientific method and the righteous enforcement of the strictest type of creationism coupled with an assertion of a parent’s divine right to deprive their offspring entirely, if necessary, of the friendship and society of their peers … then you soon conclude that the French Revolution didn’t go nearly far enough! And to think that these people, who regularly flag an escaped “F- word” or the merest glimpse of a nipple as being “unsafe” for children, are hoarding firearms like cookies for Armageddon, while pushing to legislate what you can or can’t do with your own womb or your own sperm and whether Darwin’s theories should be taught in school.

I’m all for maintaining standards of reasonable decency around children, but there are far worse things than foul language or pornography that your kids might find on the net. They might learn that their policemen cannot be trusted, that their government tells them lies, that their military commanders falsify reports to inflate their budget, that a summary execution can be sold as justice, that some of their teachers actually prefer to keep them ignorant and malleable, that some parents are wilfully negligent of their right to access knowledge, that their clergymen may be interested in something more than their spiritual welfare, that some people think a girl is worth less than half a boy, that the poor starving children they see on TV are being maintained that way by a brutal and perverse economic system, that some of their favourite foods are knowingly manufactured unhealthy, that the nice farmer down the lane systematically maltreats his livestock and poisons both soil and groundwater, that the energy they use to power their game console has been bought with someone else’s freedom … how many more things are we not to talk about in front of the little ones?

Edwin Drood

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