Childhood is a stage of life primarily defined by being a student in most developed nations. While the concept has at least three components — legal (i.e., being less than 21 years of age in most states in the US), biological (i.e., being at a stage when most of the body is still developing — until about age 26), and social (i.e., studentdom) — it’s social component is the one by which we think of most children.
When an adult thinks of a child, what thoughts come to mind? Summer vacation, getting on and off a school bus, going to take exams at school, preparing to get into college, taking a driver’s ed class, and recess are probably some of the most common thoughts. The common theme that ties these thoughts together is schooling. As I noted yesterday, schooling is the primary defining characteristic in the common conception of childhood. This brings with it all the baggage that schooling does. This conception has children subservient to adults, naturally unfocused and oriented towards play, and requiring structure and authority imposed upon them.
Adulthood, on the other hand, is seen as “not-childhood.” It is a place that adults commonly refer to as “the real world,” — as if the world children occupy is somehow artificial (and it may be in schools ) — with “real skills” and doing things that commonly fall into two categories of “work” and “recreation” or “leisure.” Adults are charged with the task of not only supporting themselves and their kin, but also to craft meaning for themselves in a world in which they have long neglected the question. It may come at a quarter-life crisis after college, or a mid-life crisis upon reaching the “dream” and seeing mortality for the first time on the horizon, but at some point many adults may confront themselves with the question of what the meaning of their life is.
The childhood-as-studentdom conception exacerbates this problem for adults. As adolescents and young adults, they see themselves as in a developmental stage of their lives. Their goal as children/adolescents/young adults is to get into a good college/get a good job/get that first few promotions. They are so focused on these goals that they do not explore what it means to craft meaning for themselves in the world, so they either outsource that desire to institutions which award them for achieving these goals — thereby deriving their meaning from achieving relatively arbitrary goals with no definite end-point in sight — or they simply put this question off until they get that job/promotion/bachelor’s degree.
By not exploring this imperative to create meaning when young, we force ourselves to put it off until later in life. This may be a fair tradeoff if it weren’t for the fact that once we have set ourselves in economic, familial, and psychological ways, it is very hard to break loose of them. Entrepreneurship-oriented speakers oftentimes talk about how hard it is to go from a six-figure salary to $35,000/year as a startup founder, and this holds true in the pursuit of meaning. If one finds later in life that they had not yet created meaning, it is hard to take a month off from work to try three different suspected “callings” before settling on one. It’s hard to walk away from a family to pursue something different. It’s hard to change later in life when we’ve given ourselves so much baggage.
Our conception of childhood-as-studentdom does not harm just the child, but also the adult into whom the child grows. We deprive children of the opportunity to “just be kids,” or to explore different aspects of life when the costs are low (i.e., no family, no major professional responsibilities, no rent to be paid, etc.).
Why are we doing this to ourselves and our children?
If the answer is “so they can at least be well-prepared for the realities of the world,” then we have totally misaligned our priorities. Being “well-prepared for the realities of the world” is meaningless if it just means floating through life, just taking what is given to you, and not crafting meaning from it all. The goal ought to be to prepare people when they are young to know what they want, and then to go get it, not to go get some goal that brings a certain level of social approbation and hope that it coheres with what the individual wants.
So, Let’s Abolish Childhood
We don’t have to just accept this lot as the one which the universe gives us. We don’t have to just tell ourselves, “oh well, I just hope that whatever goal I achieve when I grow up is one that brings me fulfillment.” We can create a better system by which children can explore the world, live in it, not be sequestered away to a sterile environment for most days, and can learn from their interactions in it. The hope is that this will help most children to discover what they do and do not want from life. They can learn first-hand what they need to know, and what they need to strive towards.
This requires us to do away with the artificial division of life into childhood and adulthood. Children are simply persons growing into adults, and adults are simply persons who have grown past a certain point of biological development. They do not wield inherent authority over children that is not given to them in virtue of some other role (i.e., parent). Similarly, children are not something odd to be looked down upon and sequestered off. As soon as they exhibit an ability for sound judgement, they ought to be the primary decision-makers for those things in their lives over which they can exert agency. They ought to lead their own learning and exploration, and only pull on adults when necessary for further instruction or for last-resort enforcement reasons in the rare case that children are naturally disagreeable.
The natural implication of this newfound respect for childhood and children is an abolition of the schools-as-we-know-them. Compulsory and standardized schooling is completely antithetical to the idea that children can learn when left to their own devices and are, in fact, just adults who spend the majority of their time learning and exploring the world.
Schools would not, as places of community and formal study, need to be done away with, but the standardized and compulsory nature of them must be. If we wish to allow children the very real freedom to explore their lives and take ownership over them — a freedom most adults do not fully explore until later in life — we cannot mandate they spend the majority of their time in some way learning subjects mandated by those removed from them.
…and Abolish Adulthood, Too.
If children are simply growing into adults, and adults are simply children who have passed a certain stage of development, then perhaps we ought not place such a seriousness on adulthood (today’s SMBC comic actually hits on this).
The consequence of immediately adopting this new perspective on childhood and adulthood would likely frighten many, but a generation of children raised with the respect and freedom owed to existentially-fulfilled adults would grow into a generation of adults much less fraught with anxiety and crisis about the world than those of recent generations.
The abolition of childhood may appear radical on the face, but is leaving an entire generation to the current system not radically cruel when we know we can do better?