What Is Childhood?

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Yesterday, I asked what the purpose of childhood is. Since childhood, and the purpose to which it is oriented via education and schooling, is defined in terms of success at adulthood, and since success at adulthood is something we cannot define, childhood, I conclude, has no definite purpose. The purpose of childhood, if anything, is the same as the purpose of adulthood: to find meaning and fulfillment in the world.

This leads to another important question: what is childhood? Generally, childhood is defined in terms of two things:

1) Not being adulthood

2) Being a student

On the first point, children are thought as non-adults. They don’t possess the rights of adults. They don’t possess the social standing of adults. They don’t possess the command of adults. They don’t even possess the social respect of adults (listen to how adults speak to children, and then how they speak to cognitively-impaired adults).

But defining an idea or concept in terms of its negative is rarely fruitful since it leads us to then have to define the negative. Rather, we should focus on childhood as “being a student.”

Some critics of standardized, traditional schooling regimes have argued (e.g., John Taylor Gatto), that compulsory schooling extends childhood beyond its natural range. By requiring that young adults attend school until at least the age of 18, we infantilize them and subjugate them to the whims of people just a few years older than them. They conceptualize that their agency is not something they actually possess until the end of the legally-mandated schooling regime.

Strong social pressures to enroll in higher education then extend this infantilization. Young adults, upwards of 21, 22, or 23, are now subject to the arbitrary rules and expectations of universities and colleges that they have very little choice in whether or not they attend. While they are not legally mandated to attend college, the social pressure from friends, family, and low interest rates encouraged by the government make it hard to say no.

So, childhood arguably ends somewhere between ages 18 and 23 on the second conception.

Why should childhood even be a concept in our mind? We have to legally have some form of status for persons who cannot make fully-informed decisions for themselves, but how much of this status as a person who “cannot make fully-informed decisions for themselves” is reality, and how much of it is reinforced by telling children they don’t know what they need to know until ages 18-23?

If the purpose of childhood is the purpose of adulthood — to find fulfillment and craft it in the world — then why artificially divide life into two stages? Why not just conceive of children as little adults — persons to interact with the world and learn new things about it in the same way that the 21 year old who is just now figuring out how to replace a halogen lightbulb in their car does?

This artificial division only delays the necessity to confront the reality that life has no definite purpose outside of what the individual crafts for it (whether that be religious, spiritual, entrepreneurial, intellectual, artistic, or any combination does not matter). We owe young persons something better than the infantilization brought with the concept of childhood.

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