Idyllic Youth

June 1, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

The other day I heard a local talk show host, bemoaning a recent case of child molestation involving a 14-year-old and a 5-year-old, wax problematic on how times have gotten so harsh for kids, that he wished we could return to a “time when kids could just be kids.  Could be innocent.”

I wondered, twisted that I sometimes am, when exactly that was.

I’m not being rhetorical.  I hear people go on from time to time about how kids used to have it so much better when they didn’t have all these modern problems with which to contend.  Things like drugs, child molestation, abusive parents, absent parents, gang violence.  You know, back in the day when Tom Sawyer was the model for rural youth and Little Lord Fauntleroy seemed to have been the model for everything else.

Everyone coinveniently forgets about Huck Finn.  Who smoked and drank and cussed.  Whose father was largely absentee, a petty criminal, and an abusive drunk.  Who ended up running off with a slave as the only option out of a situation that could, in his estimation, get nothing but worse.  We forget about him, and if we have romanticized Mark Twain overly much it would do to reread that book and pick out the life that Huck was clearly living, which was pretty awful.  He was poor, underfed, undereducation.  Compared with his buddy Tom he was what we’d identify as street trash.  His denials about freedom notwithstanding and the humor prevalent throughout the book, Huck’s “idyllic” childhood was anything but.

And then we have examples like Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger.  Wonderful life.

I wonder when that period was, when kids could “just be kids” and what, furthermore, that really means.

For me, it seems to be a fantasy substitute, sometimes imagined about our very own lives, when we did not–in fact could not–worry about the things we worry about as adults.  When the complications of wanting did not intrude to ruin friendships, bank accounts, or opportunities.  When we still wondered what it was like to be with someone else, intimately, and the mystery seemed to exceed the actuallity.  When we could pretty much do whatever we could get away with and not face dire consequences.  When the most exciting thing to do would be summer camp or boy scouts or…

Are we really that desperate?

My father told me stories of having to take a baseball bat to school (in the Thirties) because some bigger kids always met him on the way to steal the nickle his mother had given him for lunch.  When he was a teenager he ran with a gang called the Brooklyn Barons and he acquired a couple of scars from knife fights.  My mother was sheltered and remembers nothing bad about her childhood except that they didn’t have a lot of money.  My uncle, her brother, recalled getting beaten up regularly because he was a bit swarthier and everyone thought he was either Italian (dego) or mulatto, rather than Irish.  Of course, once that was understood, it still didn’t do any good, because he was either Black Irish or Shanty Irish, no matter how clean his house might have been.

Three or four kids in my grade school smoked.  One was a petty thief and as an adult committed murder, for which he’s still in prison.  A classmate of mine (grade school now) had an older brother who was a heroin addict and I got to watch him go through withdrawal one summer.

I listen to the sanctimony of those who would protect children from themselves–as if somehow they are really not actually human beings, but proto-humans, unstained by the emotional confusions of adulthood–and I have to wonder what movies they think represent that curiously idyllic childhood they think was once real.  I remember the original Bowery Boys, before they were transformed into camp, in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces and I ask myself “Idyllic?”  Oh, but that was New York, and we all know how bad New York always was.

We kid ourselves about the nature of children so much that we forget to apply reason.  We’ve been reacting, I think, against Freud, and even though much of what he said was in error, our counterreaction has become pathological.

I don’t know when that idyllic time was.  I suspect it was true for some kids, in some places, at some times.  But it was never universal, and seems to have been remarkable enough to become a kind of ideal goal which we have somehow miscast as authentic history.

On the other hand, there are days when I wistfully remember my own childhood.  Not so much for the utopian elements (there were none), but for the simple fact that so much was brand new for me then.  I looked forward much more eagerly, not knowing what to expect from what life had to offer.  Now that aspect retains the patina of innocence, simply because all experiences were unsullied by disappointment.  I wonder if perhaps people have taken that attitude of ignorant anticipation and translated it into some kind of innocence.  It has nothing to do with the thing anticipated, of course.  All those things, good and bad, licit and illicit, which by virtue of being there, before us, denied or allowed, offer the same potential for novel experience.  Once experienced, we then begin the process of categorizing them into the moral slots we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

But misidentifying the “purity” of innocent anticipation as some kind of innate innocence of “being” has led us as a society into a peculiarly absurd attitude toward children and childhood, and in the process gives us a distorted view of our own maturity.

So next time someone goes on about how wonderful childhood “used to be” ask them when that was?  And then if they really thought it was like that and don’t they remembered being a little monster from time to time?

Remind them that kids are people, too.  With all that that implies.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Education, Good and Evil, History, Language, Meaning of Life, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. You have just inspired me to order a copy of Neil Postman's "The Disappearance of Childhood" – http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews
    I read it years ago, but can't remember much anymore.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    When I was in school (70's) We had drugs, gangs, everyone carried some type of weapon, (A friend of mine got suspended after shooting himself in the foot with his own gun, I guess they decided that was enough punishment for his crime.)

    I was resigned to the fact that i was going to be jumped and beaten at least twice a month by a minimum of 6 guys from a gang that thought the idea of 6 to 1 odds proved something.

    When I got home, I could always expect a second beating from my dad, not for fighting, but for losing the fight. Of course there were the times that the fights would cause me to miss my bus, and then I faced an 8-mile walk to get home from the Jr High school.

    A few things were better then, the older kids protected the little kids on the bus. Most of us did not preoccupy our time concerned with air-headed conversations about primetime games shows, or the latest fashions.

    There were also the things we did not have that today's kids think are necessary.

    We didn't have cell phones.

    We didn't have mp3 players pda's or any of the dozens of other toys and distractions available now.

    We didn't have the overreactive school officials that would expel a kid for writing down a list of names.

    We didn't have armed cops patrolling the halls. Unless you count the 2 narcs in the 11th grade.

    But we did have reform schools.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    I often wonder what daily life is like for children in Iraq: you know, the kids who must decide, every day, if going to school is worth the risk of getting shot, either intentionally or accidentally. If they choose to risk going to school, they then must decide on the safest route to get there — to avoid the hottest spots where they might get caught in crossfire. Then they wonder how to get home at the end of the day without, again, getting shot. Meanwhile, do the schools have enough books? And paper and pencils? Do children carry baseball bats to protect themselves from bigger kids who might steal their lunch money…or stab them…or rape their little sister? Just what will Iraqi kids remember ten or twenty years from now about their youth and about the childhood that they never had because of all the people who got killed and all the buildings that got blown up when America invaded?

    So next time someone goes on about how wonderful childhood “used to be” ask them what they think it's like right now for Iraqi children. Chances are, they probably haven't thought about it.

  4. Erika Price says:

    The concept of "childhood" didn't even exist until the most recent centuries. Before then, children didn't even have a "childhood" at all. They toiled and worked, they didn't enjoy a protected, sacred time of play and innocence, rather they climbed into chimneys with brooms and died. They married at thirteen, fourteen (many of the girls, at least), and became "adults" as soon as possible. They watched as half of their 10 or 11 siblings died of disease and overwork. If their families couldn't afford food or education or shelter, they wouldn't get it.

    With that in mind, it keeps getting better and better for children. We now recognize children as cognitively very different from adults, and don't expect them to perform adult working roles. And childhood keeps getting longer and longer. A suburban twelve-year-old today has vastly more of that beautiful "innocence" we speak about than an eight-year-old would have had a century ago. And now, if someone molests, abuses, or neglects them, they actually may still have a chance. Past generations couldn't, or didn't, provide that. All in all, childhood has become better in recent years, not worse.

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Jason- I do think there has been a very significant shift in experience of childhood from the time I was growing up (late 60's-70's) to the time my daughter was born (1995)

    Children today are being "raised in captivity."

    I walked or biked to school by myself or with friends from kindergarten until the time I could drive. Playing was not a matter of making "play dates" involving negotiations with parents. There was just a perpetual gang of kids flowing in and out of each others' houses and yards and occasionally taking over the street.

    That just doesn't happen now for a number of reasons including demographics, both parents working, etc. but also because we've decided that our cities and neighborhoods should be planned around moving people around in personal privacy capsules (cars) as efficiently as possible.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: I agree entirely with your observation. Your experience was my experience too (I was born in 1956). There was a "flow" of children without supervision of adults. That forced us to learn such skills as diplomacy. Of course, there were those Lord of the Flies moments too . . .

    I often think of this in terms of sports. When I was growing up, kids formed and refereed their own sports events. That taught invaluable social lessons that kids aren't having a chance to learn today, in this era of adult-supervised sports.

  7. Artemis says:

    I recently re-watched Stand by Me, Steven King's story of growing up in the 1950's, I believe. Maybe early 60's. The theme: there is nothing like being young. Idyllic youth exists in all times; what makes it idyllic are the adventures and the friendships.

    Having a very good memory of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and having recently watched young boys with skateboards, on their way to their own adventures, convinces me that only the environment has changes that much.

    One final note: I checked in with a couple of friends who work daily with youth. Both of them assured me that kids today are like all kids: they are convinced that the REALLY bad stuff will not happen to them. And the only REALLY bad thing is: death. As long as there is life, there is hope in a kid's heart.

    Only by the time we reach adulthood, with all its memories of disappointments, all the responsibilities and restrictions, and with the awareness that life is indeed short, do we lose the youthful enthusiasm for life.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's comment, many kids today don't even play sports, preferring video games instead. It's one reason why nearly a third of America's kids are obese (see, e.g., http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/january….

    Vicki's comment about kids being "raised in captivity" reminds me of the long line of SUVs that appears everyday outside grade schools and middle schools, while the bicycle racks sit nearly empty.

    As regards Erika's comment, indeed, kids today (in First World countries) enjoy a much longer childhood than ever before. For example, when my grandfather (born in 1900) was a kid in Nebraska, he didn't start school until age 9, because he was working in the fields on his family's ranch. Today, not only do kids begin school at a much earlier age, but many remain dependent upon parents until well into their twenties. Amazingly, despite this extended adolescence, twenty percent of high school graduates in America are functionally illiterate.

    We should also remember that many children in developing countries live the way American children did centuries ago: working in farm fields, beginning work as young as possible and not getting any formal education — or what we might call a childhood — at all. Even worse are those who grow up amid civil war, who might find themselves in military combat before they are teenagers.

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