I still remember when, in my early twenties, I read Phillipe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood. It was one of the first times I confronted the likelihood that something I took to be natural bedrock might be culturally specific and fluctuating. What could be more constant and naturally determined than the difference between children and adults? But Aries argued persuasively that the idea that children were psychologically (and therefore morally) different from adults was a relatively modern invention – that in other times and places, children were more or less miniature grown ups. It was stunning. The book didn’t much change my view of children, about whom, at the time, I was singularly uninterested (OMG, I was so obnoxious: I used to tell my friends who had babies that when their kids were ready to discuss Hegel I’d consider hanging out with them). But the larger moral of Aries’s book – that seemingly inevitable aspects of the natural world might instead be utterly mutable historical contingencies — was the beginning of a continual intrapsychic disturbance for me, a kind of nagging intellectual itch that has yet to resolve.
In some ways, the Commentaries supports the view that childhood in the United States today is a more developmentally distinct and much more protected stage of life than it was in Eighteenth-Century Britain – at least where the law is concerned. Blackstone reports, for instance, that seven-year-olds could be subject to the death penalty. (Bk 4, Ch. 2, p. 23-24) Can childhood, and the parent-child bond, mean the same thing to us that it did in a society that sent seven-year-olds to the gallows? Then again, as a relative matter, the treatment of children may not have been so different. In Blackstone’s time all felonies were capital crimes. Hanging was the prescribed penalty for any serious crime of violence. In the U.S. today, only a tiny fraction of criminal defendants ever face a death sentence. Nowadays, incarceration is the punishment of choice. With that in mind, we don’t have so much reason to see our juvenile justice system as developmentally distinct or progressive, just because we don’t sentence kids to death. Only last month the U.S. Supreme Court held that a child who kills someone can be thrown in prison for the rest of his life with absolutely no possibility of ever coming out. The big news was that the Court grudgingly ruled that children given life sentences for “nonhomicide crimes” had to have some chance of eventual parole. In other words, in the U.S. today, kids of all ages are still subject to the harshest criminal penalties routinely meted out to adults who commit the most serious crimes – just as they were in Blackstone’s England.
Oddly, in the particular cultural corner of parenthood I inhabit, childhood looks both profoundly developmentally structured and interminable. Parents are encouraged to compare every aspect of their children’s behavior and misbehavior with chronologically defined developmental norms, and every toy, game, book, or after-school activity is calibrated for its “age appropriate” audience. At the same time, there’s a feeling that becoming an adult no longer requires putting away childish things. Bars serve alcohol infused cupcakes. More than a few parents ride skateboards and scooters as they drop off their children at my daughter’s school. I daresay almost all of us have items of clothing that our own parents would have scorned for their juvenile style. Besides warding off our own mortality, I wonder if incorporating childlike features into our adult lives isn’t a way to mask the inevitable separation that a developmental view implies. If we can’t keep our growing children forever close, we can maintain a connection to childhood in our own lives. I don’t find this idea particularly consoling.
One recent unusually chilly spring morning, my daughter ran out of the house and headed for school in just a sleeveless shirt and shorts. I dashed after, remonstrating – but she outpaced me. About two-thirds of the way up the block she turned and waved very slowly overhead, as though from the deck of a liner, and I waved back the lavender hoodie I was still clutching. Oh, my girl! Can it be that you are on your way out into the world, unprotected — and away from me — so soon!