Little people: the brevity of childhood

Alice, reading © Samantha Groenestyn (private commission)

I have a proposition to make concerning childhood: that it is short, bewildering and impeded by adult fairytales. Far shorter than our elongated gestation periods of today care to admit, far less simple and sparkling in clarity than we tell each other, and, because of these adult conceptions of what childhood is, thwarted. We go to great lengths to convince children of what they are, without considering allowing them to simply be.

A thousand years ago—the mid-point of Christianity—we lived arduous and brief lives. In Germany (of which I am currently reading*), people lived thirty years on average. Think about the fact that this would make me a near elderly person, full of wisdom and so forth. I would be about to drop dead any second. My whole being is consumed with living as much life as possible in my short breath of existence, and I’ve probably been married at least ten years already with several of my own children, married to a man I’ll never have the chance to tire of. I make fabulously bold commitments for life, because mine is tenuous and I can’t afford to be indecisive or I’ll miss out completely. (As for you, I don’t know how old you are, so you’ll have to invent your own story).

Fulbrook (p. 13) writes of early and high middle ages Germans: ‘while alive, their experiences were generally of illness, hunger and periodic famine. They were at the mercy of the seasons, of unpredictable events, of human violence.’

For much of history (and I am speaking very broadly because I have not researched the specifics of this claim), childhood has been short. I am beginning to suspect that it continues to be, in reality, startlingly short, though we have all sorts of useful mechanisms at our disposal to keep our young ones young. I was struck recently by the idea that we physically mature long before we are allowed to socially mature, or to enter into society as a fully capable citizen, or even to make informed decisions about our own welfare. I saw a young girl in the street, perhaps eleven years old—she was in a primary school uniform—with larger breasts than my own. I am not saying that breasts are anyone’s ticket to maturity. What struck me was that this girl is becoming a woman, but no one will ever frame it in those terms. A thousand years ago, this girl would have been a woman at eleven. She’d be near middle-aged!

While it might be socially difficult to make adult demands of eleven-year-olds, it might be worth considering the idea that as people begin to physically leave childhood behind, they are actually leaving childhood behind. We do them a disservice to continue to treat them as they were treated at five, because they are no longer five. I am always tempted to ask people what they remember of their so-called childhood—do they not remember feeling like a free entity, with their own thoughts and their own outlook on life? Were they not separate from their parents, did they not dislike some decisions made by their parents (and I don’t mean decisions revolving around lollies or bedtime)?

I, for one, remain convinced that my nine-year-old self had a very healthy outlook on life, with the information she was granted. At nine, I became smitten with the piano. ‘This thing,’ I thought, ‘I must tame it. I must learn to wiggle my fingers such that I make the monstrously glorious sound, all the fingers at once.’ I considered how any nine-year-old might go about this, and went straight to my cousin, eight years my senior, at the church piano and laid forth my demands. She was much obliging, and after some serious after-church study I was able to convince my parents that piano lessons were, in fact, in order, well worth the expense and the investment in a piano. Children do not think only in terms of whims—I continue to adore piano, and remain unable to explain from whence this love grew, having a thoroughly non-musical family (barring some cousins).

We believe children to be mentally inept, but we fail them twice in this: First, we don’t define clearly what we mean by ‘childhood,’ and secondly, we deny them information. While we slap a line between seventeen and eighteen and declare the birthday as the threshold of adulthood, the division is without question more complex than this. Out of a necessity for generalisation, it must be so, but is a young woman of seventeen really a ‘child’? Teenagers often work, drive, have views on politics just as do adults. They are certainly not children in the sense of playing with toys or not being able to judge the speed of cars when crossing the road. We already have a handy name for ‘children’ who have outgrown the more dependent part of childhood, and that is ‘teenagers’—because we recognise that children emerge from childhood really rather quickly. Perhaps it would be more healthy for adults to admit the brevity of ‘childhood proper’ and to better arm their offspring for the world rather than attempting to keep them young—and, as Joanne Faulkner** emphasises, innocent.

Faulkner (p. 126) captures this stance well when she draws attention to the PG rating explanation offered by the Office of Film and Literature Classification: ‘classified PG may contain material which some children find confusing or upsetting, and may require the guidance of parents or guardians.’ Faulkner argues, ‘What is needed, then, is an invitation to children to discuss experiences and encounters that assume adult knowledge. The PG rating suggests a more promising mode of relating to children in terms of guidance and a commitment to ongoing discussion, rather than authority and a commitment to protection. Left alone to make sense of something their parents are manifestly uncomfortable about, children inevitably feel confused and upset.’

When children under thirteen are simply barred from PG films, they are arguably protected—but also stunted, disarmed and left to fumble with confusing concepts at a later age. While many things will be beyond children and their direct experience of the world, many things will not—and we ought not assume what stage a child is at. Rather, we should engage with children and respond to each personally, addressing their thoughts, concerns and misunderstandings rather than pushing them aside and telling them not to worry. Faulkner (p. 125) challenges adults: ‘What does maturity owe to immaturity, autonomy to dependence, and adulthood to childhood?’

Perhaps childhood lasts a mere twelve years—give or take a few, depending on the individual. Because I heartily believe that children are individuals, not faceless lumps of cuteness, and that while they teach us not to take life too seriously, they also demand some level of respect as little people, not as pets or décor. As Faulkner (p. 125) argues, ‘the budding breast is private because adults do not want to dwell on the passing of childhood.’ But without baring it, we can acknowledge it and accept it, and do children a favour by dwelling on the meaning of childhood, and the meaning of departing from it.

* Fulbrook, Mary. 1990. A concise history of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
** Faulkner, Joanne. 2011. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alice, reading is a recent commission by a man acquainted with the late Maurice Sendak. Alice’s grandfather sympathises with Sendak’s stance that childhood is terrifying and lonely for children, and to this end we worked a little darkness into this picture-book-like portrait. I imagined Alice feeling at home in an adult world, an avid reader, an old soul on the inside with infinite thoughts and experiences of her own already, despite her few short years.


News: Some swish notecards arrived this week, ready to be sold to admirers at my forthcoming show! I printed these through Moo Print again, because infinite variety is no trouble for them, and I’m very pleased with the stock and the smooth, matte, satiny finish.

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4 thoughts on “Little people: the brevity of childhood

  1. I agree with most of your observations here. Childhood does end for most around the 11-12 year mark. What I find society confuses is the distinction between childhood and adolescence. Adolescence is when the frontal cortex really starts developing and its development only really slows down in the early-mid twenties.

    Unfortunately, most don’t understand that the brain is learning differently from childhood to adolescence and that super-protective approach does not work with a brain that’s trying to develop its executive functions. In fact, exposure/exploration with follow-up analysis/discussion/conclusions is the best and most healthy way for adolescent cognitive development. Deprive them of this and their growth will likely be delayed/under-developed/disordered.

    Overall, childhood and adolescence are about learning and developing in every way. If you limit the amount of mental freedom, the definition of which significantly differs at each stage, there is likely to be an impact. And I believe that there is nothing worse than stunting a child’s or adolescent’s growth – cognitive, emotional, or physical.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It’s definitely something to keep in mind. I think this is something that oddly keeps me youthful, that I take children and teenagers seriously rather than talking down to them. Our experience is a resource, but not necessarily a pedestal. x

  2. I like what you had to say here. I remember having a thought at ten years old, with such clarity that I can still picture the field I was standing in. There was some feeling of epiphany, although I cannot say what triggered it. The thought went something like this: “I must remember myself at this moment so that I will always treat a child with respect when I am an adult.”

    Now that I am a parent of a five- and seven-year old, I hope I am doing just that.

    Love your art. Thanks for the reminder.

    • This is beautiful. This is what I mean–do people not remember their childhood frustrations with adults? (Also, J would consider this a form of mental time-travel, since you have cemented a moment in your mind and can take yourself back to it and feel the sensations you had at that time. It’s a powerful thing, and in this case very valuable in parenting I imagine!) Thanks for sharing. x

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