Childhood is what adults make it

There is a crisis in childhood. So says the Most Reverend Rowan Williams. Our children are growing up to be violent and dysfunctional, he declared, as he launched the Children's Society's "good childhood" inquiry. Dr Williams is particularly concerned with fragmentation of the family, the increasing commercialisation of childhood, and children growing up with a "love deficit". A whole generation of "infant adults" is being created, he says.

Dr Williams is certainly the most learned and perhaps the wisest archbishop of Canterbury of recent times. He knows what he is talking about, and it would be astute of us to listen to him. I would argue, however, that childhood has always been in crisis - or, at least, that it has been since it was invented by the Victorians.

The Victorians, bless them, feared childhood. They saw the child as an evil, immature and immoral being. Children had to be forced to hasten the pace of change from childhood to adulthood. Matthew Arnold thought it was a sin not to speed up the transition. Consequently, adults dreaded being childish. And, as a corollary, the child was best appreciated when he or she was least genuinely childlike: when he or she could perform incredible feats of gymnastics, sing like the best tenor, play out adult fantasies projected on to the suffering minor.

Even the commercialisation of childhood is not a new discovery. It, too, began in the Vic torian era. It was associated with toymaking, comics and children's literature - the most powerful disseminators of ideas of what childhood should be and what was expected of children. Send the little blighters to Scouts and Brownies to learn acceptable social aspirations, but for goodness sake make individuals of them. Each child had to be an individual, not the bearer of a collective conscience. Yet the Victorians hardly knew what to make of these little angels/monsters/moppets, in their isolated, single status.

What we face today is the apotheosis of this notion of childhood. It has shaped much of our science and psychology and our understanding of modernity. That is why we look at products of non-western cultures - the non-moderns - as children. Think of Rudyard Kipling and his description of Indians as "half savage, half child". Cecil Rhodes argued that every black South African should "be treated as a child and denied the franchise". James Mill, the 19th-century liberal and utilitarian thinker who provided the intellectual justification for the colonisation of India, saw the relationship between colonisers and their subjects in terms of father and son. Such notions of childhood have justified the economic, social and psychological exploitation of working-class children in Britain. Watch this notion in action in Dickens's England.

So the problem lies not with children, but with our perverted notion of childhood. The very idea that childhood is a separate state of being is somewhat absurd. The moment we isolate childhood as a distinct category, we make it amenable to commodification. It can be measured, weighed, theorised, demonised, romanticised and otherwise used or abused in any way we wish. Which is to say that, once childhood is the basis for a separate identity, it can easily be consumed by adults.

The construction of childhood as a special category is everyone's way of shunning responsibility for nurturing our children. The individuality we thrust on to them also makes them no longer a responsibility of the family or community, society or government. With both parents working, families have no time for these mini-individuals who get dumped in front of the television or play video games. Grandparents, who were always childlike themselves, and who traditionally brought up children, have been banished to rot and die in old people's homes. The government has reduced the child to a private product of a private desire, to be funded largely privately. The community has no interest in assuming a collective responsibility for the cultivation of children. No wonder they grow up to be obese computer-game junkies, addicted to television and celebrity culture, and with tendencies to violent and criminal behaviour.

Most non-western cultures - the ones that are supposed to be infantile - see child-rearing as a collective duty. Children are born pure and innocent, completely unprejudiced by nature, say the civilisations of India, China and Islam. It is adults who give them prejudice. It is adults who kill their spontaneity and creativity. It is adults who turn them into monsters or angels. It is adults who neglect, pamper, use or abuse them. Ultimately, it falls on all adults to ensure that the future generations grow up with a sense of responsibility.

As such, the fault lies squarely with adults and not children. Sort out the adults and the children will look after themselves!

Not only do I adore children, but I am often childish myself. I am sure Dr Williams will agree with me when I say that we all need the creative and curious child within us to come out into the open occasionally.

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