It started with “adulting”. The term, popularised by a 2013 book by that name, became an unavoidable social media trend in the 2010s, adopted largely by millennial women to describe the process of doing chores – paying bills, doing laundry, buying groceries – almost always to exaggerate the effort involved in these tasks. Adulting was typically used with a twee, babyish tone, suggesting the person doing these chores – an adult – was still just a helpless child for whom such small, everyday jobs required going to great lengths. “Adulting is harder than it looks!”, or, “Why did no one warn me about adulting?” were common refrains you’d see in posts about making dinner while setting up a wi-fi router.
While still popular among certain demographics, the term has fallen out of fashion in the past few years, as the unhelpfulness and melodrama (as well as the cloyingness) of overstating the difficulty of normal admin has been acknowledged. But the impulse to treat ourselves in this juvenile manner persists. Now, it has a new iteration: “kidulting”, whereby adults purchase merchandise and participate in activities that were popular when they were teens and that are usually reserved for children.
In the past year there has been a boom in the stuffed-animal market thanks to adults purchasing for themselves toys marketed for children (the most popular brand is Jellycats, which makes furry toys for babies). There has also been a glut of “school dance” events catering to people in their twenties and thirties, where attendees can listen to Disney channel songs and old Nickelodeon theme tunes. Other companies have built play centres for adults, featuring “grown-up” craft corners, ball pits and soft-play areas, where adults can pay to draw all over the walls or play dress-up with colourful costumes.
The trend is especially popular (and evangelised about) online. On TikTok, #kidulting has more than 130 million views. Videos documenting toy hauls and trips to playgrounds appear alongside clips of people arguing that kidulting is a mental-health remedy that encourages “inner-child healing” and is crucial to combating burnout. This message has proved particularly potent: kidulting isn’t just a fleeting trend or mindless fun, but a necessary corrective to the “stolen youth” experienced by those under 40. It argues that the political and social upheaval of the past 20 years uniquely forced these generations to grow up too soon, leading them to seek out the comforts that were missing from their childhoods. The idea is affirmed by toy brands and events companies, which further proliferate the mythology of kidulthood by claiming to be a “social necessity”.
While this may be the case for a select few dealing with the after-effects of real childhood trauma, for most this argument is a gross aggrandisement. It has always been easier to continue doing what is already comfortable rather than what is new, especially when given increased opportunity to engage. This is also true of our viewing habits: many repeatedly watch TV shows – usually non-confrontational sitcoms, such as Modern Family or Friends – rather than try something different or challenging. We could generously suggest that, for a few, there is a political or social reason for this, but otherwise the advent of streaming has made access to such programmes easier. The cult of kidulthood gives a flattering justification for rewatching Gilmore Girls for the eighth time: it’s not that it’s easy, it’s the state of the world that has forced you to seek its comfort.
Kidulting is the desire for familiarity and nostalgia, dressed up as a social response to hardship. While it is right to express concern about young people’s dire economic prospects or the distress of the pandemic, it’s not serious to suggest that such problems can be remedied by a stuffed dinosaur or dancing to Hannah Montana. Kidulting also makes for unfailingly popular content: Jellycat store tours are an almost guaranteed way to go viral and Instagram-friendly kidulting play venues often serve less as an emotional escape and more as a selfie backdrop. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to suggest such content isn’t always or purely motivated by a desire to briefly forget about, say, climate change.
Kidulting’s popularity is part of a rise in millennial and older Gen-Z women speaking in self-infantilising terms online. Trends fronted by the term “girl” – girl dinner, feral girl summer, girl math – frame the behaviours and aesthetics of young women as childish, and lean on stereotypes (girl math jokes, for example, often play on overspending and shopping). In popular memes, young women talk about “tummy aches” and being “brave girls”. Young women on Instagram and TikTok preach to other young women that they want to treat themselves like children not because it’s trendy, or easier than confronting stereotypes, but because society puts too much pressure on women, forcing them to seek respite in the hackneyed simplicity of girlhood.
Again, the social pressures faced by young people, and particularly young women, are real and overwhelming. But can it really be argued that we subvert them by treating ourselves like children – even suggesting that this is politically necessary? On Twitter last week, a quote from the author Ursula K Le Guin went viral, warning against the ill-effects of this: “I didn’t and still don’t like making a cult of women’s knowledge… All that all too often merely reinforces the masculinist idea of women as primitive and inferior – women’s knowledge as elementary, primitive, always down below at the dark roots, while men get to cultivate and own the flowers and crops that come up into the light. But why should women keep talking baby talk while men get to grow up?”
There isn’t anything wrong with enjoying the popular culture of our childhoods, or occasionally attending a fake prom to listen to songs from High School Musical. But we shouldn’t ignore the downsides to this increasingly pervasive tendency to infantilise ourselves. No one is helped by rebranding fleeting fun as a political movement. Nor does attaching huge significance to social media trends get us closer to real relief from the systemic issues causing political anxiety. Neither adulting nor kidulting help to explain the world, but instead further mystify the real social problems we face – ones we won’t experience relief from, let alone solve, at the bottom of a ball pit.