The Price of Childhood
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But strangely, even though we salute -childlike imagination- in every after-dinner speech, childhood itself seems to be falling out of fashion.
Those big cartoons run thick with grown-up humor. And in our sitcoms, it-s harder and harder to tell 10 year-olds from 40 year-olds. Social historians like Neil Postman point out that more and more, we dress our kids in identical clothing to adults, cut their hair in identical hairstyles, and buy them identical pop music. Even in our courts, we-ve started treating kids more and more like fullsized criminals.
It-s as if, the more we indulge in childlike fantasy, the further childhood itself seems to recede.
Today, I asked my nine-year-old son to come help me buy a Lego set for his younger brother. As I hoped, his eyes lit up. I know he can name all the sets that have drawbridges and dragons, and even though it-s just plastic, I-m glad he can still enter that world of wonder and innocence.
But now we enter the holiday chaos of a big Westside toy store, and inside we pause a moment, intimidated by the noise and desperation of Angelenos in search of childhood. Packages are ripped, videos litter the floor - and it seems impossible that wonder or innocence could be purchased here, at any price.
Still, grim-faced parents push bulging shopping carts. Like me, they pray that back home, each bright toy will conjure some of that old magic. Surely an hour of childhood is worth $19.95.
Me, I-d happily pay $24.95.
Those same historians tell me that the whole notion of a childhood spent in innocent fantasy began only during the Renaissance and later picked up steam thanks to authors like E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, and J.M. Barrie. The recent movie, Finding Neverland, documents the pivotal birth of Peter Pan in 1904.
But once upon a time, -childhood- apparently meant -earnest preparation for adulthood- and childhood fantasy was a short-lived, and uncelebrated thing. Back in Plato-s time, men openly pandered to the local youth. Roman boys drilled with swords, and when you look at medieval paintings, the kids look like miniature adults for a reason: they went to work at age seven and married at 14. Just like on modern TV, medieval kids were not protected from adult knowledge of any kind.
If the historians are right, and we-re now returning to those earlier, less innocent ideas of childhood, then our recent flood of toys and books and movies takes on a manic edge: It-s as if we-re all grasping frantically at something we-ve nearly lost.
Me, I know I grasp frantically - and here in the Lego aisle of the toystore, there-s plenty of manic action. Carefully, I watch my son pick up a shrinkwrapped cardboard box, richly painted with wondrous castles and flying beasts. Apparently, he still knows perfectly well how to be a child, and for a moment, clutching the box, he ignores all social history. For a moment he sees only the tiny battlements, bristling with canon and fluttering with banners. He hears only the dragon roaring from a distant hillside.
And suddenly, $29.95 sounds like a bargain.
Happy Holidays from the Urban Man. For a further discussion on the place of childhood in modern society, check out The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman.
Copyright - 2004 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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