OUR time: the myth is magnified
We have seen how the increasing privatization of family life brought ever more oppression to its dependents, women and children. The interrelated myths of femininity and childhood were the instruments of this oppression. In the Victorian Bra they reached such epic proportions that finally women rebelled—their rebellion peripherally affecting childhood. But the rebellion was destroyed before it could eliminate these myths. They went underground to reappear in a more insidious version, complicated by mass consumerism. For in fact nothing had changed. In Chapter 2 I described how the emancipation of women was subtly sabotaged; the same thing occurred in the corollary oppression “childhood.”
The pseudo-emancipation of children exactly parallels the pseudo-emancipation of women: Though we have abolished all the superficial signs of oppression—the distinct and cumbrous clothing, the schoolmaster’s rod— there is no question that the myth of childhood is flourishing in epic proportions, twentieth-century style: whole industries are built on the manufacture of special toys, games, baby food, breakfast food, children’s books and
comic books, candy with child appeal, etc.; market analysts study child psychology in order to develop products that will appeal to children of various ages; there is a publishing, movie and TV industry built just for them, with its own special literature, programs and commercials, and even censorship boards to decide just which cultural products are fit for their consumption; there is an endless proliferation of books and magazines instructing the layman in the fine art of child care (Dr. Spock, Parents’ Magazine); there are specialists in child psychology, child education methods, pediatrics, and all the special branches of learning that have developed recently to study this peculiar animal. Compulsory education flourishes and is now widespread enough to form an inescapable net of socialization (brainwashing) from which even the very rich can no longer entirely escape. Gone are the days of Huckleberry Finn: Today the malingerer or dropout has a full-time job just in warding off the swarm of specialists studying him, the proliferating government programs, the social workers on his tail.
Let’s look more closely at the modern form this ideology of childhood takes: Visually it is as beefy, blonde, and smiling as a Kodak advertisement. As is the case with the exploitation of women as a ready-made, consumer class, there are many industries eager to profit from children’s physical vulnerability (e. g., St. Joseph’s Aspirin for children); but even more than their health, the key word to the understanding of modern childhood is happiness. You are only a child once, and this is it. Children must be living embodiments of happiness (sulky or upset or disturbed children are immediately disliked; they make of the myth a lie); it is every parent’s duty to give his child a childhood to remember (swing sets, inflated swimming pools, toys and games, camping trips, birthday parties, etc.). This is the Golden Age that the child will remember when he grows up to become – a robot like his father. So every father tries to give his son whatever it was he missed most himself in what should have been a most glorious stage of his own life. The cult of childhood
.as-the. Golden Age, is so strong that all other ages of life derive their value from how closely they resemble it, in a national cult of youth; “grownups” make asses of themselves with their jealous apologetics (“Of course I’m twice your age, dear, but. . There is the general belief that progress has been made because at least in our time children have been freed from the ugly toils of child labor and many other traditional exploitations of past generations. In fact there is even the envious moan that children are getting too much attention. They are spoiled. (“When I was your age…” parallels “It’s a woman world. . .”)
A major bulwark for this myth of happiness is the continued rigid segregation of children from the rest of society; the exaggeration of their distinctive features has made of them, as it was designed to, almost another race. Our parks provide the perfect metaphor for our larger age-segregated society: a special playground for the Tender Untouchables, mothers and young children (one seldom finds anyone else here, as if by decree), an athletic field or swimming pool for the youth, a shady knoll for young couples and students, and a bench section for the elderly. This age segregation continues throughout the life of every modern individual; people have very little contact with children once they have outgrown their own childhood. And even within their own childhood, as we have seen, there are rigid age segregations, so that an older child will be embarrassed to be seen with a younger one. (“Tagalongl Why don’t you go play with someone your own age!”) Throughout school life, and that is a rather long time in our century, a child remains with others only a year or two in age from himself. The schools themselves reflect these increasingly rigid gradations: junior junior high, senior junior high, etc., marked by a complex system of promotions and “graduations”; lately even graduations from nursery school and/or kindergarten are common.
So by the time a child grows old enough to reproduce himself he has no contact whatever with those outside his own narrow adult age group, and certainly not with children. Because of the cult surrounding it he can barely remember even his own childhood, often blocking it entirely. Even as a child he may have attempted to mold himself to the myth, believing that all other children were happier than he; later, as a teenager, he may have indulged in a desperate joyousness, flinging himself into “fun”—when really adolescence is a horror to live through —in the spirit of “you’re only young once.” (But true youth is unaware of age—“youth is wasted on the young” —and is marked by real spontaneity, the absence of precisely this self-consciousness. The storing up of happiness in this manner to think of when you no longer have it is an idea only old age could have produced.) Such an absence of contact with the reality of childhood makes every young adult ripe for the same sentimentalization of children that he himself probably despised as a child. And so it goes, in a vicious circle: Young adults dream of having their own children in a desperate attempt to fill up the void produced by the artificial cutoff from the young, but it is not until they are mired in pregnancies and Pampers, babysitters and school problems, favoritism and quarreling that they again, for a short period, are forced to see that children are just human like the rest of us.
So let’s talk about what childhood is really like, and not of what it is like in adult heads. It is clear that the myth of childhood happiness flourishes so wildly not because it satisfies the needs of children but because it satisfies the needs of adults. In a culture of alienated people, the belief that everyone has at least one good period in life free of care and drudgery dies hard. And obviously you can’t expect it in your old age. So it must be you’ve already had it. This accounts for the fog of sentimentality surrounding any discussion of childhood or children. Everyone is living out some private dream in their behalf.
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Thus segregation is still operating full blast to reinforce the oppression of children as a class. What constitutes this oppression in the twentieth century?
Economic and Physical Dependence. The natural physical inequality between children and adults—their greater weakness, their smaller size—is reinforced, rather than compensated for, by our present culture: children are still “minors” under the law, without civil rights, the property of an arbitrary set of parents. (Even when they have “good” parents, there are just as many “bad” people in the world as “good”—and the “bad” people are considerably more likely to bear children.) The number of child beatings and deaths every year testifies to the fact that merely unhappy children are lucky. A lot worse could happen. It is only recently that doctors saw fit to report these casualties, so much were children at the mercy of their parents. Those children without parents, however, are even worse ой (just as single. women, women without the patronage of a husband, are still worse off than married women). There is no place for them but the orphanage, a dumping ground for the unwanted.
But the oppression of children is most of all rooted in economic dependence. Anyone who has ever observed a child wheedling a nickel from its mother knows that economic dependence is the basis of the child’s shame. (Relatives who bring money are often the best liked. But make sure you give it directly to the kid!) Though he may not be starving to death (neither would he be if children had their own employment; black children who shine shoes, beg, and cultivate various rackets, and working-class white boys who sell papers, are envied in their neighborhood) he is dependent for his survival on patronage, and that’s a bad state to be in. Such extreme dependence is not worth the bread.
It is in this area that we find one of the pivots of the modern myth: we are told that childhood represents great progress—immediately calling to mind Dickensian images of poor, gaunt children struggling in a coal pit. We have shown, however, in the brief history of childhood presented earlier in this chapter, that middle-class and upper-class children were not laboring at the dawn of the Industrial Era, but were safely ensconced in some dull schoolhouse studying Homer and Latin grammar. The children of the lower class, it is true, were not considered any more privileged than their fathers, sharing the inhuman tortures to which all members of their class had to submit; so that at the same time as there were idle Emma Bovarys and Little Lord Fauntleroys, there were also women destroying their lives and lungs in early textile mills and children roaming, begging. This difference between the lives of children of the different economic classes persisted right up until the days of the women’s vote and into our own time. Children who were the reproductive chattel of the middle class were going through soul-squeezing worse than our own; so were women. But they, to offset this, had economic patronage. Children of the lower class were exploited, not particularly as children, but generally, on a class basis: the myth of childhood was too fancy to waste on them. Here again we see illustrated just how arbitrary a myth childhood was, ordered expressly for the needs of the middle-class family structure.
Yes, you say, but surely it would have been better for the children of the working class could they too have lived sheltered by this myth. At least they would have been spared their lives. So that they could sweat out their spiritual lives in some schoolroom or office? The question is rhetorical, like wondering whether the suffering of the blacks in America is authentic because they would be considered rich in some other country. Suffering is suffering. No, we have to think in broader terms here. Like, why were their parents being exploited in the first place: what is anybody doing down in that coal mine? What we ought to be protesting, rather than that children are being exploited just like adults, is that adults can be so exploited. We need to start talking not about sparing children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about eliminating those horrors. In a society free of exploitation, children could be like adults (with no exploitation implied) and adults could be like children (with no exploitation implied). The privileged slavery (patronage)
that women and children undergo is not freedom. For self-regulation is the basis of freedom, and dependence the origin of inequality.
Sexual Repression. Freud depicts the early contentment of the child: the satisfaction of the infant at the breast of the mother, which it then tries to regain for the rest of its life; how, because of adult protection, the child is freer from the “reality principle” and is allowed to play (activity done for the pleasure of it, and not to achieve any other end); how, sexually, the child is polymorphous and only later is so directed and repressed as to make him fit only for adult genital sex pleasure.
Freud also showed the origins of the adult neurosis to be built into the very processes of childhood. Though the prototypical child may have the capacity for pure pleasure, that does not mean that he can fully indulge it. It would be more correct to say that though by nature inclined to pleasure, to the degree that he becomes socialized (repressed) he loses this inclination. And that begins right away.
The “reality principle” is not reserved for adults. It is introduced into the child’s life almost immediately on his own small scale. For as long as such a reality principle exists, the notion of sparing the child its unpleasantness is a sham. At best he can go through a retarded repressive process; but more often the repression takes place as soon as he can handle it, at all levels. It is not as though there is ever a blessed period when “reality” lays off. For in truth the repression begins as soon as he is bom—the well-known formula-by-clock feedings only an extreme example. Before the age of eighteen months, says Robert Stoller, the basic sex differentiation has set in, and as we have seen, this process in itself demands inhibition of the sex drive toward the mother. So from the beginning his polymorphous sexuality is denied free play. (Even now, with a campaign to recognize masturbation as normal, many infants are kept from playing with themselves while still in their cribs.) The child is weaned and toilet trained, the sooner the better—both traumatic in child terms. Repressions increase. The mother love that ideally is meant to be such perfect fulfillment (“unconditional”) is used in the manner of father love: to better direct the child into socially approved conduct. And finally an active identification with the father is demanded. (In fatherless homes the identification may occur somewhat later, when the child begins school.) From here until puberty the child must lead a sexless—or secretive—life, not even admitting any sexual needs. Such forced asex – uality produces a frustration that is at least partially responsible for the extreme rambunctiousness and aggressiveness—or alternately the anemic docility—that often make children so trying to be around.
Family Repression. We don’t need to elaborate on the subtle psychological pressures of family life. Think of your own family. And if that isn’t enough, if you are actually that one-in-a-million who is truly convinced that you had a “happy family,” read some of the work of R. D. Laing, particularly the Politics of the Family, on the Game of Happy Families. Laing exposes the internal dynamics of the family, explaining its invisibility to the ordinary family member:
One thing is often clear to an outsider: there are concerted family resistances to discovering what is going on, and there are complicated stratagems to keep everyone in the dark, and in the dark that they are in the dark. The truth has to be expended to sustain a family image. . . . Since this fantasy exists only in so far as it is “in” everyone who shares “in” it, anyone who gives it up shatters the “family" in everyone else.
And here are a few children speaking for themselves. Again we quote Reik:
I was told of a boy, who, until he was almost four years old, thought that his name was “Shutup.”
A boy witnessed a furious quarrel between his parents and heard his mother threaten his father with divorce. When he returned home from school the next day, he asked his mother, “Are you divorced yet?” He remembered later being very disappointed because she had not gotten divorced.
A boy of nine years was asked by his visiting father at camp if he felt homesick, and the boy replied, “No.” The father then asked if the other boys felt homesick. “Only a few,” said the child, “those who have dogs at home.”
What is amusing about these ancedotes, if indeed they are amusing, is the candor of children unable to understand or accept the masochistic hell of it all.
Educational Repression. It is at school that the repression is cemented. Any illusions of freedom remaining are quickly wiped out now. All sexual activity or physical demonstrativeness is barred. Here is the first heavily supervised play. Children’s natural enjoyment of play is now co-opted to better socialize (repress) them. (“Larry did the best fingerpainting. What a good boy! Your mother will be proud of you!”) In some liberal schools all the way up, it is true, good teachers try to find subjects and activities that will truly interest children. (It’s easier to keep the class in order that way.) But as we have seen, the repressive structure of the segregated classroom itself guarantees that any natural interest in learning will finally serve the essentially disciplinary interests of the school. Young teachers entering the system idealistic about their jobs suddenly are up. against it: many give up in despair. If they had forgotten what a jail school was for them, it all comes back now. And they are soon forced to see that though there are liberal jails and not-so-liberal jails, by definition they are jails. The child is forced to go to them: the test is that he would never go of his own accord. (“School’s out, School’s out, Teachers let the fools out, No more pencils, No more books, No more teacher’s dirty looks.”) And though enlightened educators have devised whole systems of inherently interesting disciplined activities to lure and bribe the child into an acceptance of school, these can never fully succeed, for a school that existed solely to serve the curiosity of children on their own terms and by their own direction would be a contradiction in terms—as we have seen, the modern school in its structural definition exists to implement repression.
The child spends most of his waking hours in this coer> cive structure or doing homework for it. The little time that is left is often taken up with family chores and duties. He is forced to sit through endless family arguments, or, in some “liberal” families, “family councils.” There are relatives at whom he must smile, and often church services that he must attend. In the little time left, at least in our modem middle class, he is “supervised,” blocking the development of initiative and creativity: his choice of play materials is determined for him (toys and games), his play area is defined (gyms, parks, playgrounds, campsites); often he is limited in his choice of playmates to children of the same economic class as himself, and in the suburbs, to his schoolmates, or children of his parents’ friends; he is organized into more groups than he knows what to do with (Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, camps, after-school clubs and sports); his culture is chosen for him—on TV he is often allowed to watch only pap children’s programs (father knows best) and is barred from all adult (good) movies; his books and literature are often taken from corny children’s lists. (Dick and Jane. The Bobbsey Twins. The Partridge Family. The Annals of Babe Ruth. Robinson Crusoe. Lassie ad nauseam.)
The only children who have the slightest chance of escape from this supervised nightmare—but less and less so —are children of the ghettos and the working class where the medieval conception of open community—living on the street—still lingers. That is, historically, as we have seen, many of these processes of childhood came late to the lower class, and have never really stuck. Lower-class children tend to come from large immediate families composed of people of many different ages. But even when they dontt, often there are half-brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, or aunts, in a constantly changing milieu of relatives. Individual children are barely noticed,
let alone supervised: children are often allowed to roam far from home or play out on the streets until all hours. And on the street, if by chance their family size is limited, there are hundreds of kids, many of whom have formed their own social groupings (gangs). They do not often receive toys, which means they create their own. (T have seen ghetto kids devise ingenious slides out of cardboard and put them up against old tenements with missing steps; I have seen others make go-carts and pulleys out of old tire wheels and string and boxes. No middle-class child does that. He doesn’t need to. But as a. result he soon loses that ingenuity.) They explore far afield of their own few blocks, and much more often than their middle – class contemporaries make the acquaintance of adults on an equal level. In class they are wild and unruly, as indeed they ought to be—for the classroom is a situation that would make any even partially free person suspicious. There is a lingering disrespect for school in the lower class, for, after all, it is a middle-class phenomenon in origin.
Sexually, too, ghetto kids are freer. One fellow told me that he can’t remember an age when he didn’t have sexual intercourse with other kids as a natural thing; everyone was doing it. Those who teach in ghetto schools have remarked on the impossibility of restraining child sexuality: It’s a groovy thing, the kids love it, and it far surpasses a lesson about the Great American Democracy or the contribution of the Hebrews who developed Monotheism or coffee and rubber as the chief exports of Brazil. So they do it on the stairs. And stay away from school the next day. If, in modem America, free childhood exists in any degree, it exists in the lower class, where the myth is least developed.
Why then do they “turn out” worse than middle-class kids? Perhaps this is obvious. But I shall answer from my experience living and teaching in the ghettos: Ghetto kids
are not lower in intelligence until they reach adulthood, and even this is debatable; lower-class children are some of the brightest, brassiest, and most original children around. They are that way because they are left alone, (If they do not do well on tests, perhaps we ought to reexamine the tests and not the children.) Later, in confronting a “reality principle” very different from the middle-class one, they are drained and smashed; they will never “outgrow” their economic subjection. Thus it is day- by-day oppression that produces these listless and unimaginative adults, the ubiquitous restrictions on their personal freedom to expand—not their wild childhood.
But children of the ghettos are only relatively free. They are still dependent, and they are oppressed as an economic class. There is good reason that all children want to grow up. Then at least they can leave home, and (finally) have a chance to do what they want to do. (There is some irony in the fact that children imagine that parents can do what they want, and parents imagine that children do. “When I grow up. . parallels “Oh to be a child again. . . .”) They dream of love and sex, for they live in the driest period of their lives. Often when confronted with their parents’ misery, they make firm vows that when they grow up, that won’t happen to them; They build glorious dreams of perfect marriages, or of no marriage at all (smarter children, who realize the fault lies in the institution, not in their parents), of money to spend as they please, of plenty of love and acclaim; They want to appear older than they are and are insulted if told that they appear younger than they are. They try fiercely to disguise the ignorance of affairs that is the peculiar physical affliction of all children. Here is an example from Reik’s Sex in Man and Woman of the little cruelties to which they are constantly subjected:
I had some fun with a boy four years old, whom I told that a certain tree in his parents’ garden bore pieces of chewing gum. I had bought some chewing gum and had hung the sticks by strings on the lower bough of the tree. The boy climbed up
and picked them. He did not doubt that they grew on the tree, nor did he consider that they were wrapped in paper. He willingly accepted my explanation that the sticks of gum, blossoming at different times, had various flavors. In the following year when I reminded him of the chewing-gum tree,-he was very ashamed of his previous credulity and said, “Don’t mention that”
Some children, in an attempt to fight this constant ridicule of their gullibility—when they see that their painful ignorance is considered “cute”—try to cash in on it, in much the same way that women do. Hoping to elicit that hug and kiss, they purposely take things out of context, but it seldom works the second time, perplexing them: What they don’t understand is that the ignorance itself is considered “funny,” not its specific manifestations. For most children don’t understand the arbitrary adult order of things, inadequately explained even when there is a sound explanation. But, in almost every case given the amount of information the child begins with, his conclusions are perfectly logical. Similarly if an adult were to arrive on a strange planet to find the inhabitants building fires on their roofs, he might assume an explanation; but his conclusions, based on his dissimilar past, might cause the others some amusement. Every person in his first trip to a foreign country, where he blows neither the people nor the language, experiences childhood.
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Children, then, are not freer than adults. They are burdened by a wish fantasy in direct proportion to the restraints of their narrow lives; with an unpleasant sense of their own physical inadequacy and ridiculousness; with constant shame about their dependence, economic and otherwise (“Mother, may I?”); and humiliation concerning their natural ignorance of practical affairs. Children are repressed at every waking minute. Childhood is hell.
The result is the insecure, and therefore aggressive/de – fensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child. Eco-
nomic, sexual, and general psychological oppressions reveal themselves in coyness, dishonesty, spite, these unpleasant characteristics in turn reinforcing the isolation of children from the rest of society. Thus their rearing, particularly in its most difficult personality phases, is gladly relinquished to women—who tend, for the same reason, to exhibit these personality characteristics themselves. Except for the ego rewards involved in having children of one’s own, few men show any interest in children. And fewer still grant them their due political importance.
So it is up to feminist (ex-child and still oppressed childwomen) revolutionaries to do so. We must include the oppression of children in any program for feminist revolution or we will be subject to the same failing of which we have so often accused men: of not having gone deep enough in our analysis, of having missed an important substratum of oppression merely because it didn’t directly concern us. I say this knowing full well that many women are sick and tired of being lumped together with children: that they are no more our charge and responsibility than anyone else’s will be an assumption crucial to our revolutionary demands. It is only that we have developed, in our long period of related sufferings, a certain compassion and understanding for them that there is no reason to lose now; we know where they’re at, what they’re experiencing, because we, too, are still undergoing the same kind of oppressions. The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it (a common desire) learns to love that same child only when she understands that it is as helpless, as oppressed as she is, and by the same oppressor: then her hatred is directed outward, and “motherlove” is born. But we will go further: our final step must be the elimination of the very conditions of femininity and childhood themselves that are now conducive to this alliance of the oppressed, clearing the way for a fully “human” condition. There are no children yet able to write their own books, tell their own story. We will have to, one last time, do it for them.