Childhood and adulthood
‘Won’t somebody please think of the children’ is a familiar comedy meme from popular culture. Used for comic effect, it’s a signal to trigger characters – and viewers – to stop and think about the awfulness of the depicted adult behaviour, in terms of the effect that it might have on children looking to adults to provide an example.
It’s interesting that its rise to popularity occurred at a time that the British government was moving towards removing the ancient test of ‘doli incapax’ (literally, incapable of wrong-doing, due to lack of comprehension) that had been applied to those who committed criminal offences between the ages of 7 and 14, thus making the age of 10 – the modern age of notional criminal responsibility – absolute.
When we look into our own social history, we find that early childhood traditionally lasted until the seventh birthday in pre-industrial Europe, with a child passing into the ‘age of reason’ at that point of their development. This was reflected in the school starting age for upper-class boys in medieval England, and in the ancient English Common Law. Traditionally in many societies, young adulthood was entered between 14-16, and full adulthood between 18-21. Neurobiological research has recently indicated that full neuronal adulthood isn’t complete until the age of 25.
So, what has changed in the West over the 21st century thus far, and why might it be important?
The rise of the ‘kidult’
In the approach to the millennium, a new concept emerged from the fledgling internet culture: the ‘kidult’ – an adult whose interests and behaviour has stalled in the norms of early adolescence. Whilst the phenomenon had previously been discussed by psychologists in the early 20th century as ‘Peter Pan Syndrome,’ mass marketing to ‘kidult’ culture in the early 21st century began to boom, with online games, slogan T-shirts and cartoons primarily aimed at the adult market.
Fast forward to today, we can see this gradually diminishing division between adults and children permeating deeply into western society, creating problems that we flail within, finding it difficult to diagnose what exactly is wrong, and how we might try to fix it.
The rise of popular tabloid media
The most obvious emergent issue is popular media that has descended to comic book level; reckless in terms of its pursuit of titillating, one-dimensional programming, trampling over privacy and decency to achieve the most clicks on the next salacious broadcast. Where Victorians had fictional ‘Penny Dreadful’ novels (that were not seen as suitable reading in polite society), we have Love Island, I’m a Celebrity and Naked Attraction, hugely popular reality television shows that set the tone for our society in many more ways than we may be willing to admit.
Our news media has moved in the same direction, stampeding to produce salacious articles for ‘maximum clicks’, regardless of the effect that this might have upon people (and families) in the eye of the relevant storm. The effects are hugely amplified by social media, a world-wide gossip cauldron that designates unfortunate people associated (accurately or not) with tragic or scandalous events as public property for rumour, speculation and censure.
This turns society into a dangerous, careless playground, in which childish egocentrism reigns supreme; other people being viewed as objects for definition by the self. But while much childish egocentrism is rooted in innocence, adult egocentrism has a huge potential to become dark and vicious.
Sociologist Simon Gottschalk proposes:
“I believe our daily interactions with smartphones and social media … normalise and gratify infantile dispositions … They promote an orientation towards the present, rewarding impulsivity and celebrating constant and instant gratification … while eroding our ability to empathise with others … erod[ing] hallmarks of maturity: patience, empathy, solidarity, humility and commitment to a project greater than oneself … essential for both healthy adulthood and for the proper functioning of democracy.”
The importance of balance
For example, prior to the late 20th century, divorce brought social stigma in its wake, making it difficult for divorcees to be accepted into public life. Peter Townsend, Wallis Simpson and Anthony Eden (who unusually managed to keep the details of the breakdown of his first marriage out of the media) are notable examples.
While this social barrier was rightly dispelled by the liberalisation of the 1960s, the serial adultery and wider evidence of deceit in the track record of Boris Johnson raised concerns amongst many, but was ignored by his supporters, eventually resulting in a catastrophic premiership.
Surely, the time has now come to stop and reflect; to consider if we have gone too far, introducing careless, moral-free ‘kidult’ culture into the arena of national leadership and institutions, which has had many unwelcome emergent effects.
In the early to mid-20th century, parliamentary scandals followed a predictable path. Reports would only appear in the newspapers when journalists were sure of their facts. There would be a few days of confusion, inevitably followed by a resignation, where the person concerned accepted that their behaviour fell short of the standards expected of a responsible public figure. They would seldom return to the political or establishment sphere, but sometimes re-emerged in arenas related to providing support for disadvantaged communities. John Profumo and Jonathan Aitken are high profile examples.
The rise of Boris Johnson and social irresponsibility
By the early 21st Century, British society as a whole seemed to have lost its ability to discern between responsible adults who had been through incompatibility-based consensual divorce (or other unfortunate blameless social experiences) and serial adulterers with clearly questionable morals, which had been observed to spill out into other areas of their behaviour.
In fact, during the late 1990s, Johnson was repeatedly invited to participate in the BBC news panel show Have I got News for You by programme executives very familiar with his track record, with an eye to increasing viewing figures. The show became one of the major shop windows through which he set out his ability to charm an audience. This ended in his catastrophic stint as prime minister, in which he not only beguiled the nation into a disastrous Brexit process, but also appointed other people like himself to ministerial positions, who have recently publicly supported his disregard for parliamentary standards of integrity.
Analogies can be drawn to the rise of ex-president Donald Trump who found his shop window in The Apprentice, despite his questionable track record as a businessman being well known amongst the US establishment.
The role of the mass media
The disregard for adult discernment of public decency has also tipped over into mass media news programming. The most recent British example involves a disastrous episode relating to a complex story about a senior presenter who engaged in behaviour clearly unbecoming of his public position, and a tabloid newspaper’s quest to ensure they got the maximum clicks for the story.
This occurred over a weekend where unsettling rumours were circulating about an ex-senior politician’s behaviour, Johnson’s failure to hand over his WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry and the run-up to several important by-elections, all of which were wiped from the headlines in a ‘whodunnit’ furore across both news and social media, setting social media trolls upon several hapless, innocent BBC celebrities.
The events in question would have never arisen in a more adultcentric world where the presenter would have been more likely to realise that his behaviour had been indiscrete to the extent that he should offer his resignation to his employers, and where those employers dealt with the situation in private, with care and concern for all involved (whether or not they accepted the resignation, after weighing up the facts).
BBC News also unrelentingly focused on the story, egocentrically presuming that gossip circulating around their own institution was compelling national news for the general public. This eventually culminated in a disastrous Newsnight interview in which some highly unsuitable people took part.
If, in future, criminality is uncovered in this case, that is the time for public discussion in the media to be made public, conducted in a sober and responsible manner.
Taking responsibility for children
Last but not least, we can also observe several examples of leading politicians and institutions being at a loss to comprehend differences between children and adults, making policy from this perspective. We have an online safety bill passing through parliament that is rooted in treating adults and children in a similar fashion (I have already detailed my reasons for children being treated as a separate category here, most particularly the consideration of imposing a minimum age for owning a personal networked device).
Politicians have also recently determined that child migrants should be subject to legal processes involving bail, and have additionally directed that cartoon murals in immigrant reception centres should be painted out to avoid appearing ‘too welcoming’. The Department for Education have supported the running sore of zero tolerance strategies in schools that demand excessive obedience and self-control from children, whether or not they have special needs, that would be deemed rights violations if applied to adults.
There has also been an emergence of a shallow, childish belief amongst policy makers that teaching children simply relies upon facilitated memorisation. This continues to be championed in England’s national curriculum, despite many warnings from child development experts about the need to pay attention to learners’ prior understanding and developmental stage.
Indeed, the current government’s first education minister, whose pre-political career was in journalism, not teaching, first swung the wrecking ball that has pounded education for the last thirteen years, childishly labelling education academics collectively as ‘the blob’, ‘seem[ing] to go out of his way to offend teachers … insist[ing] that teaching was a craft that could be learned simply by watching.’
My recent Twitter exchange with the minister for schools (who has been in position since 2010, with one short break) was, for me, the final straw on the failure of our current culture to understand the vast differences between adults and small children, and the adult duty to appropriately support children throughout their developmental process.
Time to grow up
I have written about child development from birth to eighteen in various genres over the past twenty years, and believe the rise of kidult culture to be one of the most disturbing societal effects to emerge over that time. Its endurance will leave us helpless in the face of formidable challenges looming over the remainder of this century, climate change and the increasing fragility of the global economy being just two examples. We need contemporary adults to provide a developmentally appropriate environment and social example for their children, to support them to become responsible, confident, flexible, competent and above all, socially mature adults.