Tuesday, November 15, 2022

There Is Nothing Cute About It

Over the past decade or so, I’ve listened to a lot of early childhood experts. More often than not, I find myself nodding along. They say things I think are true about children. Or rather, they say things I want to be true about children. I hear that children are honest, open, and loving. That’s what I want to hear, for sure. They tell me about children who are curious, eager to learn, daring within reason, and who delight in getting messy. These children are instinctively thoughtful, caring, unspoiled, and above all cute. I often catch myself speaking of children in this way as well.

But the truth is that children aren’t like this at all. Or rather, they aren’t always this way any more than adults are. They lie, deceive and hate. They can be self-absorbed contrarians, fearful, manipulative, and persnickety. It’s a mistake to confuse their inexperience with innocence, and they often don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. In other words, children, like all the rest of us humans, are a mixed bag, prone to the same flaws and weaknesses, even as we tend to place them on a pedestal.

Of course, every parent knows this, even if we’re not always willing to admit that our child is not the ideal child as described by experts. Sometimes, no matter how much we strive to be the perfectly calm, connected adult, our kids will behave like utter jerks. Still, we tend to persist in the myth of childhood as a kind of paradise and children as charmingly flawed little angels. 

Perhaps it’s because when we compare our “adult” world with theirs, their troubles seem so mundane, silly, even. Crying over the wrong kind of cracker just seems so cute. Being afraid of pine cones (which was an actual phobia of a two-year-old I once taught) makes us chuckle. As a boy, I spent a good year afraid that a green monster I’d seen on an episode of Get Smart was going to climb through my window and into my top bunk as I slept, a fear that kept me awake night after night. I mean, we adults have real problems: mortgages, expanding waistlines, and marriages that aren’t as fulfilling as we’d like. Of course, any thoughtful adult knows that our children’s problems, emotions, and phobias are every bit as real and important as ours, yet even the best of us find ourselves sometimes minimizing them into cute stories we tell our friends or record in baby books.

When we idealize childhood, when we persist in the cult of cute, we minimize their experience or elevate them onto pedestals. We objectify them in a way that serves our needs at their expense. It's an insult to their full humanity. They are not better or worse than us: they are us. 

What is true is that young children are less likely be have become embittered or disillusioned by their experiences. They don’t tend to carry their grudges as long as we do or waste as much of their precious emotional energy on worrying about the future or regretting the past. They don’t save their energy out of a concern for being tired later. And they are much quicker to forgive us when we fail than are we with one another.

Childhood isn’t a special time in life. It is life, and everything children need we all need: compassion, forgiveness, and space to be fully human. There is nothing cute about it.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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