I propose a future without childhood. No, no, no, don't get me wrong; not a future without children – I hope children continue to happen, generally speaking. It is the idealisation of childhood that I question, as one of the methods by which we learn to impose boundaries upon ourselves and our lives, and to deny a full awareness of our human experience.
Childhood as a concept might be defined in a number of ways: biological (a specific period within the early stages of physical development); mental (a period during which personal faculties are formed and developed); moral (a state of innocence and grace); political (a state of powerlessness and exemption from responsibility); economic (a parasitic state of dependency); historic (constructed in the last few centuries in parallel to western imperialism); cultural (a shared system of learned behaviour.) There are thriving professions across sectors that are devoted to the study, the cultivation and the servicing of childhood: they maintain deeply entrenched investments in childhood as an unassailable operating concept (brightly coloured plastic tubes of yoghurt, anyone?) and for that reason alone it should be examined.
The ideal of childhood reinforces an expectation that innocence and protection from harm can be secured, even guaranteed. It instills a sense of separation and difference from others (the adults) to whom society grants agency and legitimacy. It creates the illusion that power and responsibility are something that can be picked up and handled at a certain age, when one is ready for them (if one chooses) rather than something inherent to the social experience. Childhood only exists with that complementary state, adulthood, in which we surrender innocence, assume legitimacy, and wield power. Many of the ongoing debates around children's issues in our culture arise because real lives and experiences flout these parameters regularly: what do we do about all these young parents, offenders, carers, drinkers, soldiers? The boundary between childhood and adulthood advances and recedes, it blurs and dissolves. Childhood cannot be contained separately from the progress it implies: a state of childhood suggests that there will, eventually, be a state of adulthood. The future is inherent in the idea of childhood.
A couple years ago I helped to run a conference about nature kindergartens. This was one small event in an ongoing movement to reaquaint people with nature and to promote the natural environment as a learning tool. The conference was organised by myself and other adults in an enclosed, flourescent-lit office, our eyes glazing over from hours at a computer screen. We accepted this irony with resigned duty and wistful suggestions to hold planning discussions outside in a nearby park. It is with the same irony that we have established an agency in Scotland that promotes children's play as a statutory concern and supports the development of a play workforce. We mean well! We attempt to capture play itself, that most creative and uncontrollable human experience, to ensure its role as an allotted porton of the ideal childhood. The implicit message we receive though is that our experiences can be created, achieved, within an assigned space. We are offered a temporary but safely managed respite before crossing the boundary to adulthood.
A future without childhood may therefore also be a future without adulthood. And what would there be instead? Perhaps simply personhood. We might create a cultural paradigm in which every person counts as a legitimate part of society, irrespective of their biological, mental, moral, political, or economic state. Personhood is already being explored in the context of animal rights, consciousness, evolutionary biology and in many other fields of inquiry. Our philosophical ponderings may take us into what we mean by work and play, freedom and responsibility, and what we mean by human nature: are we an integrated participant in the natural universe or are we special, more special than trees or microbes or air molecules?
A future without childhood might be a future in which everyone and no one is special, it might be a future without the future, a future of only the present and of everybody playing.