If growing up is so hard, why should we do it? In her book „Why grow up?“, Susan Neiman ponders our idealized image of childhood and fear of adulthood.
Our societies cherish youth as the prime time of human life. Do you think we do so because this period of our lives is so alluring or because we are just disenchanted with adulthood?
I think it is due to the fact that we don’t have any positive pictures of adulthood. We completely idealize childhood, but if you spend some time around young children, you realize that there is a considerable amount of anger and frustration involved in being a child. Growing up, every step you take is a challenge. But even though it takes a lot of effort, every child, except maybe the mythological Peter Pan, wants to grow up, because they associate it with gaining more power and abilities. And childhood is not even the hardest period in the process of growing up.
Which one is the hardest?
I think we can divide the process of growing up into specific phases. The second phase, which stretches across the years 18-28, is probably the hardest. It’s the first time that you are forced to make your own decisions and there is a feeling that every decision could shape the rest of your life: “What am I going to study?”, “What job do I want?”, “Is this the love of my life?” – all these questions pop up and you think that no mistake is allowed. When you get past that point, you realize, that mistakes are actually allowed and that they are even inevitable. But empirical research has proved time and time again that this second phase is by far the hardest time we live through.
Why, then, do we idealize this time that nobody wants to repeat?
That is the question I tried to address with my book “Why grow up?”. Grownups tell young people constantly that they are currently living in the prime of their life and that they should make the most of it because it’s only going downhill from here on. We basically tell them to not expect anything from adulthood – which means not to demand anything from life.
By that, adults put young people under a lot of pressure to make the most out of these “precious years”.
Exactly, and it is not really doing anyone a favor. A lot of the most avid readers or reviewers of the book were all under 30 and a lot of them came to me to thank me for pointing out that growing up is hard and that youth is not necessarily the best part of life.
In the book, you refer to empirical evidence commonly known as the “U-Bend”, which reveals that most people are the happiest in the later stages of their lives – because they have learned to curb their expectations.
Lower expectations vis-à-vis life could be one explanation. But it might just as well be that at a later stage you just know yourself much better than you did when you were young. You know your strengths and weaknesses, you know how to think for yourself and you care less about other people’s opinions, so you are less afraid of mistakes.
And even if you do mistakes, you don’t have to live with the consequences for the next 50 years.
(laughs) I don’t know about that, to be honest. Even 15 years is a long time to live with the consequences of a bad decision. But time certainly does play a role. As a young person, you don’t think too much about the time you have left. As you grow older, you learn to appreciate it and make the most of it.
“You only look good if you look deceptive”
There is the cultural key word, “FoMo”, which refers to the fear of missing out. It comes from this feeling that we are fighting an uphill battle against time and that youth will be over sooner than we want to.
Do you know how many things people deny themselves because they believe their youth is over? I have done a lot of interviews on the book and one of the weirder questions I got always came from German journalists: whether I think that people who still ride motorcycles or wear trendy clothes in their forties should grow up. That is the exact opposite of what I am trying to say. But I understand the question, because there is this wide-spread view that you cannot be a grown-up and still ride a motorcycle. The view that you have to trade in a lot of fun things for maturity. This fosters the idea that at some point, the fun time is over and that creates fear and pressure.
We live according to someone else’s framework of rules. The question is: who makes those rules?
A lot of rules are self-perpetuating because we live in a social world. We can’t really escape these social structures so we are constantly surrounded by an enormous amount of information that defines for us what’s age-appropriate and what’s not. It starts with a banal compliment that already people in their mid-20s like to hear: “Oh, you look younger than that”. At some point, we are forced to believe that youth is something worth aspiring to and that age is to be avoided. This almost implies that you only look good if you look deceptive. When we describe someone as “young at heart” and admire this person for it, it is also just a covert way of setting a framework that we don’t really think about.
We have this desire to look younger, but what’s fascinating is that when we are growing up, we want nothing more than to look and act older.
It’s an insult if someone calls you a kid!
Are we then doomed to always live out of sync with time?
I wrote my book as a plea for trying to be in sync with time and to show that there can be a good vision or version of adulthood. Adulthood has been understood to be synonymous with resignation and that’s what’s keeping us from growing up.
You write that we’ve been fooled by a false idea of maturity. How so exactly?
It’s exactly this: the idea that adulthood means resignation to the status quo and leaving behind all your wishes and expectations. It’s basically about accepting the world as it is – but the world as it is sucks! This world, as it is should not be accepted! As I write in the book, adulthood should be keeping one eye on the world as it is, the other eye on how it ought to be and keeping the two in balance. It’s a very difficult exercise.
We are constantly trapped between cynicism on the one hand and idealism on the other. How can you keep the balance?
By constantly working on it. There is no recipe and there can’t be one because a recipe would be counter to the vital exercise of thinking for yourself. I don’t really think I have a gene for cynicism in my body – which is something a lot of adults have in abundance – but I do feel despair from time to time because I see both how the world is and how it ought to be. The time we live in surely isn’t one in which it is easy to be hopeful.
Idealizing childhood might be a coping strategy, we usually think back to childhood and retrospectively consider it a carefree time.
A friend recently told me that her five-year old son asked her for a rocket, so that he could travel to a different planet because he was so fed up with this one. Kids pick up more than we think. When I was a kid, I had nightmares about nuclear warfare, like most people in my generation. Children are not as sheltered from the outside world as we think. But I also think that there is another very important aspect here.
The infantilization of society is also a tactic to distract people from becoming real adults and to keep them from asking the important questions. Does a government want critical, functional adults or obedient children? It’s similar to a kid in the supermarket.
We know that supermarkets place the candy and toys at a certain height, so that kids can easily see and grab it. The industrial psychologists who came up with this knew that a kid in a supermarket, whose patience has been tested for maybe half an hour, will start screaming for the candy. So, what do you do as a parent? If you are an authoritarian parent, you might hit the child. If not, you use a certain strategy that parents pick up immediately: you offer the child two possibilities that are not connected to the object they desired in the first place. You tell them for example that they can either have the blue or the red car but not both. The child has to make a decision and is distracted from what it originally wanted. We live in a society that does that to us all the time by putting this infinite number of trivial choices in front of us: Do I want the iPhone 5 or 6? Holiday in Japan or in Spain? We’ve distracted ourselves from the fact that the real choices are not in our hands.
Besides these trivial choices, a person growing up today also has much more choices when it comes to jobs or places to live. The world has become more mobile, which has lead to more possibilities.
Well, it goes further than that. Today, people who feel trapped in the wrong body are able to choose a different life for themselves. But other than that, I wouldn’t say that people had fewer choices back in the days. About 250 years ago, that might have been true. But at least since the Enlightenment, people shaped their own lives. I grew up in the 1960s and I remember that everyone around me was flat-out rejecting the way of life their parents or society wanted to impose on them. I even heard someone saying the other day, that my generation had more choices job-wise, because the economy was in a better state.
But there were fewer jobs in terms of what you can do and how.
That’s true, there are a lot of jobs that didn’t exist 30-40 years ago and people are a lot more mobile. I don’t know if it’s better or worse; it’s just different. I think the level of personal freedom has stayed the same but the amount of choice has increased.
“Children can cope with more than we believe”
What we cherish about childhood is a certain sense of wonder for the seemingly mundane. Is there a way to keep that as an adult or will experience and logic always destroy it?
I think this sense of wonder is idealized too. Have you ever tried to get a kid to watch a beautiful landscape?
No, but a spoon usually does the trick.
A baby will be fascinated by a spoon or keys but it will stop once they’ve seen the keys a couple of times. Once they figure out how something works, the wonder is gone. So I don’t think it’s the same sense of wonder we have. We are still amazed by things we have long figured out.
We have talked about childhood and what springs to mind is the “happy childhood”, which seems to be a determining force. Yet childhood itself is a very recent concept and the happy childhood even more so. Are we at a point yet where we can properly define what makes a childhood happy?
No. For a very long time, a kid was nothing else than a small grown-up. They had to work and prepare themselves to one day take over their parent’s role in society. There is a very good book by David Lancy called “The Anthropology of Childhood”, in which he examines the concept of childhood across different societies. He especially focuses on what he calls WEIRD societies, which are Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies, and their obsession with a happy childhood. He argues that the efforts that our societies put into this are so rare, both historically and anthropologically. He describes how in traditional societies, children are not pampered but expected to help their parents and to learn everything through observation. Of course, this family model is slowly dying out because of globalization and the way of life it brings with it, but it’s still relatively widespread.
Part of the reason why we pamper kids so much is because we perceive them to be very vulnerable and we don’t want to fail them. In the book, you use the quote from Descartes that “human unhappiness is due to the fact that we begin our lives as children” …
Which is not something you would say today, but you are absolutely right, there is this feeling that children are utterly vulnerable. Every parent knows that the first two years, you are just trying to keep your child alive and let no harm come to it. It is a biological impulse, certain animals have it too, but I think children can actually cope with more than we sometimes believe.
British psychoanalyst Donald Witticott argues that parents even have to fail from time to time, so that the children learn that failure is normal and that they are not surrounded by infallible, god-like creatures. Maybe parents should worry less about being good parents and more about being too good?
Parents will fail either way. There is no way you can always be right.
Just like the old saying that everybody gets the chance to screw up their kids in their own way.
Exactly. There is a poem called “This be the verse” by Philip Larkin that starts like this:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Larkin was a misanthropist and the message of the poem is that we should all just die soon and not have children. But of course there is some truth in these lines in the sense that no parent is infallible.
Could you please give us a short and concluding answer to the question of your book: Why grow up?
Because we are going to grow old anyway and growing up and taking responsibility is a subversive alternative to simply giving in.