Tag: adults

"We don’t have any positive pictures of adulthood"

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.
How so?
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.

"Kids don’t suffer from the limitations we do"

A few years ago, Anne Kjær Riechert began asking children to draw their dreams. It has turned into a surprisingly insightful way to visualize kids’ minds and psyche.

Tell us how you came up with asking kids to draw their dreams.
In 2006, I was working in Johannesburg, South Africa, for an organization called Nkosi’s Haven. It takes care of HIV-positive mothers, their children, and orphans.
The shelter was named after a Nkosi Johnson, a child born HIV-positive who died at a young age. His dream had always been to help children with the same fate as his, which is exactly what the organization ended up doing. When I was there, it was in the process of expanding to take in more people. Of course they needed money for that, and as my final university project, I helped them come up with different strategies for fundraising.
Inspired by Nkosi’s dream, I had started to wonder how we could help the kids to express their wishes, aspirations and dreams. I eventually figured that we could just ask them. And since we were fundraising, we decided it would make sense to have them put their response into a drawing, since that would be more visual and colorful.
And the results inspired you to turn it into an even bigger project?
Looking at the dreams of these kids from South Africa, I wondered what kids in Norway – where I was raised – were dreaming of. Would they draw the same thing? Would it be different? Maybe it would be the same thing, but they would express it very differently.
The impact of two very different childhoods on their thinking and drawing?
Exactly. What difference does it make if you’re an orphan in South Africa in comparison to a wealthy Norwegian child? So I organized a workshop with about 70 kids at a Norwegian school. Then I had about hundreds of drawings and wondered what to do with them. Conveniently my mother works at a museum, so I called her up and asked whether we could do an exhibition…

Puente Piedra, Peru Girls, 10 years old I have a dream to plant trees

How can we picture the exhibition?
We wanted to give people space to make their own interpretations. At the back of every drawing we always ask the kids for their name, date of the drawing, age and location – and what the drawing shows. We put that on the front for visitors to see but it is still unlimited amount of information for a viewer to work with.
How did the kids react to seeing these images?
Before showing the images to children, we usually tell them where the pictures are from. “Do you know where Mumbai is?” And they say “Yes, India” and say whatever their parents or teachers have taught them about the country: That it is really poor and that people have nothing to eat. And then we show them the pictures, which – in the case of India – often feature dreams about a clean environment. “So you thought they would dream about food, but what they really dream about is conserving the environment. What can we learn from that?” The kids then figure that is wrong to make assumptions. These guided tours are very interesting, because it allows us to interact with he children. Kids often see the wildest things in the images, things we would not pick out as an adult. Small things, tiny details.
Kids draw some things we don’t understand and other kids see things that we overlook. Maybe it is a project not meant for adults?
I think it is suitable for adults as well. But kids just see things so differently. It makes an even bigger difference where we show it: In Japan, they will look at it differently than in Denmark. It really depends on the cultural and socioeconomic background.
Denmark, Aarhus Female - 11 years I have a dream that nobody will leave somebody out. Don't bully!

Denmark, Aarhus
Girl – 11 years
I have a dream that nobody will leave somebody out. Don’t bully!

You have shown us some pictures in which African kids have drawn themselves with white skin…
It is common to just draw outlines and to not fill in faces. So even if it is a black kid that uses a brown outline, the inside will always be the paper color. Since that is usually white, it appears to us as white. But in their minds, it might be a very black person. And keep in mind that many kids don’t like to draw themselves into the picture.
Why do you think that is?
I am not entirely sure. It is harder to do.
Does it have to do something with age? Younger kids have more trouble relating to themselves?
That is true for very young ones. But the older ones will be way more self-conscious and say that they can’t make a portrait of themselves. They feel insecure about seeing themselves on a piece of paper.
What is the scale of your project today, almost ten years later?
We have done workshops in 33 countries and with about 4000 kids in total. The actual number of workshops I don’t have, but we have about 4000 drawings.
What are you planning on doing with them?
When I started the project, I didn’t know much about databases or big data, so after a few years, when my parents started getting a bit upset about having to store so many pictures, I made a selection of the ones with the best stories and threw the others away. In retrospect, I can’t believe I did that… not just because so much work went into the drawings but also because I threw away all the data they contained. Now, I am keeping images and I am hoping to some day build a database – a database of dreams – to index them, see which ones are the most popular and to see how they change over time.
Turkey - Ankara Boy - 11 years I dream of Peace in Space

Turkey – Ankara
Boy – 11 years
I dream of Peace in Space

This has long stopped being a fundraising project and has become an exploration of what kids aspire in different contexts…
…and how that is changing over time. We can see that kids in the West – including Russia – now dream about becoming a YouTube star. That platform was still in its infancy when we started. But over the years, it has become very popular among kids. And the great thing about that is that we can tell this to kids to show them that the future is way beyond what they can imagine: There will be jobs that don’t exist yet.
You mentioned that you also want kids to see these dreams and think about their own role in the world.
I want them to be inspired by each other. During a workshop we had the other day, a kid from Palestine drew a very colorful airplane. It was remarkably similar to one from Japan that he had seen beforehand. It is symbolically nice that a kid from Palestine is inspired by something drawn two or three years ago on the other side of the world. Whether that is an accurate reflection of his dream is a bit hard to tell, but at least there is a symbolic value in that inspiration.
That inspiration also manifests itself in the composition of the images.
Kids put drawings together in another way than we would. There usually has to be something on the top or the bottom of the image, grass or water.
Everything has to stand on something…
It shows you that they think in a very modular way and stack elements together.
Funnily enough, that way of thinking doesn’t have to be logical. On one of the drawings, a soccer field is being shown from above – but the players from the side. It looks as though the players are laying on the pitch.
Perspective is one of these things that each kid has their own take on. We recently worked with a child that wants to become an architect – and she drew using two perspectives at the same time: Her images show a view from the top and from the side.
A kid who draws like this now probably won’t do it five years down the road. Which is a shame, because in a sense it means that certain elements of creativity are being killed off during the aging process. Why not show two perspectives at the same time? After all, drawing has the ability to do what a human eye can’t.
She intrigues me because I thought she was younger. The way she draws is more like that of a younger child that I have seen in other workshops. I thought she was 8. But when I realized she was 12, I was surprised, because 12 year olds usually draw much more realistic. These are two girls in the same workshops, drawing very differently. Is it based on education? Experience? Will this girl start drawing like the other?
She probably will.
But that means she will stop using this style we now find more artistic, exciting and intriguing. Something happens in their development and in how we teach kids in school or how they teach each other.
Berlin, Germany I dream of being an architect.

Berlin, Germany
Girl, 12 years old, from Albania.
I dream of being an architect.

One of the skills we are trying to teach children is to think outside of the box. In that sense, drawing a picture like this is an ability we lose as adults, since we try to make it as lifelike as possible.
When we put down the paper on the kids’ tables, it is in landscape format. This girl was the only one of the group who decided to turn it into portrait format – she was already and outlier doing just that. Her ability to think differently than other children is possibly something she should try to hold on to if she wanted to become an architect.
Isn’t it ironic that adults will try anything, from meditation to drug use, to return to this child-like state of creativity after having shed all through a combination of nurture, education and conformity.
It is – especially because it is a useful skill. For instance, companies often need a certain creativity for their brain-storming sessions. And yet so many people struggle to express themselves visually. They have lost their ability to draw. Many companies feel like as long as they have post-it notes, they are a creative company. But there is a whole methodology on to how to use them properly and in a way that people understand them. Don’t use too many words. Try using drawings and people will remember it – even a bad drawing contains so much embedded information.

Japan, Tokyo Boy I dream of being a dog-trimmer and having a Formula One racetrack around my business.

Can companies tap into children’s creativity somehow?
IXDS, an interface innovation company from Berlin has created hackathons for under 10-year olds, where they get their employees to spend their Saturdays working with kids. By bringing adults and kids together, you can tap in to that resource in order to inspire the employees. And when I was in Brazil, I spent three days with a lady that has started Moleque de Idéias, a tech start-up where the employees spend 50% of their time working with kids. They are saying: Its not just us who teach the kids. They teach us just as much as we teach them.
Kids don’t suffer from many of the limitations we do – they don’t take the impossible for granted.
That is useful, but also a fine line to walk. Younger kids are more likely to use fantasy. But the older they get, the more they try to copy society in order to do what is expected of them. Just as adults, they are influenced or maybe limited by what they have experienced. Younger ones are more likely to make these leaps, to put two cool things together – like being a pilot and having a car.
They combine them in the image?
One time, a Japanese kid drew a dog-trimming business he wanted to run – in the middle of a Formula One racetrack. It might not exactly be possible to combine a race track with a dog trimming business, but there is something to be said about combining two exciting things.
Trondheim, Norway I want to be a turtle.

Trondheim, Norway
I dream of being a turtle.

Of the many drawings we have seen, one of the most interesting ones was from a boy who wants to be a turtle – because “turtles are slow”. That is the most badass answer, because it is so nonconformist.
That one is interesting on so many levels. Because he does something very different from what we want him to do. He still feels like he should be there and draw, which he doesn’t necessarily have to. And his turtle was perfect. If he was so nonconformist, he could have drawn it in a million different ways, could have drawn a cross and claimed it was a turtle – but he didn’t. There is some conformity in the nonconformity. And he was really slow. One of these soccer players, who just wasn’t into drawing. But he didn’t dream about being a soccer player – but about being a turtle.
What happens to all this creativity children can express so vividly?
It’s not just creativity but also the willingness to do something new. Ask kids to draw their dreams and they don’t blink. Try doing the same with adults, and they would be reluctant to – not because we have run out of dreams but because it seems irrational to put them in a drawing. When we grow up, drawing becomes a skill and is no longer seen purely as an expression of creativity. It would be interesting to talk to teachers and ask them what they actively nurture: A way of drawing or a way of thinking.