Reconnecting childhood and society

Harry Blatterer, Macquarie University

Daniel Donahoo Idolising Children, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-932-0 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Contrary to the hopes of many economists and psychologists, HR consultants and management gurus, human action can be predicted only with great difficulty, and then mostly imperfectly. We are, after all social, and so political, animals. As we interact, humans enter an interactive feedback loop, which makes for a good measure of uncertainty and unpredictability; for consensus as well as conflict. Hannah Arendt was keenly aware of this. In Between Past and Future, she attributes the unpredictability of history to this ‘very essence of human affairs’ (1993, p. 60). This, our social/political nature, rests on a banal reality that Arendt calls ‘the fact of natality’: the continued replacement of one generation by the next. She elaborates this thought beautifully as that ‘through which the human world is constantly invaded by strangers, newcomers whose actions and reactions cannot be foreseen by those who are already there and are going to leave in a short while’ (1993, p. 61). The fact of natality is our collective way of bringing the gift of human variability to the world, and this, in turn, reproduces unpredictability. That unpredictability keeps open the possibility of hope for a better future.

It is tempting to think that realising this hope needs a consensus between the generations to be wrested somehow from unpredictability. Any such expectation, however, is unrealistic, as Arendt knew well. Children act not only in, but also on the world. They make it their own, changing it in the course of growing up and growing old. That can make for many tensions between the generations. Mostly these arise from unfulfilled expectations about what young people ought to do or believe and—more implicitly—what the true meanings of childhood / youth and adulthood are. But social scientists, journalists, and commentators, are themselves uncertain—especially when they offer prescriptions. Two contradictory discourses about childhood seem to circulate these days. One has congealed around the notion that children are growing up ‘too quickly’ these days. Others hold that young people increasingly defer growing up.

In Idolising Children, commentator Daniel Donahoo manages to agree with both these propositions. On the first, he discusses a range of trends and contemporary phenomena: how marketers and advertisers sexualise children’s bodies and target ever-younger demographics of consumers, how the media exposes children to excessive violence and shirks its responsibility to educate them about the world, and how children’s play time is curtailed by homework overload and an overly specialised school curriculum. At the same time, he points to a pervasive social image of child innocence, which downplays children’s ‘resilience’ as well as their capacity to decipher media and advertising images, and sets them up for a kind of arrested development on the path to the independence of adulthood. Donahoo reduces all of these issues to a common cause: a prevalent ‘idolising’ of children.

Children act not only in, but also on the world.

‘Idolising’, for Donahoo, is a kind of worship of children which, though ostensibly aimed at their care and education, in reality means that we don’t see children for who they really are: resilient beings that deserve our ‘honour’ and ‘respect’. For Donahoo, this ‘idolising’ is played out across the life course and across the social landscape. Obsessed with wanting the best for their children, people find it incredibly difficult to decide on whether or not to have children in the first place. If they do, parents tend to molly-coddle children to preserve a fictitious innocence; they want ‘perfect’ children instead of recognising that imperfection is part of being human. Educational institutions idolise children by stressing academic learning instead of helping them become self-sufficient adults, ready to face the real world. Popular culture and the media have so elevated youth that mature adulthood is no longer something to look forward to. Child advocates exaggerate ‘stranger danger’ to the detriment of children’s agency, casting them as overly vulnerable. At the same time, there is a general disrespect for children, says Donahoo: our public spaces are child-unfriendly, with many restaurants not showing ‘respect for children’s palate’ thus denying children a ‘dining experience’ of their own (p. 62). Professional child-care tends to be of poor quality, while conflicting expert advice on child rearing (which, again, tends to over-emphasise children’s vulnerability), confuses rather than guides parents. And all this in a society where ‘community’ is a thing of the past and individualism rules the day, exemplified by popular culture’s alleged celebration of single life, and the disappearance of extended families. The issues are legion, the causes are few, the diagnosis is singular.

Social change and ‘the Peter Pan syndrome’

For Donahoo, our idolising of children leaves too little scope for the early exercise of responsibility, respect and independence and ultimately feeds into what he calls ‘the Peter Pan syndrome’. Donahoo is not the only advocate of this view. It is fast becoming a taken-for-granted assumption about young people in affluent societies that deserves some attention.

Views that question the contemporary onset and end of childhood are strongly normative, saturated with expectations, prescriptions and a good dose of nostalgia. Both ‘too quickly’ and ‘too late’ beg the question: ‘compared to what?’ Too often, present day attitudes and practices are judged against the experiences of another generation’s coming of age. Consequently, writers like Donahoo ignore fundamental shifts in the organisation of the life course.

The issues are legion, the causes are few, the diagnosis is singular.

From the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s, stability, predictability and long-term life-plans were ideals as well as real possibilities for a majority of Australians. There was an economic boom and full employment was a political priority (Bolton 1999, pp. 89–246), while traditional gender roles bonded women’s biographies to their husbands’. At the same time, men could work in one job and one organisation for decades, retirement was financially secured, and mortgage repayments a much smaller proportion of income than today (Pusey 2003). Across affluent societies, children’s education, homeownership, and retirement could be calculated and timed; not by all, of course, but by a sizeable enough number of individuals for a particular set of expectations about the life course and its ‘stages’ to crystallise (Lee 2001). Importantly, the very fact that life could be planned when long-term, fulltime employment was a distinct possibility for most, meant that planning hardly needed to preoccupy people: it could be taken for granted.

Not so for the post-1970 generation. Many of these expectations remain, expressed, for example, in the two discourses about childhood I’ve already discussed. But the mundane background to life is very different today. Education no longer necessarily ends with entry into the workforce, and a significant number of students do not need to be reminded of ‘the real world’ waiting for them outside the reputed shelter of educational institutions, when much of their time is divided between study and work. The stability of long-term employment in one career, let alone in one job, is no longer expected. Much greater participation of women in the labour market, greater control over their reproductive futures and equally available exit options from relationships have eroded women’s bondage to the husband’s biography. Marriage is freed from social obligation and economic necessity, and is an individual choice. Today intimate relationships are based mostly on elusive, changeable psychological needs such as ‘love’ and intimacy.

So, where once stability and long-term planning were realisable ideals for many, people now need to be flexible both in work and intimate life, and the present and immediate future have become the only realistically surveyable terrains. Sustained economic growth, healthy employment figures, and an ‘affluenza’ epidemic (Hamilton & Denniss 2005) may cause some to believe that too much of everything, rather than a lack of anything, marks the lives of the majority. But the too-much-of-everything-view of Australian society seriously underestimates people’s uncertainties about how their lives are to unfold. For while flexibility and mobility promise myriad options in education, work and intimacy, their flipside—the inability to plan a coherent long-term future—can just as well induce serious distress (Mirowsky & Ross 2003).

The stability of long-term employment in one career, let alone in one job, is no longer expected.

The paradox here is that for precisely these reasons, most people today have to continuously re-evaluate their situation. They have to plan. Thus, an important change in the experiences of successive generations in Australia since the end of the Second World War has been a shift from the ‘unnecessary possibility’ to the ‘necessary impossibility’ of life planning. Put simply, where once you could but didn’t have to, today you have to plan, but you can do so only to a very limited degree. Idolising Children does not take changes such as these into consideration. As a result, Donahoo explains social trends like delayed family formation, prolonged stays in the parental home, fears about burdening ourselves with mortgages, and the media’s alleged promotion of the single life, by reducing them to our idolising of children.

Donahoo argues that contemporary misconceptions of childhood also amount to an over-celebration of youth—not of young people, but of youth ‘as a lifestyle choice’ (p. 47). He cites as evidence our alleged fears of ageing, which are heightened by ubiquitous media images of young bodies (and the absence of images of ageing bodies) and by society’s denigration of ‘the wisdom of old age’ (p. 217). Much of this is true, of course, but it is only part of the story. The image of youth signifying beauty, strength and vitality goes back at least to antiquity, while the experiences of young people have rarely matched that image. But Donahoo ignores that in recent history the ancient dream of holding on to one’s youth has been invigorated by other, arguably much more far-reaching, changes. To illustrate: in recent decades Australians have witnessed a proliferation of casual and part-time jobs. Because the vast majority of these jobs are held by women, it is largely women who ‘benefit’: they are now free to contribute to household income as well as continuing to do the bulk of housework. What unites women and men, however, is that all must be flexible in their relations to the labour market. Openness to change, even a willingness to embrace uncertainty, is the hallmark of the ideal employee. That is to say, employers highly prize ‘youthful’ attributes and orientations such as flexibility, mobility, vitality, short-term thinking, and pro-risk attitudes. Potential or actual employees who do not embody, internalise, or perform those attributes are at a distinct disadvantage (Boltanksi & Chiapello 2003; Sennett 1998). Youth, then, is more than a ‘lifestyle choice’, as Donahoo claims. In fact, it is increasingly an imperative—for all ages.

Individual or corporate responsibility?

Since the 1990s, corporations have significantly stepped up the development of brands that target the pre-adolescent ‘tween’ market (Quart 2003). Recently, Australian researchers have begun to focus on this trend. Some charge corporations and retail outlets with the sexualisation of children via suggestive advertising imagery, and propose that advertising to children under twelve should be banned (Rush & La Nauze 2006). Others, like Catharine Lumby and Duncan Fine (2006), see regulation of the industry as anathema to consumer choice, stress the educational and entertainment benefits of television, and instead charge parents with the responsibility for explaining advertising messages to their children. What contribution does Idolising Children make to this debate?

There is no consensus as to whether consuming violent or sexual imagery is good or bad for children.

Donahoo observes that there is no consensus as to whether consuming violent or sexual imagery is good or bad for children. But he tells us that ‘children can be capable consumers of media, and they can form and develop more sophisticated understandings of it over time’, because ‘young people have a greater grasp of new and emerging media technologies than the adult world does’ (p. 145). So it seems that parents’ confusion about what to tell children is of little consequence when children, due to their media-savvy predispositions, are hard-wired expert media analysts. That does not mean that they shouldn’t be monitored, at times. Parents can accompany their children ‘as they watch TV and talk about what they are watching, what they think about it and how it makes them feel’ (p. 159), Donahoo advises. So, on the one hand, children are better able to gauge media images than adults. But, on the other hand, it is up to parents to guide children’s viewing habits and interpretations. But, we may ask, what if we don’t leave our kids to their own devices, does this not amount to the kind of over-protection Donahoo includes as an indicator of ‘idolising’? He doesn’t disentangle these contradictory threads.

On the development of brands that target child consumers, Donahoo avers that this is ‘subversive and underhanded’, but this, after all, ‘is the reality in which we live’ (p. 170). His idea, then, is not to change that reality by, for instance, considering how advertising to children could be made subject to independent, public control. Instead, we need to understand that children who recognise and identify with brands also exhibit the cognitive capacities to engage in discussions about the purposes of that industry. So, ‘forcing industry to take more responsibility for its tactics and monitoring advertising directed at children is only part of the solution’ (p. 179). Point taken—if it weren’t for Donahoo’s belief that to ‘shield them from corporate logos and images’ means to ensure children ‘fail to develop a framework of the consumer society they are living in’ (p. 172). Thus, he imagines that advertising to be vital to the growing person’s integration into society. But Donahoo manages to slide from one perspective to another when he alerts us that ‘[when] confronted with these images of childhood … children as young as five years old are already conscious and concerned about their body image’ (p. 211). Apart from the fact that children’s preoccupations with their bodies are normal, it remains unclear what the author wants us to understand here. Should children be exposed to a variety of images or not, and if so, to what kind of content and when in their development?

There is a sense that Donahoo writes against his own sensibility.

What are we to make of all of this? Having largely divested ‘the media’ and the advertising industry of their responsibilities, it is up to individuals to take responsibility; it is up to children, rather than regulators, to learn how to deconstruct and deal with the semiotics of advertising; it is up to adults to guide them in that endeavour. Questions of resources—of time and money—and about unequal control over the dissemination of information remain unasked.

One childhood fits all?

It’s clear that it isn’t Donahoo’s intention to perpetuate a highly individualistic worldview, since he also points to the deleterious effects of individualism. But there is a sense that Donahoo writes against his own sensibility. For example, while noting that labour markets, education, economics and politics play a role in our decisions about whether or not to have children, Donahoo criticises prevarications over this question by referring to a time when ‘having children wasn’t such a big deal’, was simply ‘part of the continuum of life, something people just did’ (p. 78). The author duly makes this trend fit his argument: ‘Our obsession with when, with whom, and why we have them, and the impact they have on our lives, is a product of and contribution to the idolising of children’ (p. 80). Donahoo is quick to remind us that ‘this is not about advocating the return to a time when there was no real choice’, but rather about ‘supporting every adult, in whatever their fertility decision may be’ (p. 80). The vagueness of this unelaborated suggestion is singular. But more importantly, because he rarely engages with contemporary economic and political exigencies to make sense of what people do and why, Donahoo cannot help but deliver them mostly to their individual, socially disconnected predilections. To then use another time as evaluative yardstick for what he sees as present-day malaise is to not only completely psychologise social trends, but to—willingly or not—seek refuge in an idealised past. The conclusion is a fait accompli: education, gender roles, family, community, television, childhood, adulthood, respect, responsibility, independence, and commitment sure ain’t what they used to be. Also forgone is the conclusion that one way to combat these developments is for us to ‘adjust our lifestyles in ways that will allow us to stop worrying about the mortgage and start thinking about spending more time in the park watching our children play’ (p. 244). It seems all that is required is for parents to change their perspectives.

Idolising Children is a catalogue of symptoms that is itself symptomatic.

At this point in the book something that has thus far remained implicit becomes obvious. Donahoo finally makes concrete his suggestion that ‘we would do best to deconstruct the many and varied images of childhood and proceed with a better understanding, using only what is useful’ (p. 46). And the model he finds useful is an affluent, middle-class childhood; a childhood without trauma; a too-much-of-everything-good kind of childhood. Donahoo gives himself permission to emphasise this vision because ‘the lives of our children are at less risk than in any other time in history’ (p. 190). ‘And so they should be’, I might add, because we live in an era of unprecedented economic wealth, as the Government keeps reminding us. The fact that Indigenous infant mortality rates are 2.5 times that of the general population (ABS 2007), and that nearly 10 per cent of all Australian children live in households where no-one of working-age is employed (UNICEF 2007), is a disgrace. To marshal statements like ‘children … such as Indigenous children, experience poorer health than Australian children in general’ (p. 189) merely as supporting evidence for how well the majority of children fare today, is to seriously misappropriate some children’s suffering. Enough said.

Idolising Children is a document of its time, both because of the kinds of questions it does and doesn’t ask, and because of what it is: a catalogue of symptoms that is itself symptomatic of the contradictions that suffuse childhood in Australia today. There is a sense that Donahoo’s demand that we honour and respect our children rather than idolise them is not so much about changing contemporary realities as it is about a need for certainties which he has glimpsed in the past. I’m reminded here of Zygmunt Bauman’s articulation of a modern hope that supplies the motivation underlying Idolising Childhood: the hope that ‘[t]he anxiety would be lessened, tensions allayed, the total situation made more comfortable … were the events of the world more predictable, and the utility or uselessness of things more immediately evident’ (Bauman 1995, p. 141).

Because we are continuously exposed to the differences of others, we can no longer regain the certainties we sometimes attribute to the past. The public conversation about childhood must be based on that fact and so include the many and varied childhoods—affluent and poor, ‘mainstream’ and marginalised, vulnerable as well as sheltered—that make Australia now and in the future. This, however, presupposes that adults are awake to the larger social, historical, and political terrain we share and for which all of us are responsible. Only then can we teach our children that the ultimate responsibility of single wills is to honour the collective responsibility with which they have been invested by the banal fact of natality.


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Boltanski, L. & Chiapello, E. 2006, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. G. Elliott, Verso, London.

Bolton, G. 1999, The Oxford History of Australia, vol. 5, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Hamilton, C. & Denniss, R. 2005, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Lumby, C. & Fine, D. 2007, Why TV is Good for Kids: Raising 21st Century Children, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

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Pusey, M. 2003, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Quart, A. 2003, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Arrow Books, London.

Rush, E. & La Nauze, A. 2006, ‘Corporate paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia’, The Australia Institute, Canberra.

Sennett, R. 1992, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W.W. Norton, New York.

United Nations Children’s Fund 2007, ‘Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries’, Innocenti Report Card 7, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.

Harry Blatterer is lecturer in Sociology at Macquarie University. He is author of Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty: Redefining Contemporary Adulthood (Berghahn Books, New York, forthcoming). His current research interests are biographical uncertainty, contemporary intimacy, and social recognition.

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