I was reading John Henry Newman’s Loss and Gain when I was called to a London-based university for a meeting. Newman’s novel centres on philosophical and theological debates among Victorian Oxford undergrads. Newman wanted to present a true-to-life account of the conversations that young academic Bachelors enjoyed during his time at Oxford, which accompanied the rise of ‘ritualism’ and Patristic studies that eventually culminated in the Oxford Movement.
I arrived half an hour early for my meeting at the university, and so wandered into the cafeteria to get a coffee and read another chapter of this novel that so enthralled me. Opening the book, I concentrated on the arguments therein concerning the merits and demerits of Anglican branch-theories, the relationship of personal faith to public revelation, the degree to which such revelation requires an authoritative interpreter, whether such an interpreter must also be a legal body, etc. The characters were each energetically—but in an orderly and mannered way—contributing to the discussion: Reding referring to the Reverend Keble’s latest sermon, Freeborn questioning its compatibility with ‘Gospel simplicity’ by quoting St. Paul and John Calvin, the uncommitted Sheffield rebutting all expressions of conviction with some passing remark drawn from Aristophanes’ plays.
I descended from this world of living minds as I heard the cackle of a group of students at the other end of the cafeteria. “That is well sick, man, innit!” exclaimed one of them as he leapt about making a loud clicking gesture with his hand. The others were still laughing, not with human laughs, but with noises that together made them sound like a clan of excited hyenas. They were gathered fidgetingly around a phone, and from their various comments I inferred that they’d viewed a short video of someone rapping very quickly to some sort of percussion metre. I surveyed the large room. About half the students were similarly jumping about, shouting to one another in a street-jargon that was—to me at least—unintelligible. The other half gaped silently at their phone screens with the expressionless faces of lately lobotomised lunatics. I looked down at my copy of Loss and Gain. Whatever has happened in the last two centuries, I thought to myself, cannot be called anything less than civilisational decline.
It is a common complaint that universities are infantilising their students by coddling them in a way that is totally inappropriate for young adults. This is made worse by their exposure to an endless selection of self-indulgent non-disciplines by which they unlearn anything decent they might hitherto have been taught, ultimately landing them in a world of debt from which they will not escape for decades. The sorry state of universities, however, is not entirely the fault of universities, for their erosion of true learning is largely a response to the quality of young person they receive. Should we point the finger at the schools, then? Well, perhaps, but the schools are largely responding to the quality of child they receive. The fact is, from what I can tell, most parents are happy with unpleasant children—and unfortunately the rest of society and its institutions must deal with that in some way.
As a parent, I frequently meet other parents, and am exposed to other parenting methods. I have noticed some prevailing features. Children are often treated as if they are the most important people in the world. It is a mistake to treat children in this way, for the simple reason that they are not the most important people in the world. In fact, it has traditionally been held that as you grow in wisdom and experience, you grow in importance. It is true that the future belongs to them, but the present belongs to those who have been inducted into society, with all its institutions, markets, and modes of political participation. In fact, a desirable future belongs to children only if adults are the most important people both for children and for each other.
The inordinate importance given to children means that they are now given a pass when it comes to basic manners. I was raised on the maxim: ‘I want never gets.’ Elementary words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ have grown alien to children. They demand, interrupt, and constantly make a spectacle of themselves if they observe for a fleeting moment that they don’t have everyone’s attention. Such children are generally given what they want when they want it.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine, who is now in his sixties, and he told me, “When I was a child, children were almost invisible. Adults would eat together, enjoy games together, sometimes have roaring debates, and meanwhile we kids would just run about outside and go on adventures, and nobody would make a fuss of us or worry much about us—it was almost as if we didn’t really exist, but we didn’t mind that.”
In a culture in which children are considered to become socially important, rather than simply being socially important, growing up is a good thing. Aging, in such a culture, is something that comes with rewards. In our culture, growing up is a process that only comes with disappointments, in which one ceases to be an important person and becomes a person who pays bills. For this reason, we have opted for the especially appalling condition of prolonging mental and moral childhood into adulthood. This is displayed in the choice of grown-up men to wear hooded-jumpers and trainers, play computer games, and take ‘time out’ with colouring-in books. The modern child, who is not a likeable human being, gave rise to the modern adult, who is also not a likeable human being and almost indistinguishable from the modern child in all but size.
Of course, children are only apparently the most important people in our culture: they have their inflated status only by virtue of the fact that adults choose to have them and determine their number. In turn, it is not the children who are really important, but rather the adults’ feelings about the children. If children were inherently important in the modern mind, we would not do what we do with ‘unwanted’ children, and we wouldn’t regard dogs and cats as reasonable substitutes for children. And if a thing can have importance inasmuch as you decide that it is important, then it is not the thing that has importance at all, but you and your feelings. This is what is really perverse about contemporary parenting: all these unlikeable children are a product of the parents’ own self-directed sentimentalism. I have personally witnessed parents commending themselves on their martyr-like acceptance of their child’s nastiness, as the parents choose to die inside in order to let their children ‘be their true selves.’ The more difficult the child, the more the parent can congratulate himself on his own parental accomplishment.
Of course, children cannot simply ‘be their true selves’—they are hardly selves at all. The reason, in fact, why civilisations establish complex and sophisticated induction processes called education is precisely to bring children to a state of selfhood. Letting a child be his ‘true self’ is like telling an acorn to be an oak; an acorn needs a lot—nutrients, water, good soil, sunshine, and protection from the elements and strangling creepers—if it’s going to be an oak, and that is a process that takes a long time. It’s taken three centuries, but the myth of Rousseau’s Emile and Du Contrat Social has filtered down to the parental level and is there causing as much damage as it has everywhere else.
The most terrible thing about a culture that treats children as if they are the most important people is that the children are not only unlikeable, but they are unhappy. The idea of liberating the naturally good, free, self-determining child, has in fact produced the unconfident, weak, anxious child, who claims an extraordinary array of mental health problems.
Of course, the modern child is far from subsisting in a neutral bubble, free from all that might hinder the supposed realisation of his true self, as Rousseau imagined. Rather, the modern child has been emancipated from most influences that might have made him a child liked by his own society, and might have prepared him to become a reasonably decent adult. The modern child is formed by the television, the iPhone, the iPad, and a hundred other screens that constantly entertain him by lulling him into a zombie-like state, unforming him as a person. Since they do not know what is good for them, children demand more and more of such entertainments, and given that this is interpreted as an expression of their true selves and the freedom of their flowering agency, such things are forthcoming.
Through the constant presence of technology, children are formed in a disembodied way—not by climbing trees, playing with wooden swords, and catching frogs in jam jars—but by forgetting their place in space and time and entering a computer-generated world. Then, having been habitually disembodied, it is not long before they are told that an essential part of discovering one’s true self may indeed be that of denying that the body has any real connection with the true self. At that point, the worst chemical manipulations and the worst possible mutilations of the young person’s body become a real prospect—and any parents who suddenly want to put the brakes on their child’s self-realisation must face the new culture which they helped to create, a culture that declares that such violations of the human body are an inalienable right.
Is it really any surprise that we are facing the extraordinary rise of ‘childhood anxiety’ and a whole host of other ‘childhood mental health problems’? In the UK alone, one in six children aged 5-16 are deemed to have mental health disorders. The leading cause of death for people aged 5-34 is suicide. Something has gone dreadfully wrong. Worst of all, the prevailing belief is that this dire situation can be remedied by more ‘experts.’ So-called ‘experts,’ whose ideas have been so trusted by parents and have largely established the appalling conditions of the modern child, are the ones—apparently—who are going to get us out of this mess.
The true evil here is that the obsession with supposed childhood self-realisation coupled with the reality of intensifying childhood ‘mental health disorders’—which are clearly related—moves the care of children away from parents and into the hands of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ who alone are assumed to understand the complexities of childhood mental health. The more we have depended on such experts, the more such mental health problems have increased among the population, and intensified among those with prior conditions—as the experts themselves admit.
The solutions, of course, are the ones that were in play when children perhaps faced other problems, but not the problems of addiction to social media, chronic cultural alienation, and the need to validate their half-baked ideas by getting on the victim hierarchy through bodily mutilations—justified by some ill-received dualistic anthropology which they themselves do not understand. The solutions are to be found in localism, friendship, religious induction, wholesome activities, and—above all—the stability of the family.
A friend of mine, who works as a mental healthcare professional, told me that the vast majority of cases he sees could find a remedy to their conditions by spending half the day planting trees, and the other half chopping logs. But, he added, he couldn’t possibly say so at work. I would add that we could solve much of this problem by nipping it in the bud and doing the unspeakable: abolishing divorce. That way, parents would have to grow up, and children wouldn’t be subjected to the destruction of their families—whence, I am sure, comes so much ‘anxiety.’ The Rousseauian myth of moral progress and the self-realising individual has shattered childhood. It is time to reverse this terrible situation by means of the old ways.