By Matt Gordon
Most of us know the tagline of the famous toy store jingle: “I don’t want to grow up . . .”
Generally, this line is a lie. I have a couple boys, ages one and two, and I get daily to witness this mistruth in action as they strive to walk before they can stand, run before they can walk, drive plastic vehicles at literal break-neck speeds before they know how braking and copays work. Youth eternally has been a hurtling forward, all acceleration, into more and more and more freedom. Mobility, then peer groups, then a driver’s license, then off to college, work, or military—more, more, more, please! I very much want to grow up, want to choose for myself at a time of my choosing. Yes, I want to grow up, indeed.
Yet there is a trend afoot which is merging the desire for being grown up without acquiring the requisite skills of grown up life, like the fleeting ability to make wise moral choices with a measure of independence. This is not new, but it is becoming more and more evident in the coddling nature of society—a faceless entity rising up to meet (and profit from) the felt need of constant guidance.
I just used the bathroom in a public setting, for instance. In said bathroom I saw multiple (six were in view) reminders telling me, an adult, to remember to wash my hands. On one was even a diagram showing me how to do this thing I am now teaching my toddler to do. The world gently reminds me, Use soap, pal. Make sure to turn on the water, buddy.
No place has this been more evident than through voting advertisements. Voting is a hallmark of democracy, and it is important. But the number of times I am reminded of my sacred duty is congruent with the reminders I give my boys to pick up their things or refrain from picking their noses. The variety, too, harkens back to childhood. Sometimes I should vote because of how uniquely important and special I am. Other times it is because how important and special the election is. Sometimes it comes across like a tongue-lashing akin to the message received by a boy with a perpetually messy room. Reminders are good. Constant cultural parenting? I’m not so sure.
Those are two relevant examples (and both of immense importance just now), but the patterns cut deeper and are not bound to pandemic or pivotal election. It is common knowledge, for instance, that our attention spans are in decline. But the answer is not for humans to gird up vigor and fight for more seconds and minutes of sacred attention-giving. Heaven forbid we put down our phones! The remedy instead is a workaround—remove the dialogue from the film; add more sound effects to the commercial; cut the book by half.
Consider our media consumption—accuracy has been replaced by brevity. Books are out-of-vogue for articles. But videos—that’s even better. I was in a conversation with an organization’s Creative Arts Director when he suggested capturing one minute of a podcast on video and putting that on social media. The reason? People will watch twenty seconds of something; there is no way they are listening to a fifteen-minute conversation about almost anything. When I asked how I would know which minute to include in the video clip, his answer was wise to the times: “It doesn’t matter.”
Twitter didn’t choose character limitations arbitrarily. They know about appeasement, placation, and caring for the tender young that we’ve become. Even when us children are firmly voting aged, or so constant social media reminders to vote would have me believe, still we need to have our food cut bite-sized for us.
Last week I was on a call with someone discussing a very deep book. He read a quote he liked that went on for a page-and-a-half. It was quite good. After reading it, he said disappointedly, “Too bad it would take like twelve tweets. It would be so good for others to read.”
You can see these trends in entertainment too. It is becoming like my palate—more and more non-discerning with each new bite of candy. I eat like a child and because of that I now eat solely to stay alive—the sensuality of cuisine is lost on me. Bring me a kid’s and a dessert menu, please and thank you. With television shows and movies, we’ve gone for big and loud and sensory overload. Nuance and dialogue and wit have fallen out of favor. My two-year-old will occasionally watch TV with me and tries to guess where the joke is in The Office. He ends up laughing in all the wrong places, gets bored, and moves along. Of course, I can’t blame him. But turn on some zany slapstick shenanigans and the jokes (and bodies) land with wrecking ball precision. And I am becoming him—give me lambast and noise and simplicity, and I’ll laugh along merrily enough. Just please don’t ask me to think—not, at least, without telling me how and when first.
And it would seem this is all well and good—no harm, no foul, and all that. Unless the trend leads toward something? As I invite mysterious, veiled parents into my life to tell me how to wash my hands and when to vote and which things are very important and which are not, and when these parents give me options on how to consume news and entertainment, it poses an important distinction: Who exactly are these parents and what are they hoping to raise me to become? There are ways, I think, to coddle someone to life—the tender hug I give my boy at night’s end, for instance. I embrace him to show him how unconditionally accepted (and acceptable) he is to me. Through nurture and love, I am hoping to lead him to a secure individuality that can join and aid the collective pursuit of goodness. But there is also a coddling to death—when I offer him a genteel embrace after he attempts to hurl his brother down the stairs. It is allowing his freedoms to constrict him to prediction—a giving him of all the things he wants before he is wise enough to know what to want. It is a prediction then of a being immobilized morally and mentally, unable to stand before sink and figure what is to be done with his hands, the soap, and the water. Less practically and more: what is he to do with the oppressed, the proverbial widow and orphan? With the daily gamut of life-giving or life-taking decisions?
We all, I think, want to grow up. To make good choices and become more and more self-reliant in the minutiae of life so that we can be ever more dependent on the collective capabilities of a wise world all about us. My neighbor will wash his hands too, for the sake of us all—and I can leave him to that. And together we can join our clean hands toward this important end or that one.
My trouble, I suppose, is that I can become afraid. Growing up takes courage, and the most noble, courageous, dangerous adventure is in the realm of thought. That I can think and therefore be means that the stakes of existing well thrive or shrivel in my mind. So I look about for someone to just give me the answer. I check the back of the book, or turn the box upside down to read the hidden answers. I Google it or consult with social media sages.
The Never Land stories depict Wendy and the children journeying to Peter Pan’s world of childhood adventure and low-stakes mayhem. It is a merry place of wonder and a seeding place of sown courage. What is fascinating is that Peter’s dearest friends are deemed The Lost Boys. They have remained children forever, gaining much in that: pretend sword fights and hunts and other diversions of childhood. The movie Hook is based off J.M. Barrie’s play and subsequent Pan stories, and there is one scene in which a vast banquet is laid forth. The children from the real world cannot see or grasp the food before them, but the Lost Boys help them imagine the feast—and a feast it becomes. One point of the scene could be the importance of imagination and openness. But one could take a darker view: that of the malnourishment that comes of pretend feasts in faraway lands. As perpetual children, we starve.
The real food is of this world—one dense with decisions, suffering, and nuance. It is a gritty reality. Not one to be flown away from with a happy thought, but rather one to be walked through, with wisdom, hope, and grace. We can close our eyes and be led to the imaginary banquet or return to damp London and live bound by reality yet free to moral goodness.
It used to be that you had to grow up—the war or depression or suffering would force you to. Now there is more choice, more delay, in the matter. But with this reticence comes a great loss: an immobilized soul. There is an acedia that sets in and sets us standing dopily at sink waiting for instruction. We cannot do the good we are called to if we wait for a step-by-step diagram or the permission from some algorithmic wizard. For throw back the curtain and the wizard is no wizard at all.
“I don’t want to grow up . . .” Perhaps not. But will I make the hard choice anyway? I’ll start small—with clean hands and vote cast. The next good step is next, taken with ever-lengthening strides.