Everybody under the age of 12 is innocent and happy. For the longest possible time this remained the American myth about childhood. Every parent knew better, but there was a kind of conspiracy to accept childhood at face value. Look at those wide-open eyes under those golden curls. Did ever an adult see anything so angelic this side of the Sistine ceiling?
A child, or at least a boy, could be mischievous, which mostly meant he had freckles on his nose, skipped his baths, and went around with a frog in his pocket, looking like a Norman Rockwell painting. He might turn his frog loose in church and tug a pigtail now and then, but he knew right from wrong, and when enough adults said, "Dadgum! That boy!", he would say, "Sorry," and grow up into a properly behaved adult himself.
Then, suddenly, not only Bad Little Boys but Bad Little Girls were invading the Eden of Childhood. Tatum O'neal was precociously blowing smoke in everybody's face. Brooke Shields was looking at us oddly while taking the most uncomfortable positions in a size-too-small jeans. On peachy young faces everywhere there was that terrible knowing look.
How did we get from angels to demons -- from "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" to "Lolita" and beyond? In the words of a recent New York Times Magazine headline, "What Became of Childhood Innocence?"
We all have a way of asking these questions as if we were talking about a natural phenomemon -- say, winter thunder -- for which nobody is responsible.The better question might be: "What Became of Adult Innocence?"
For it was parents, of course, who first got the idea of shortening childhood -- of pushing little boys into Little League uniforms and little girls into evening dresses. It is as if "parenting" has become a race -- to get one's offspring to eat the first solid food, to take the first step, to read the first word, and so on. First parent to puberty wins.
And what were parents doing in the meantime?* Dressing younger and younger, for one thing, until we have now reached a stage of comic reversal where the children wear more conservative clothes than their parents, and it is the son who is now embarrassed by his father's long hair.
If only all this were just symbolism. But in the name of emancipating them from a so-called "sheltered childhood," parents have been putting upon their sons and daughters the responsibilities they themselves are so eager to avoid. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that what adults want to give up most is their maturity, thrusting it on their children, as though by shortening the childhood of the latter they might prolong their own youth.
Sometimes it seems that the whole world was turned into adolescence, with Dad and Mom and children all going through their identity crises togeter.
So without once mentioning the word "permissive" -- good show! -- we have traveled from one myth to another: from pseudo-innocence to pseudo-decadence, from the Good Ship Lollipop to the Blue Lagoon. And what we must remember, in our present confusion, is that Brooke Shields is as much of an illusion as Shirley Temple was.
We might also do well to remember Carl Jung's advice for parents: "If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves."
And now that we've so thoroughly gotten over the automatic privilege of children to be innocent, perhaps w e can get back to the choice of all of us to be good.