It is hard to imagine, given our current childcentric moment, when kids occupy an all-important place in family life and in our cultural awareness, that it was ever different. Yet for long stretches in Western history, children were treated badly—regarded as miniature adults or viewed as uncouth beings in need of rigorous, even cruel, treatment. As recently as in the Victorian era, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the maxim of child rearing, and child labor was a staple of the economy. Indeed, as Philippe Ariès demonstrated in his groundbreaking 1960 book, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, the whole notion of childhood as we conceive of it today—as a separate and extended period of development—is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that did not become widespread until the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Cut to the present, when children can be seen and heard all over town, everywhere from restaurants to movie theaters, accompanied by laissez-faire caretakers or doting parents who see nothing wrong with letting their kids bang spoons on a table or talk loudly during a film. The pendulum has swung from viewing children as secondary to adults; their needs and rights are carefully taken into account, and anyone who is less than embracing of this trend—who believes, for instance, that children should give up their seat on a crowded bus to an elder or should say “thank you” to the doorman—is viewed as a fusty grouch. This cosseting attitude is no doubt producing a nation of better-loved and more confident children, but it also suggests a society knee-deep in projective narcissism, whereby tots become signifiers of parental wealth and status, blue-chip investments whose value increases the more care and cashmere bunting are lavished upon them.
I grew up in the fifties and sixties, when fathers were remote and play dates weren’t yet de rigueur. My childhood was hardly a model one—I was one of six tightly spaced kids who spent a lot of time in a playpen under the eye of a stern caretaker whose attention was divided among us—but it was probably more characteristic of its time than not in its lack of micromanagement and parental hovering. No one worried much how we passed the long summers at the beach; I remember making lots of sand cakes and gobbling up library books. Truth be told, no one worried much how we made out at school, either, or whether the food we ate was nutritionally valid. (Lunch consisted of white bread with butter and chocolate sprinkles.) I’m not for a moment arguing that the lack of personalized attention was a positive thing; I have spent much time and money on shrinks, trying to undo the damage. But I sometimes wonder whether the other extreme, in which kids are cultivated like hothouse plants, doesn’t have its own problems. I watch the children in my Upper East Side building come and go, largely oblivious to the presence of other people, contented inhabitants of their own little imperial worlds, and wonder whether they will grow up with sufficient psychological flexibility to relate empathetically to others.