I don’t have children.

I’d like to, one day, and I think a lot about what their childhoods might be like, especially as compared to mine.

I look at reports of teen mental health, at college admission rates and tuition levels. I talk to friends of mine who are teachers and involved with the school districts.

I hear about campaigns to eliminate gifted and talented programs in the name of equity.

And I think there’s an important question at the root of all of this that we’re not quite dealing with, as a society.

What is childhood supposed to be, in the first place?

What Is Childhood Supposed To Be?

I see two competing inclinations, when it comes to how first-world countries conceptualize childhood.

The first is childhood as this Elysian paradise, a time spent free of concern or responsibility. It’s the kind of childhood everyone wants to look back on fondly.

The second is childhood as preparation for adulthood - a time spent studying, learning, and experimenting such that the child is ready for the next step.

These two inclinations are fundamentally incompatible: either children have responsibilities or they don’t. Either their time should be spent preparing for adulthood or it shouldn’t.

Which isn’t to say that either inclination is wrong - both are demonstrably capable of producing fully functional adults. Perhaps there is no “right” answer here. I believe that everyone should be able to raise their children as they see fit - but since these inclinations affect things like schools and colleges, they will have an effect on every child, no matter how their parents choose to raise them.

Childhood as an Idyllic Summer

Because we’re dealing with ideas and ideals here more than a specific, concrete vision of a childhood, I’m going to gesture to what I mean by “childhood as an idyllic summer”, and hope the meaning manages to translate appropriately.

As Stephen King says, writing is telepathy, so here are some attempts to transfer my thoughts into your brain:

Phrases like “an Indian summer”, “halcyon days”, or “childish innocence”.

Songs like “Summer of ‘69” and “Boys of Summer”, or even the pop ballads of middle school dances.

Parents taking care of a skinned knee. Ice cream on a hot day. The adventure around every corner.

Comfortable and safe. No expectations or responsibilities.

This is the sort of thing one looks back on fondly. It is the heartbeat of nostalgia, the beginning of every coming-of-age story, the underlying truth of every children’s book.

In remembering it the memories are somehow rosy, glowing and golden-hued, a time without stress when every problem was solvable and one’s parents had the solution.

Childhood as Pre-Adulthood

Second verse, same as the first:

Phrases like “most important time of your life”, “foundational”, “build good habits”.

Songs like “Baba O’Reilly”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Prep school. Cram school. Pressure to excel, to pass classes, to get into honors courses and get good grades.

Thinking long-term about the future. Got to get into a good college, to get a good job, to have a chance at a good life. Any failure along the path ruins everything.

Constant comparison and competition. Coming in second at the science fair because some other kid’s parents are nuclear physicists. Math competitions, mock trial team, band practice and sports. Needing to look well-rounded on college applications.

This is a time that emphasizes “firsts”. First kiss, first date, losing one’s virginity. Everything feels like it’s happening right this second, all at the same time. Miss a step and you’re behind forever.

It is looked back on in therapy, while one talks about unrealistic expectations. It is the fodder of art house films, the modern interpretation of a John Hughes movie, the underlying truth of every young-adult dystopia.

When Does Childhood End?

Perhaps the conflict emerges as a child gets older?

Is there some step transition, a moment when a child becomes a teenager and the idyllic summer gives way to concern for the future?

How long is “childhood” supposed to last?

Traditional customs seem to cluster around 13 as the age of transition - the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the Confirmation, etc., seem to take place around then. And yet no one expects a 13 year old to take on an adult’s role in modern society.

I don’t have a good answer here. Legally childhood ends at 18 - but that seems like a cop-out.

Perhaps I’m focusing too much on the word “childhood”.

Why Does This Matter?

Two things I believe to be true:

Any optimization process, if sufficiently strong, will eventually destroy all value not optimized for.

College admissions create an optimization pressure on children. In other words, in order to compete for admission to top colleges, children are incentivized to out-compete their peers, who are incentivized to out-compete their peers, and so on.

Taken together, these two statements imply that there is a risk of all value in childhood except that which looks good to college admissions being destroyed.

So what is childhood supposed to be?

The current equilibrium seems to me to be tilting towards the idea that childhoods should be spent squeezing every last academic and extracurricular opportunity for everything they’ve got in the hopes that the opaque and arcane admissions process grants the child entry.

That seems pretty dystopic to me, and not the kind of childhood I want my (future, hypothetical) children to have.

Are there alternatives?

Prediction is hard, especially about the future. By the time I have children and they’re old enough to be going to school, the current equilibrium might be different. Students may all have AI tutors. Curricula may look different. The political climate will certainly be different, though whether it’s an improvement or not is a question for the (future) historians.

What I can say, though, is that I’ve been on the treadmill of good grades and college admissions, and it is not responsible for any of the fond memories I have of my childhood.

There has to exist a happy medium - a childhood spent learning important lessons, that doesn’t feel like a Red Queen’s Race to adulthood.

I wonder what it looks like.

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:49 AM

I was writing a lengthy answer about how I struggled with similar questions before actually becoming a father and how they all became relativized, but then it seemed a better idea to just give a little piece of advice: If you have a partner that seems adequate to you, go for it, you‘re probably already overqualified. Your words already speak of the love you will able to lavish on a child, and that is the most important thing to give. The rest is, as always, a matter of adaptation of strategy and tactics to circumstances that are beyond our control.

Thank you, this was very kind.

As a parent of young children, I often consider this very dilemma. In addition, as the other comments describe, there are several other dimensions along which a parent must optimize:

  • Things that may broadly "give" to oneself (Sleep, exercise, fulfillment of "vocation", hobbies, etc) vs Things that may broadly "take" from oneself (Basic care for kids, the kinds of play that may not interest the parent, drudgery of "work", chores, etc)
  • Disciplinary style & social environment within the family (A two-dimensional area ranging from Harsh to Permissive on one axis, and Compassionate to Disinterested on the other)
  • Aiming at Stability vs Encouraging of Change (Applicable to childcare, school, location of home, which sport one signs them up for next year, etc)
  • Culture (A two-dimensional area ranging from Providing a Culture to Letting them Loose, one one axis ((That is, does one instill some tradition intentionally, or, since we each have the influence of a cultural background, does one actively avoid doing so?)), and Suppressing Questioning to Encouraging Asking 'Why?' on the other)
  • Time & Money (Unless one is particularly rich or poor, one must trade the opportunities afforded by working longer hours to earn more against the opportunities afforded by those specific hours. This is made all the more acute by the non-fungible nature of the hours of our lives.)
  • And so on...

This is a place where I find traditional wisdom to be useful, since the constraints and values faced by parents have been largely the same since the invention of writing. (At least, for those who could write.) Consulting a variety of such works, both those which address the topic of parenting directly, as well as those which do so obliquely (typically narrative fiction of particular importance or cautionary tales), one can form generally-useful views, even if none seem universally-and-definitely useful.

Though I admit to thinking about this in this level of detail only as a result of your post, the main such points, 18 of them, in my view, are perhaps the following:

  • One must have a general awareness of what the needs and capabilities of a child are, across their development. Do not expect from them those things of which they are not capable.
  • When children make mistakes, their parents should encourage them to "pick themselves back up", whether a skill or moral mistake was made. (Note that it is the child's self that they should "pick back up"; the activity they were doing may or may not be worth trying again.)
  • The goal is to "raise" one's children into adults, so there can be no question of whether they are exposed to the things one is averse to in the world, but only of when and how. And because they are those things one is averse to in the world, they have a tendency to make themselves known sooner than one would like to discuss them.
  • Traditional constellations of the "virtues" provide a foundation of dispositions worth instilling in one's children in order to prepare them for the interactions that will make up most of their experience.
  • A thirst to understand begins in experiences that capture a child's attention and inspire a lasting sense of wonder. (Adapted from Aristotle)
  • A human must be taught, either by direct experience or by direct communication, everything they come to know. Help them have the experience and teaching they need, either from yourself or from others. Given this is so, do not express disturbance when they ask frank questions about any topic. (They will!)
  • Everything else one learns is built upon the fundamentals (things like phonics, writing/typing, logic, and basic math, yes, but also ability to control one's body both to act and to not act, social skills, a mindset that does not easily give up, etc), so one should exert real effort to secure these in one's children.
  • The aim of one's life cannot be "all of the above", and because the resources at one's disposal are finite (time, money, energy, etc), whatever is not the primary aim will surely be reduced to support that primary aim. So if there is an "aim of one's life" that the parents believe to be universally best, then the primary aim of their parenting must be to instill that life-aim in their children.
  • Those things which are both harmful and enjoyable are most to be defended against.
  • "Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired" (per Jonathan Swift), and neither will it (directly) correct ill behavior done out of "impulse". Other methods are required.
  • Pain, generically of both the bodily and mental sorts, really is an effective teacher. One should note, however, that the lesson taught by the pain may be neither true nor useful, and if pain/unpleasantness is being used as a pedagogical tool by the parent, it may not teach the lesson intended in its application.
  • "All models are wrong, but some are useful." In a similar sentiment, fairy-tales and myths may be literally false, but convey a lesson that is directionally true for a specific domain. (That is to say, for the "moral lesson of the story".) And stories are a form of conveying information that is well-adapted to the human mind. Poetry and song, all the more.
  • The "mundane" things of life are such specifically because they are what constitute the majority of one's experience. So the manner in which these take place has a lot of "experiential surface area" to affect one's children.
  • Children look to their parents for love, acceptance, and comfort. Provide it to them. (This doesn't require accepting all behaviors, nor does it require directly or partially lying to them about bad things that have happened or will happen.)
  • They also need basic physical provisions, like food, water, and shelter. Provide those things to them. If you are unable to do so directly, seek the help of those who are able.
  • They also look to their parents for direct modeling of behaviors, whether the parents, themselves, would want those behaviors imitated or not. "Actions speak louder than words."
  • Parents must care for themselves in order to be able to care for their children, and so there must be resources (time, energy, money, etc) which are dedicated to this, and not to anything else. (This doesn't mean one should neglect one's children. And it is notoriously difficult to find a balance that would be generally considered "reasonable". But, except where especially difficult circumstances obtain, such as severe medical, political, or other crises, it is possible to find a "dynamic equilibrium". Perhaps the belief that one should pursue a static "balance" causes additional distress for some parents.)
  • One should try to make "maturity" a desirable goal for their children. Or perhaps it would be better to say that one should make continual growth & maintenance the paradigm for their children.

This was very well said, and I'd be interested in reading a post fleshing more of it out.

I don't like the framing - "what is X supposed to be" is a confusing question, because it supposes a supposer.  There is no god, I think (and if you disagree, that should be front and center of your post).  There are MANY books, papers, blog posts, and family conversations about how to raise children, and ZERO authoritative positions with any standing to actually know an answer.

I also object to the implication that one size fits all, and that all (or even most, or even a significant enough majority to brush away the variance) kids should have the same experience.  Same for parents and communities.  There is so much variance that "what is best" just can't be defined.  The happy medium is different for everyone.

Even if you zoom out enough to treat kids as mostly-fungible, the difference between kids of educated two-involved-parent families and uneducated less-involved parents is qualitiative, as is the difference between significantly below, near, and above median intelligence and personality traits like conscientiousness.  Many of these are correlated, and some of them are mutable (and perhaps changing them is part of the reason to prefer social/group schooling).  Which just makes it MORE complicated.

I don't go as far as Bryan Caplan in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Case_Against_Education, but it's a valid point that a lot of things matter less than they appear at first.  

I suspect there are a whole lot of equilibria that would work, and a lot of reasonable variance within the current middle-class+ US expectations.  If you don't like the competitive/optimization pressures, pick a different one.  You probably can't (as child or adult) fully ignore the fact that there are many people who want the same stuff that you do, so competition is just a part of every life.  But it doesn't have to be the obvious, common dimensions of grades, "approved" extracurriculars, and college admissions.  There are TONS of happy people who didn't go to a name college (or didn't graduate at all, which includes me).  

Keep in mind, the optimization pressure is NOT from colleges.  It's exploited by colleges, but it comes from parents, family, peers, and (sometimes correct, sometimes misunderstood) future employers and potential mates.  And most importantly, from inside the child's head, based on all those inputs.

Perhaps a better way to express my thoughts would have been "What goal do the structures of society create optimization pressure for, when it comes to childhood?" I believe that different societal structures create optimization pressures for different visions of what childhood is like, and this can confuse conversations about those structures.

In The Latter-Day Pamphlets, Thomas Carlyle made a big deal about something he called the human intellect, the beaverish intellect, and the vulpine intellect. With regards to school assignments, these map more or less straightforwardly to the pursuit of excellence in the moment for its own sake, the "good enough" mindset associated with the Chinese phrase "cha bu duo", and finally plagiarism and other forms of cheating.

Of these three, only the former can provide a schoolchild with a profound sense of fulfilment and self-esteem. This does not mean that everyone other than geniuses are screwed. Instead, most children should be working on either (edit: easier) material, but should learn it to a higher level of fluency. School in this vision should not be aimed at giving you access to universities for the sake of some credential race, but simply at teaching you skills and rectitude and making you able to take pride in your work.

This then is my vision of what childhood should be: children should learn to read and write, but instead of their classes focusing on giving them as broad a knowledge as possible of these fields, spanning every gimmicky type of fad literature that was popular in some decade or other, they should focus on the fundamentals and develop these so that they can write with clarity, dignity, confidence, etc. Likewise, they should learn mathematics. Introducing them to sociology, philosophy, etc. is however pointless as children do not have the life experience to grasp these at any but the most superficial level, not to mention that it is a rare schoolteacher who is capable of teaching them.

Aside from that, they should get work experience, ideally something more or less artisanal in nature. This needs not be traditional crafts like tailoring, but also modern crafts like gamedev, audio engineering, etc. They should of course learn to work seriously and be paid for their work.

In addition to that, they should of course still have plenty of time to play and experiment with things.

This is in many ways a form of preparation for adulthood, but because the children would be achieving excellence in easier tasks instead of struggling at harder tasks, it will also be fulfilling in the short term, not to mention that the skills are much more likely to stick than present schooling is.  

I quite like this.

Neither of these really describes what childhood is for. Both of them are inventions of the modern WEIRD society. I'd suggest you read "Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattels, Changelings" for a wider view on the subject... it's pretty bleak though. The very idea that there is such a thing as an optimal childhood parents ought to strive to provide their children... is also a modern, Western, extremely unusual idea, and throughout most of history, in most cultures, they were just... little creatures that would eventually be adults and till then either got in the way or were used for something.

The norm appears to be "benevolent neglect", at best - that is, children are not (outside of our Western bubble of reality, as well as East Asia which independently invented some of the same norms) actively taught or guided towards anything; mostly they are ignored and they teach themselves everything they need to know by mimicking adults. People spend time with their children, but it's rarely a goal explicitly striven for (the way it is for Western parents); it's just a side effect of their existing at all.

In the end, children are still humans.

Half of childhood is a social construct. (In particular, most of the parts pertaining to the teenage years)

Half of the remainder won't apply to a given particular child. Humans are different.

A lot of that social construct was created as part of a jobs program. You shouldn't expect it to be sanely optimized towards excuses made up fifty years after the fact.

Childhood has very little impact on future career/social status/college results. They've done all sorts of studies, and various nations have more or less education, and the only things I've seen that produce more impact than a couple IQ points are like, not feeding your children. Given access to resources, after the very early years, children are basically capable of raising themselves.

In summary, it's best not to concern yourself with social rituals more than necessary and just learn who the actual person in front of you is, and what they need.

I agree to some extent with what you're saying - but in today's society, (at least in the U.S. and, to my understanding, many parts of East Asia) children are subjected to optimization pressures from colleges and other selective institutions. I think there's a lack in clarity of thought in society at large about the effect this has on children, and more importantly, what childhood ought to be.

To your point, less optimization pressure on children does not seem to result in less achievement in adulthood - so perhaps that's the direction we ought to be aiming for?

Weirdly, and I think this is because my childhood definitely was not optimized for getting into a good university (I was homeschooled, and ended up transferring to Berkley based off perfect grades for two years in a community college), but reading the last paragraphs here made me rather nostolgic for the two or three weeks I spent doing practice SAT tests.

Nostalgia can be a funny thing. I've been nostalgic for experiences that I would in no way want to repeat. Sometimes things are better as memories than they are to live through.