The Many Marks of Childhood
At age 18, the state of California in association with the federal government legally declares an individual to be an adult. He or she can now vote, watch pornography, buy a variety of things like cigarettes and spray paint, and even die for his or her own country. I remember the days approaching my 18th birthday. When we’re younger and smaller, we tend to imagine that there is some magical change that occurs the moment the clock strikes midnight that will suddenly make us ready and mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being a legal adult. Well, in the months and days approaching my special day, I quickly realized that I was going to wake up, and except for the significance that my family, friends and I put on its shoulders, it was going to be just like any other day. The magical transformation that I once imagined was and is still a sloping gradient of change.
But as I look back, there are definite marks about being a child. Besides the obvious lack of physical maturity, a lot of what defines a child is psychological. The mind of a child is a vast probe, open and curious. At birth, within the constraints of our genetic makeup, we are capable of becoming anyone. For the first year or two of life outside the womb, our minds are in the most pliable, impressionable, and receptive state they will ever be in. At the neural level this is apparent in the fact that we are all born with massively wired brains that contain many more links than any one individual will ever need. It’s as if all the achievements of the entire human race, acquired over millions of years, are made available to each of us at birth.
During the first twelve months of life, a remarkable amount of energy goes toward fueling the development of the child’s brain. During this period, large numbers of neural connections are lost (through lack of use) while others are reinforced and developed (through repeated use). A human brain starts out completely receptive. From the moment its senses are functioning, it takes in impression after impression about the world around it. Its onboard genetic commands quickly guide it in the process of going from a helpless obliviousness to a sharp state of effectiveness with the wits and street savvy needed to survive.
Unfortunately, we are absolutely, pathetically helpless throughout the period that this momentous development takes place. Knowledge to survive in the world can only be gathered through individual experience, by watching and learning from others who are already proficient at having what it takes to succeed – men and women.
A crucial part of our development involves the child latching onto the game rules by which the individuals around it play. As he or she grows up, they attach themselves to the prevalent attitudes and beliefs to which they are exposed. The child then personalizes his or her belief system by consolidating numerous (often subtle) impressions it picks up from others about its particular character, intelligence, and status; his or her bodily appearance, gender role, and capabilities. Whether these impressions picked up by those around the child are “right” or “wrong” is not the issue. It’s the way the child takes in and accepts everything to be the complete and absolute truth. It innocently assumes that all is good and that all intentions are for the best. A child does not yet have the ability to think objectively or to imagine a world with different belief systems than its own.
As a child takes in an impression, it will twist around the meaning so that it fits its own belief system and experiences. Bruno Bettelheim in “The Child’s Need for Magic” states a similar opinion, “It is therefore important to remember that the only statements which are intelligible in terms of the child’s existing, knowledge, and emotional preoccupations carry conviction for him.” A child has a sort of self-centeredness, in which all images and sensations must have importance in its own small world for it to make any kind of true impression. It is a mark of an adult when one’s focus moves away from one’s self and spreads outward to the things beyond.
Childhood in today’s society can be a variety of experiences. Today’s world isn’t exactly the safest place, so one can be forced to grow up too fast. They’re hit at an early age with profound human experiences that they may not be mature enough to handle. Their world is sharply brought quickly from the imaginary naivete to the startling reality at hand. As far as protection goes, many people are doing a lot to keep their children protected. There are now internet surfing screens so children can only see what their parents want them to see. There is also technology in TV’s that can sensor out certain channels or ratings. Many people and organizations argue that the mature material itself shouldn’t even be available at all to young eyes. However, it is difficult to draw the line in a term such as “mature material.” And the first amendment allows free speech, so in reality, it is the job of the legal guardian to either censor the material themselves, or to encourage independent thinking and instill the morals and values they believe necessary for the child to make its own decisions.
But as one leaves childhood and goes into adulthood, it sometimes seems like the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” It is so easy to live in a supportive sheltered home and to be provided for. Sometimes I wish I could tell a child to appreciate how easy they have it, but I never do because I don’t think they’d quite understand.