The World of Childhood

by Phillip Witteveen on February 11, 2015

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“For centuries, in Western civilization,” says Ellen Handler Spitz, “children were not really understood to have an inner life at all. Nobody paid attention really… childhood was seen as a preparatory stage of life for adulthood. Children were dressed as little adults—and what they produced when they were little was of no interest.”

Spitz, the author of Illuminating Childhood, was recently featured on CBC Radio One to discuss this: the scientifically under-specified “inner life” of children: the locus of Spitz’ own research in aesthetics and psychology. Dr. Spitz’ work—and the whole radio hour—are really the same response to the puzzling nature of childhood. Psychologically, childhood is a stage of life that everyone has been through. But just as psychologically, it remains hard to explain—mysterious and foreign to its former intimates and inhabitants.

Disjoint as it is from later life, the prerogatives, experiences and internal affairs of childhood seem to form a certain encompassing somewhere: a kind certain of reality like “Western civilization”, or the “fashion world”, or the “world of fiction”. World, as in whatever substantive entities are clashing when “worlds collide”. And what kind of world would the “world of childhood” be? This, in turn, invites more questions like “What’s it like to be there?” and “How do things work there?” As Spitz suggests, there may be more going on than we think.

There is, for example, a particular effect a child narrator has on the story they’re telling, just by their point of view alone. In, say, War and Peace, a child’s sensibilities “recover the strangeness” in the world; everything is still new—universal, even; undiluted by familiarity, the mental vistas from this perspective are more alive, or more worthy of depiction in the high fidelity of a Great Russian Novel.

In a protestant church, the children’s service is always light comedy, even if it also manages to be pedagogical. It’s not just imparting spiritual wisdom from adult to child—but from child to adult, too. The idyllic perspective from childhood is an unjaded counterpoint to adult life. Worlds collide, and it usually helps the congregation laugh.

In fact, in this ad campaign, you can even see the norms of a “world of children” being leveraged against a more hardened, adult world of domestic violence; basically, little boys say they would never hit little girls: excuse me but that is just rude, basically.

As each of these cases instance, it seems like there’s a happier alternate reality going on at around knee to waist height. And there’s a kind of lost innocence in adulthood that childhood blissfully retains. As Spitz notes—in a vivid line about hobby horses and lethally armed cherubim—the whole story of growing up plays out very “out-of-Eden.”

So, whatever is going on in childhood, it seems important. As UM Professor Elizabeth Goodenough points out on this episode: “Children are 20% of our present, but 100% of our future.” From the radio comes the interlude: “I’m Paul Kennedy, and you’re visiting a country called childhood in this episode of IDEAS on CBC Radio One.”

So what is this “country called childhood”? -this apparently more conscious or morally intelligent community, civitas, that we have all been a part of, once upon a time? On CBC Radio One, these ideas have prompted a lot of talk about imagination, pretense, and empathy, talking to animal familiars, and forts, as well as other “secret spaces”.

You can find out more about Ellen Handler Spitz’ work here. The full episode of IDEAS can be found here.

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