Just for them. Photo by Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Essay/
Family life

Just for them. Photo by Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Kid culture

In most cultures, kids tag along with grownups or mooch with friends but American life is heavy with ‘kid-friendly’ artifice

Sarah Menkedick

Just for them. Photo by Pilar Olivares/Reuters

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids clamber over one another in an enormous anthill maze. Carpeted, encaged in wire mesh, consisting of layers of looping and overlapping low tunnels, the Limb Bender, as it is called, spans a storey and a half, and usually contains anywhere from two to four wailing toddlers stuck in its dead centre. Eventually, while a crowd of parents politely holds back snickers, the mom or dad of one of the stuck babes valiantly begins belly-crawling his or her way upward, hissing with as much mustered sweetness as possible: ‘Come down, Callie.’

In his book The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2008), the anthropologist David Lancy introduced the idea of the neontocracy: a type of society, unique to WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), in which children are the most valued members. In a neontocracy, the bathtub fills up with toy ducks, the living room is slowly smothered in gadgets, and there is no upper limit on the amount of time and energy adults must pour into the project of childhood.

Further inside the Children’s Museum, kids climb into huge, clear-plastic wind tunnels, shrieking as their hair stands on end. They scramble up rope nets; roll magnets along magnetised slopes; spin a deep-backed wheel filled with copper sand; creep into a completely black room roiled by simulated thunder, chucking handfuls of glass beads onto tables to evoke the sound of rain. If they get bored with that, upstairs there’s a jacuzzi-sized tub of blue pebbles to scoop into windmills and, on the third floor, a waterplay area where they can float boats down channels or carve ice with blunt plastic knives.

When my husband Jorge and I first moved to Pittsburgh, I loved the Children’s Museum. There was nothing like it in Oaxaca, the city in southwestern Mexico where we lived when our daughter, Elena, was between the ages of one and two. I was amazed that I could take Elena there for a whole afternoon and relax as she fiddled with light sticks or sorted rocks into holes. It was like taking my hands off the steering wheel, being able to sit back and zone out as she explored, with the added bonus that all the sensory play and stimulation and exposure to other kids had to be good for her development, right? It felt like a healthy granola bar, sweet and indulgent and still promising flaxseed and fibre.

Shortly after our move back to the United States, I spent a lot of time in such places, designed specifically for children. I took Elena to the art cart at a nearby playground, where she could wander between dozens of stalls, putting together a wooden sailboat or making a Play-Doh mask or stringing beads on to a pipe cleaner. We went to the fall festivals and Halloween spectaculars, getting temporary tattoos, gorging on seasonally themed bags of mini pretzels, lugging around conglomerations of paper plates and popsicle sticks.

I was grateful for these opportunities since I was still her primary caregiver; we had a nanny for four hours a day, and Jorge occasionally took Elena for mornings or afternoons, but I was the one doing most of the childcare. In Mexico, the days had sometimes felt gruelling. Long walks up and down the pedestrian street. Afternoons at the coffee shop, reading books while I sucked down cappuccino after cappuccino and she nursed a limonada. Endless ‘draw-in’ and ‘paint-in’, as she put it then. Sometimes, we’d hike up to the Biblioteca Infantil to send leaves down a pretty little ditch beneath pochote trees and play with a measly selection of grimy plastic toys. But, beyond that, Mexico did not have a kid culture: no institutions, places and events solely for the stimulation and entertainment of children.

I was enamoured with this culture when we first got back to Pittsburgh. It felt like way less work. It was a relief, not only in terms of the demands of childcare, but also because I had wholly and unthinkingly absorbed the contemporary intensive-parenting assumption that my daughter needed something special, something extra, mandated in grave tones by child-development experts. I worried that simply sitting around draw-in and paint-in wasn’t going to cut it, because she had a rigorous series of social, emotional, cognitive, and gross- and fine-motor milestones to meet, and she required endless and attentive tending to do so. The playground, with its spinny wheels full of shiny bobbles and its slides and climbing contraptions, promised this, as did the museum and the outdoor kids’ centre at the local conservatory and the art cart and story time. It was like Parenting 2.0, Parenting Extra, making sure that she not only got sensory stimulation, but also a giant tub of shiny beads.

Without realising it, I was falling in line with a long American tradition of worried adults fussing over children’s play, trying to get it just right. The first playgrounds in the US emerged less from a sense of playfulness than from progressive reformers’ moral concerns about the proper socialisation of poor immigrant children. As the American historian Dominick Cavallo wrote in his book Muscles and Morals (1981), play is ‘too serious a business to be left to children and parents’.

An immigration boom had led to overflowing slums in US cities, with immigrant children running free in the streets. As the American historian Michael Hines showed in his study of Chicago at the turn of the 19th century:

It was these children – innumerable, highly visible, undirected, at risk (or so reformers maintained) from their impoverished environment and the lack of wholesome or productive activity – that social reformers sought to save with the creation of play sites that would offer both safety and supervision.

The idea was to delineate not only where children could play, but how they should do it in order to best direct their cognitive, social, emotional and moral development. The neontocracy bumped up here against the ‘gerontocracies’ of the older world, in which children were, at best, ‘incompetent adults’, as Lancy described it, to be mostly ignored or commanded to help with the chores. The neontocracy wanted children in their own carefully organised spaces and, ideally, parents or other adults there to make sure that they were using this space as productively as possible. The idea was to create the right kind of American adult: as Hines put it, ‘patriotic, team-oriented, hygienic, physically competitive, morally upright’. Crucially, the playground was fenced off from the street, delineating where children belonged, and where they did not.

I was shocked to discover, when Jorge and I returned to the US, that he loathed kid-only spaces. He couldn’t stand the children in various stages of overload and meltdown, chucking gooey Teddy Grahams crackers from their strollers; the jittery parents shouting ‘Henry, come here right now and cut out these newspapers for your screen printing!’; the plastic and primary colours and noise and frenzy and monotony of it all. He occasionally enjoyed the Children’s Museum or the Carnegie Science Center on a quiet Thursday afternoon, when he and Elena could wander around without pressure, as through the landscape of a bizarre, abandoned ancient society. But, for the most part, he avoided kid culture.

Childless adulthood ropes itself off from family life, letting parents know that adult recreation is not child’s play

Meanwhile, I began to notice that, as kid culture filled up most of my days, I had been exiled from adult culture. Or rather, I began to notice that parents in the US lived in a strange, lonely and depressing gulf between two opposing cultures: one designed entirely around the fantasies not necessarily of children but of parents imagining the kind of uber-stimulation and play their children might need; the other designed almost entirely for single people or couples without children. Mixing these cultures is taboo. It was utterly surreal and hilarious to take my little brother, a single, 29-year-old musician living in Sweden, to the Children’s Museum – ‘What is this place?’ he kept repeating. It was also surreal and slightly stressful to take our daughter to certain restaurants and, once, to a bar in Portland at midnight, or out for the evening with adult friends, and it was off-limits to take her to many shows and performances.

Our ‘family life’ was not supposed to intersect with our ‘adult life’. Being a family meant that we were eating at the local pizza house with its colouring pages and sticky booths; going to the event sponsored by Massive Corporation X or Y, where kids could jump in bouncy houses and glue-stick feathers to construction paper; spending our Saturdays at the playground. Then maybe we’d indulge in a ‘date night’ at some hip izakaya in Lawrenceville, downing cocktails while bleeding $15 per hour for a babysitter.

The New Zealand philosopher Brian Sutton-Smith, the 20th century’s leading play theorist, suggested that, as US society generated more amusements for adults – think of goat yoga, onesie bar crawls and Harry Potter-themed adults-only parties at the art museum – the need to distinguish adult ‘recreation’ or ‘entertainment’ from the play of children became paramount. Young adulthood, or childless adulthood, has roped itself off from family life, letting parents know that adult recreation is not child’s play.

Meanwhile, in The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood (2015) – an exhaustive exploration of the meaning of adulthood throughout US history – the American historian Steven Mintz declared that only after the Second World War did adulthood come to represent a plateau, generally reached upon having children, when the adventures and risks and meanderings of one’s 20s petered out into a long, steady, ‘settled’ plod. Mintz demonstrated that the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family, with its primly defined gender roles and suburban isolation from the rest of society, is actually a historical blip, not the norm.

But even as the period of adolescence and early adulthood has gotten longer and longer in the contemporary US, and increasing numbers of people are not marrying and not having children, the decision to begin a family is still experienced very much in these 1950s terms. Now you’ve arrived, look back fondly on the coffee dates and grubby concerts and spontaneous trips of your 20s, because from here on out it’s all bedtimes and playgrounds. It seems less like a plateau and more like a sudden plunge into the abyss of kid culture.

The boundaries between the worlds of families and everyone else in society seem to be getting more and more entrenched, and transgressing them is frowned upon. People rant about kids in fancy restaurants behaving badly, or wonder why on Earth anyone would bring a kid to a show, a brunch, an event, a bar or whatever. And it is true that, because kid culture is so ubiquitous and capable of swallowing up all of adult life, some parents assume everything revolves around their children; they become so absorbed in the child-centred fantasy world of constant play, attention, development and stimulation that they forget children are members of a society and not priestlings inhabiting their own sacred realm. They give up on integration; they cross over wholly to kid culture. This is why many people – three acquaintances in the past year alone – have taken to stipulating that their weddings are kid-free. It’s always gently phrased – ‘No little ones, please! We want you to enjoy the evening!’ – but the message is clear.

Americans have always had issues raising their children as citizens instead of tiny, mighty monarchs – just look at the popularity of the Canadian comic artist Kate Beaton’s bestselling picture book King Baby (2016), which my daughter knew was hilarious and 100 per cent spot-on even at the age of two. In her book The End of American Childhood (2016), the American historian Paula Fass cited a French visitor to the US in the 19th century, who said: ‘Nowhere are children so free, so bold, such enfants terribles, as in America.’

In the early 20th century, as experts were beginning to see parenting as an essential, precise science and the child as the great future hope of civilisation, another commentator observed that ‘the average American baby is cared for in abject worship by its mother and the household is turned topsy-turvy for the benefit of this smallest member’. Mothers were to dedicate themselves entirely to the project of their children: first as lab managers; later as psychoanalysts.

To become a parent is to forfeit citizenship of a larger culture

As permissive parenting took hold in the 1960s and then gave way to intensive parenting, mothers were to perpetually defer to and cultivate their child’s individual tastes, creating ideal little consumers. They were to micromanage their children’s emotional landscapes, building self-esteem, social confidence, resilience and grit. At the same time, as Fass describes, mothers found themselves immersed in a ‘dual reality’ in which their children were a central, crucial, all-consuming project even as the mothers were ‘liberated into a larger world’.

Kid culture is a response to this ­­– a way for contemporary mothers to perform their obeisance to the milestones, the theory of play and the prescribed parenting regimen, and maybe get a few minutes to answer emails from a park bench – but I have become increasingly unsure about whether kid culture actually lifts the plight of mothers or reinforces it.

Kid culture fully subscribes to the idea that children need to inhabit a world unto themselves that has been carefully organised and constructed by adults; that their childhood must be meticulously cultivated in a Petri dish of intentional experiences; that their growth into healthy and happy human beings is contingent upon the number of hours they spend navigating climbing walls or scooping trays of ice into buckets; that ‘good’ parents will rearrange their entire lives to create opportunities for their kids to sit on the grass and watch a librarian act out the story of Hansel and Gretel with finger puppets; that ‘family life’ means doing something targeted specifically or exclusively toward children. It’s the idea that to become a parent is to forfeit citizenship of a larger culture, reinforced by the sly, ubiquitous US capitalist pressure to consume and experience one’s way through a competitive childhood.

The more elaborate excesses of kid culture illuminate its basic paradox. Give a kid three light tables’ worth of coloured sand and half a dozen glowing lightsabers, and she’ll end up cross-legged on the floor studying a tuft of lint. Even the 19th-century reformers in Chicago fretted that kids ‘do not know how to play’. Teachers from Hull House – a settlement house in Chicago for newly arrived European immigrants – would go to playgrounds to instruct children in good, hearty, organised American games such as ring-around-a-rosy, but the children preferred to roughhouse, build massive improvised structures, and hurl themselves around on the swings. Some even dug holes under the fence to the playground.

Concerns about proper play have persisted. In 1975, the Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted a study, wringing its hands over the discovery that children were ‘walking up and down slides, climbing onto any aspect of playground apparatus that allowed a grip or foothold, and roughhousing’. As any parent knows, give a child a shiny toy backed by thousands of dollars of research, covered in claims of cognitive development, and the child will play with the box it came in.

If anyone needs the maker spaces, the crafting and the creativity stations, it’s 35-year-old parents running on the treadmill of work and childcare. Kid culture is in some ways an absurd, convoluted gift to ourselves – what we would want if we were children. But we’re not children; we’re adults reimagining childhood, and trying to force our way back into it, because we have arrived at a long, dismal plateau from which there seems to be no escape.

It’s not weird to bring your kid to a bar in Mexico, or a parade where teenagers give shots of mezcal to passersby

The longer we have lived in the US, the more Jorge and I have sensed the void that had been filled by community in Mexico. We have a fair number of friends in both countries, and actually more friends with children in the US, but here I mean a broader, more general sense of connection and belonging – the kind forged during cultural events and holidays. The kind that comes from being out in the world with other people, a big mix of people: families, teenagers, older people, tourists, carefree couples with dogs, college kids.

Part of this is simply structural: Oaxaca is full of public space. There are constant parades and fiestas. Pittsburgh, and the US, more generally, doesn’t offer this.

The difference goes deeper still. It’s not weird to bring your kid to a bar in Mexico. To have her at a concert, or out at 11pm at a parade where the Virgin Mary lobs spicy lollipops at everyone’s heads and teenagers give shots of mezcal to passersby. Kids are just there in the fray. It’s not expected that they’ll need their own separate entertainment, stimulation and culture.

Idon’t want to romanticise Mexico. There is a reason I was so grateful for the playgrounds and story times when we first arrived back in the US. Not having any of this in Mexico meant that, in the long days when it was just me and my toddler daughter, I was the entertainment. Sometimes, I would hike a mile to buy stickers to give us something to do.

Childcare is exhausting and tedious and repetitive. It is glorious to be able to unleash your child at a playground and let them clamour and slide and do their own thing while you just sit and think. You don’t have to be ‘on’ in the particularly draining way that childcare asks of you. This is the allure of kid culture.

I also understand its benefits. Kids need and want to be around other kids, and many can no longer do so organically in their own neighbourhoods and houses. They need and want to experiment with things and, if they don’t have lightsabers and sand tools, then they’re probably going to be digging into your cabinets and dragging out camera equipment or experimenting with the toilet. Kid spaces remove a lot of pressure and can free parents from the demands of constant attention.

Kid culture is driven by the belief that child development requires constant energy, vigilance and direction

But kid culture is also an opportunistic capitalist response to a fundamental structural and societal problem: the cordoning off of family life from community life, and the obsession with parenting as a task, goal and project. Kid culture is heavily commercial. So many of the events pitched as ‘family friendly’ are plastered in corporate logos and full of junk ‘gifts’ for kids to tote around, from lip gloss to keychains; memberships to museums cost hundreds of dollars; trampoline parks and gymnastics gyms, the latest incarnations of kid spaces, can cost $30 an hour.

The culture as a whole is leaning evermore toward the insipid and nakedly consumerist. Pay to jump on 45 different trampolines! With disco lighting! Pay to jump into a giant pit of foam cubes! Kid culture now is driven by the belief that child development requires constant energy, vigilance and direction, and by the US desire to paper over the void where community once thrived.

In the meantime, as kid culture has become more entrenched, the backlash is being felt in adult culture, in the push to get kids out of spaces such as weddings or restaurants, in more blatant contempt on the part of some adults for the presence of children in any space not full of other children. This is part of a larger trend of ‘bubbles’ in US life. Families are meant to stay in theirs. No one should have to share any space with someone who isn’t perfectly politically, economically, physically, culturally and socially aligned with them. These types over here; those, over there.

The American political scientist Robert Putnam, in his book about the end of community life in the US, Bowling Alone (2000), writes that children are mostly siloed within their own race, class and household. This is a natural tendency in children, but one reinforced when the only adults they interact with are parents.

Maybe if we weren’t so obsessed with catering to kids as a special type of consumer, with assuming that people who have children want nothing more than to sit around watching them experience delight at some form of engineered entertainment, then there would be more space for community. For mixing with others whose age, background or life situation might be different. For spontaneity.

Maybe if kid culture wasn’t synonymous with family life, parents could be both parents and adults, and kids could be something other than kids – they could be citizens, participants in the public sphere. It is without a doubt essential to ‘let kids be kids’, but that assertion has been warped and exaggerated into the idea of an uber-kid immersed in a kids-only sphere conceived of by entrepreneurial or worried or guilt-ridden adults, and by the belief that childhood is inherently at odds with, and should always supersede, adulthood.

I am wary of heralding the free-range kids movement or any other phenomenon that justifies itself in terms of child development (‘Kids need X! It’s good for kids because of Y!’) as a solution here. While I admire the tenets of this movement and its pushback against the oppressive culture of risk management that dominates contemporary parenting, it is ultimately the classic US capitalist response to a problem created by US capitalism: a movement, a manifesto, a book, a website about how to create a new, proper kind of kid culture to correct the errors of existing kid culture. All of it becomes a kind of obsessive focus on creating the right kind of child, on childhood as product, either wrapped in 18 layers of bubblewrap, or misted in a nostalgic gauze of bike-riding ‘freedom’. Missing here is any sense of community. Instead, what if we were to focus on building more public spaces and events, more opportunities for genuine community? What if the arts were more generously funded and accessible, if there were more opportunities for people to come together in ways that aren’t centred entirely around a table of Play-Doh and glue?

Our daughter is five now, the perfect age to appreciate the museums, playgrounds and events. But the best moments for us, since moving to the US, have taken place in parks. The only equivalent to Mexican public space in Pittsburgh is Frick Park: 644 acres of wooded land where seven-year-old Annie Dillard used to wander from her Point Breeze home and play alone in the creek, back in the wild 1950s before the time of ‘free-range parenting’. We roam for hours on the trails, picking up frogs, eating crackers on rocks, inventing, talking.

The best moments for us have been when there is no adult culture or kid culture, no fantasy world conjured by tired, bored grownups struggling to provide perpetual creative stimulation, and no pretend universe in which we are not really parents, but are instead hip single people sipping $14 kombucha mules on a Saturday night at this new bar. The best moments are when we can all do our thing, be it sidewalk chalk or discussing the downfall of US society or dancing in a tutu or reading poetry. The moments when we are part of a larger community, not subjugated to the singular, quasi-sacred project of the kid, nor trying to flee it, just two 37-year-olds and a five-year-old making our way through the world.

Sarah Menkedick

is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America (2020). 

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