Do we hate Kids?
A thought cascade triggered by Jennie Bristow's "The Corona Generation"
It is, I believe, very easy to be cynical about a teenage anorexic’s use of veganism or eco-concern. It is easy to see in her “no, no I can’t eat that - the Planet is literally dying” only food restrictions lurking sinisterly behind affected moral concern. However, during a recent conversation with somebody experiencing this first-hand, a troubling thought occurred. What if the truth of this veganism is bleaker than standard anorexic duplicity? What if this moral distress is earnest and felt? What if when she tells you that she cannot eat that pan-fried egg or bacon sliver because it will precipitate the end, she means it?
Perhaps you are already a step ahead of me; perhaps you find this unsurprising. After all, climate hysterics have been indiscriminate with their minute-to-midnight alarmism and have targeted adults and kids alike with their leading questions and passive aggressions. The subject of “What can you do to stall the cataclysm? How have you modified your behaviours to save the polar bears and bees?” is just the universal subject of modern technocracies – ageless but infantilised, enlightened but endlessly idiotic, and either on-board with elite moral-blackmail or ill-informed and utterly evil.
Under these conditions, children are encouraged to experience their every choice and behaviour with the weight of the apocalypse sat across their shoulders – they are made to bear the same responsibility as adults more used to compartmentalising worry, and with a better grasp of the democratic and material realities of the situation. My little brother’s geography teacher once berated her class for not skipping school to strike in front of parliament. They were just thirteen at the time. Thirteen. And yet she expected them to engage with and respond to climate messaging like adults, with all the sense of terror and culpability that that implies for quasi-children.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that environmentalism has ghoulishly profited from distressed children – look at how 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s tears were lauded by adults advancing political projects or appeasing their guilty consciences or both. Conspiracy theorists who see only sham and spectacle in her emotion may make the same mistake that I did with the teenage anorexic’s veganism. Whilst there might be some kind of shadowy machination propping up Greta, and genuine anorexia drives the teenage vegan’s food choices, in both cases there is also a profound distress nurtured, and even cheered on, in kids by a culture increasingly comfortable with not distinguishing between adults worthy of dignity and agency and children needing guidance and care. The adult world seems increasingly shy about providing structure and protection for children, and quite content to leave them to consume exactly the same news as grown-ups, only shorn of the maturity or experience that would allow them to contextualise the information before them. In this, Greta is a tragic rather than heroic icon, and it is both callous and irresponsible to pretend otherwise.
Kids were similarly, and spectacularly, failed by Covid-19 messaging and policy-making1. Despite early evidence to the contrary and some public health transparency, we quickly behaved as though children faced the same risks of infection and transmission as adults. Schools were closed, exams cancelled and socializing recklessly stigmatised – will you ever forget “Don’t Kill Granny”? Whilst Covid-19 messaging did not instrumentalise children’s distress as climate alarmism does, it has been quite happy to scapegoat them2 and subject them to similar policies as adults, leaving them without a clear social or educative structure.
School-closures were particularly egregious in this regard. By May 7th, 2020, 85% of children worldwide had had the school gates slammed in their faces and had been left to quarantine like adults, shifting to online learning as their parents moved to Work-From-Home3. However, kids have different needs to adults. Whilst many – though by no means all – adults seem to have taken to a work-life softened by home-comfort like duck to Peking sauce, kids depend on the actual structures and day-to-day interactions of school life for their sense of purpose and place in the world. In The Corona Generation, Jennie Bristow writes,
School isn’t always pleasant for children, and it’s certainly not always fun. But it plays a crucial role in socializing children, and providing their lives with structure and meaning. School provides a context for young people to form and navigate new relationships, and gradually develop their sense of self and independence. Lessons provide the core of school, but not the total experience – the conversations with friends, the interactions with teachers, the classroom dynamics that provide children with a sense of being part of something.4
Contrary to many adults who fell back on reassuringly well-established life-structures like married cohabitation, many children experienced school-closures as an abandonment or even a disillusionment5. Overnight, their reality, that had been structured by the school timetables and exams, evaporated and many felt that they were left to figure the ensuing void out alone.
Allow me to summarise by repeating myself somewhat: kids are not adults. They are, at most, adults-in-becoming and, as Bristow emphasises, dependent on the structures provided to them by caring and attentive adults for that becoming to blossom into well-adjusted adulthood. Thus, much like environmentalism, Covid-19 policy failed to distinguish between adults and children, and the adult world retreated from its obligations to children – “By evacuating children from the classroom and cutting them off from each other, adult society suspended its responsibility to the education and socialization of the young.”6
Considering it though, I do not think that this retreat means that we really treat kids as adults. No homestuck teenagers were enlisted into a Covid-19 volunteer corps, and climate alarmists do not usually propose giving kids the vote – rather more nebulously, they ask that we ‘listen’ to the anguish they milk from their poster-children.
But then, perhaps you are already ahead of me and, again, find this unsurprising. How could kids be treated as adults in states where adults are systematically stripped of agency and infantilised by unelected technicians who theorize and model and impose metrics with little-to-no accountability? At best, you could say that children are treated like adults insofar as technicians do not distinguish between the natures and needs of the two. And so we reach this seemingly absurd moment at which adults cannot be trusted to smartly manage health-risks in their everyday but children are taken at face-value when they identify as the opposite sex and are prescribed harmful and life-changing medications and surgery as a result7.
Now, I think that this absurdity resolves itself when you realise that infantilisation comes hand-in-hand with the adult world’s retreat from its duty of care. Stripped of agency, adults find themselves unable to step in and structure their kids’ world as they used to. They find themselves incapable of handing down reassurances and discipline as they judge fit, and unable to provide their children and teens with the space to be foolish, ludic and erring. They no longer enforce school-attendance or let their children experiment and provoke under wry but caring supervision. Instead, they find themselves forced, for whatever reason, to treat their children as they would any other fellow denizen of modern technocracy: “As a parent you cannot support your child striking from school,” says Greta’s father, “I said to her you have to go out and do it for yourself.”
I do not know why he feels this way. Clearly, he recognises that as her father he has some kind of obligation to Greta but, for some reason, feels unable to step in and enact it. In some cases, it is clear that intervention from without by technicians lies at the heart of parents’ inability to do this. For example, in the case of puberty-blockers parents are obviously and actively discouraged from questioning their children’s gender-identification and are implored to affirm, affirm, affirm lest their offspring commit suicide8. And Bristow alludes to something like external meddling being responsible for the adult weakness during Covid-19 when she says,
With the closure of schools, young people experienced the retreat of adults’ general sense of care and responsibility. Shut up in their homes, they have been subjected to the sole authority of their parents, yet with their parents having very weak authority in practice. Many of the daily decisions that parents make about what their teenagers could do – who to see, where to go, what time to be home – were taken out of their hands by the legal requirement to ‘stay at home’.9
However, external meddling does not clearly explain Svante Thunberg’s feeling that he cannot just tell his daughter to put the bloody sign down and go to school (unless you are conspiratorial; but then that would not explain the decision of the hundreds of parents who felt obliged to let their school-age children ‘strike’). This leads me to think that the adult retreat does not neatly depend on actual infantilisation by technicians. Rather, as our cultures become increasingly technocratic and our expectations of authority increasingly tend towards micro-management, our parenting practices shift accordingly and it feels increasingly inappropriate to act as sovereign of your child’s universe. Perhaps.
Treating the vegan anorexic’s distress as the expression an individual’s mental illness and little more is a way of not reckoning with how the adult world has encouraged her to experience her food choices as playing a role in the apocalypse. It is a way of not asking if and why adults are increasingly relaxed about honouring their obligations to children. I hope that this will change and that disgruntled parents will be heard and complacent ones galvanised. Whilst our forebears sent kids down the pit, we traumatise them by saying that the planet is dying because of their nasty, coal-burning ways. Or by glibly depriving them of vital social structure with little positive evidence for doing so. Or by whatever other innumerable eschewals of responsibility.
How exactly is this tolerable? Why aren’t more of us angry?
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021. The Corona generation. 1st ed. Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books.
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, p.65
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, p.53
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, p.60
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, pp.57-58
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, pp.60
Joyce, H. 2021. Trans. 1st ed. London, UK: Oneworld Books. (pp.71-90, especially pp.71-77)
Joyce, H. 2021, p.84
Bristow, J. and Gilland, E., 2021, pp.64