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Youngins who can’t get their sh*t together

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People come up to me all the time and say: “Get stuffed you latté-elite wanker!” and: “You really shouldn’t rely so much on those… you know… ‘words’, to explain stuff and things.” But MAINLY people come up and say: “You know who doesn’t get any of the dysatisfunctional limelight? Babies.”

You heard me: babies. Toddlers. Youngins. Rug-rats. Whippersnappers. And you know who else? Small children. Oh, how the heart melts for those bright eyes, highpants and melty icecreams rolling off the tops of cones! After the small children watermark, the view gets somewhat more bedraggled. Pre-pubescents and teens get a whole category to share for themselves, with all their adolescent liminality, confusions and general fucked-upness. From Carrie (pictured) to Skins to Bill Henson, everyone knows that twanging vocal cords, rose buds and fur-where-there-used-not-to-be-fur are about as dysatisfunctional as themselves, thus providing their own worthy metaphors as well as constituting a subject for another time.

But it’s those little fuckers, from newborns right up to, say, 9 or 10ish, who get neglected when it comes to recognising just how many traps for young players abound. Of course there are many developmental differences within that age range, from mastering eleven types of needy crying, to seeking out every powerpoint and head-height corner available. From the first ugly impositions of will, learning to share, using charm as a weapon and pestering as a retail strategy, to the deployment of both elaborate and bald-faced lies, bullying, fighting, hiding, swearing, and all the other things they learn from adults as they move toward the teens. The common element is nonetheless that shroud of innocence. None of the above issues shake our inherent faith in the fundamental innocence of a child, even as s/he has just hit their best friend on the head with a hammer and taken their cheese stick.

A big part of it has to do with young kids supposedly being natural-born bad-asses. It’s normal, we’re told, for kids to basically do their unrelenting best to take you for all your worth, from Caramello tantrums in the supermarket to seeing how many manipulative personnel changes they can score to help feed/clothe/clean them, all the way to frequent experiments in coercive violence like the example above. It’s a constant shake-down. What changes as an adult, well, I’m not exactly sure. We forgive it all under the rubric of ‘learning’ but I’m not sure how right this assumed innocence is. You know who’s still learning? Bernie Madoff. I’m sure this isn’t news at all to many parents, even less to siblings and other family members, but those big doe-eyes aren’t proof enough.

My mum reckons a child’s first four years are crucial to feeling fundamentally safe—before that, destabilised youngins will show it the rest of their lives, while after such time, they’ll show a greater robustness for life’s slings and arrows. Her reasoning has to do with the time it takes to develop a will and a sense of self that won’t be called into question in every traumatic experience. And it proceeds from an assumption that life will more or less be a series of traumas that get dealt with more or less well, based on combinations of personal qualities, flukes and hard work. This correlates strongly with John Bowlby’s attachment theory so nice going Momz. No doubt everyone has their own anecdotal theory, and these are influential given the way child-rearing is still essentially passed on orally and experientially in families.

The last thing this site will ever do is slap on a movie review just for the hell of it, but with that caveat in place, has anyone seen the adaptation of Jonothan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Young actor Thomas Horn spends a lot of time charging around NYC looking much angrier than he does in any of the promotional material, and fair enough I guess since his character suspects his dad was forced to jump from one of the World Trade Centre Towers. Friends found this movie artful but just too depressing, while I was surprised that much of the lightness and humour of the book had been excised (hypersensitive studio or corporate sponsors?). But the real thing that got to me, was the “mini-adult” thing that happens with so much child acting in the entertainment industry, and particularly perhaps, American cinema, in which plucky kids come over to foreign audiences as entirely overbearing and perhaps too articulate about their feelings. To be fair, Foer’s novelistic Oskar Schell was tarred with the same brush, so an unavoidably less subtle film adaptation was always facing an uphill battle to get the balance right. Oskar’s obsession with objects and details is ambivalently explained by being placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Being a spectrum, I suppose we are all on there somewhere. I was still put off by how overtly angry and disturbed young Oskar is throughout the film; perhaps more a fault of the director than the actor, or am I merely maintaining Horn’s innocence?

For me it was a striking contrast to last winter, in which I returned home to look after my mum following her back surgery, and my two year old niece, who is in my mum’s care. We were on the lookout for signs of my niece’s unhappiness with this disturbance to the status quo, since her primary care-giver was gone a week, then back, but, confusingly for a toddler, not available for the usual care and reassurances for six weeks more. Who do you think she took it out on? Of course: the substitute, yours truly. An overt power struggle took place, one I was not willing to lose to a mere babe, though I’ll admit she was a force, recruiting the full arsenal at her disposal. My great lateral cooperative skills gradually took a backseat to the semi-functional dictatorship that followed, but afterwards we decided she’d gotten through relatively unscathed. Nine months later, we’re not so sure. She still displays a brittleness that Grandma will go away again to the hospital, in a bunch of different ways: occasionally overt distress like young Thomas Schell, but more often taking the form of offhand remarks, or role-playing with toys, both of which are more worrisome to the adults watching her!

Because kids’ norms are so often learned socially, they tend to accept whatever scenarios they find themselves in, mimicking as they go. Often these involve dysatisfunctional lessons we don’t want them to learn, like ‘Grandma could go at any minute and not be there when you need her’. We saw this had a bunch of consequences as my young niece started implementing fairly headstrong backup plans of self-determination, in which it was clear a big part of her world was under threat. The biggest problem is perhaps that this lesson is no doubt very necessary; its truth will be revealed one day, be it Grandma, her parents or anyone close to her, but we all hope the young niece will be old and wise enough to deal with death when it happens. So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might have been much more effective had young Horn been directed to play it, not more ‘innocently’, but closer to how youngins express their dissatisfaction even as they constantly and dysfunctionally fold it into their evolving world-view. It would have at once brought much-needed levity, as well as grim undercurrents to the ostensible actions that capture the stakes of Oscar’s search for meaning.

Like Bernie Madoff, I’m still waiting for that maturity to deal with things properly. What could be more dysatisfunctional? Maybe sealing children off with their innocence, rather than frankly assessing what is appropriate for their development (not the same thing). My neighbour works in after-school care, and she advocates maintaining children’s innocence, because it provides a functional way to interpret so much bad behaviour. Many of her kids are ‘at risk’, which is to say their parents are cocking things up. When I asked her to consider them without innocence, she looked at my kitchen cupboards as if revisiting so many bad moments, then said, “Then the only way to have kids and still like them is to form a relationship with them.” Ah now, that’s what is all about. Put your hands up if you think that sounds easy?

In true dysatisfunctional style, weekly posts are currently unsustainable for this young go/stop-getter, so your next post will be in a fortnight’s hump day, that’s Wednesday 28th March 2012. Spread the word, post comments, Shed Your Woe to help start the problem-solving community. Go on, it will be rad.

With thanks to Nonie E. for pointing me towards attachment theory.


About Luke

Luke Stickels writes fiction, theory, and essays in such a piecemeal fashion as to be moving nigh imperceptibly. But he is no author-ninja. He is dysatisfunctional. Luke has written for Meanjin, The Drum Online, New Matilda, Green Magazine, and various now-defunct magazines, IsNot! Magazine probably being the most fun. He has written on violence, sound and cinema in several refereed academic journals, taught almost every subject at university, and was once quoted in a tumblr tag for "enlightened." As if THAT wasn't due to being completely dysatisfunctional.

One response »

  1. “Her reasoning has to do with the time it takes to develop a will and a sense of self that won’t be called into question in every traumatic experience.”

    Pretty shrewd observation there by grandma I’d say…


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