They say you’ve become old when you start relating more to the parent characters in fiction rather than the adolescents. By that line of thought, I must be ancient—and I see this as a net positive. But we won’t be concerning ourselves with the concept of having an “old soul”. What prevails is its opposite: when grown adults and parents identify with and behave as children.
While adulthood varies in its definition across cultures and time periods (not to mention personal views), one seemingly undeniable observation is that nowadays its onset is coming later and later in life. Here I could list vague reasons like shifting family values, schooling, messages in the media, rising costs of living and so on, throwing in phrases like “Peter Pan syndrome” for good measure. These are all valid points and contributing factors. We are on my website, however, so let’s try to transcend that and dive into the world of ideas.
What are, then, the ideas that drive society into an infantilised state? Among several culprits, now I would like to single out the idea to conflate being kind to someone with treating them as a kid. “We are all children inside,” one could postulate, continuing “so let us treat each other with the kindness reserved for children”. It sounds true, yet it rings hollow. On top of it, albeit with the intention of bringing more kindness to the world, such reasoning reduces kindness to a singular manifestation (treating someone like a child), thereby limiting other forms of kindness, even refusing to acknowledge them as such.
Kindness towards children is patient, indulging, recognising an immense power imbalance. Adult kindness can be stern and stoic, not necessarily pleasant—a kindness in the long run, I’d say. And I see it less and less.
It has become commonplace to go well into one’s twenties without receiving any negative feedback, without failing in a meaningful way. Parents, teachers and friends ought to be supportive. Employers ought to let you down gently. “Gentle pressure” ought to be applied to make our fragile selves comply. And the process is self-perpetuating to the point that this dominant idea of what kindness ought to be becomes a monopoly, a monoculture.
For instance, it used to be the case that admitting someone’s work isn’t up to standard and giving that someone feedback or correcting mistakes could potentially prevent a humiliating situation in the future. However, what happens if the humiliating situation would never come to pass? If that someone never hears anything different than good job or a miscellaneous comment on a superficial matter? Surely that someone would start seeing whoever gave them the negative feedback earlier as unkind, as some jerk who was only nitpicking.
Thus, the kernel of yet another polarizing false dichotomy is planted. On one side are the rainbow-puking, participation-trophy-yielding, free-hug-giving kind people, and on the other—the sulking, edgy, party-pooping, cynical unkind people. Understandably, they despise each other, for the premise of the whole dynamic is set up for this to happen. The kind ones detest being told to “grow up”, to “show some backbone”, to “see through the scam”, to accept “this is how the world works”. They detest it as a child detests being told to stop crying, and feel equally invalidated by it. Conversely, the unkind ones detest being told to “not be an asshole”, to “lighten up a little”, to “have more faith in people” and that actually they don’t have it “all figured out”. They detest it as a teenager detests not being taken seriously and… feel equally invalidated by it.
In the end, what they both hate is some variation of being told they are “fake”, the ultimate insult towards anyone who derives their identity from a singular source. Another thing they have in common is immaturity and treating others (as well as themselves) as children. The last ting that unites them is that, paradoxically, they may find the remedy to their state in the opposing camp. Despite their apparent achievements and the suffocating encouragement around them, many still have low self esteem and experience loss of meaning, secretly yearning for some breakthrough, for a punishment that never comes. Though I perceive this case of excessive, warped kindness to be prevalent in our times, surely just as many struggle with the opposite—refusing to recognise that their pessimistic views are not necessarily merely a reflection of a harsh reality, but to some extent a product of an excruciating lack of any kindness in their life.
I write all this not as an alien observer, though it might sound like it. Actually, I’ve been in both camps. And for a long while, I thought about all this in terms of “phases” one goes through, inevitably living through them and emerging wiser on the other side. This is certainly not a given. It is equally inaccurate to see them as stages, implying a hierarchy leading to some superior enlightened state. Not that I discard the theory of life stages as proposed by Erikson, for example. There are indeed patterns in human development, crises typical for a certain age. Therefore, I find “levelling the field” by transposing any such crisis into a child’s crisis to be obnoxious and detrimental to the development of adults. Even when said adults don’t really deserve the title.
As with every other push and pull in human history, the recent tilt towards extreme, infantilising kindness is probably the answer to centuries of senseless violence and suffering. The “thread lightly, because everyone is damaged” approach is a direct response to the cut-throat mentality of survival of the fittest. Which would the preferable way be is up for debate (and always has been). What puts me off from the overcautious, over-kind creed is an issue of framing. For me to adopt it means to assume a priori that you’re damaged, that you’re a victim, that you’re a child. That you’re unable to grasp certain things or stay focused long enough. That you’re not independent enough or mature enough. And I refuse to assume anything about you, especially something so belittling, framing you in such a state that already sets you up for failure, or a steeply uphill struggle at the least.
In a nutshell, I would love people to be kinder to each other. It’s the treating each other as children part that I abhor. Going back to the meaning of adulthood, I think a negative definition is in order. Whatever adulthood might mean to someone, one thing is certain—that it’s qualitatively different from childhood. And it pains me that I feel compelled to type out such a trite, self-evident sentence. Forgive me, would you kindly?