Visiting friends and meeting their four-month-old son yesterday, I realised that my knowledge of very small children is comparable to my interest in world history: I’ve read a lot about individual periods and ideas, but without the context of an overall timeline. I’ve picked up snippets of data, like the fact that babies can’t initially focus their eyes on distant objects and that learning to smile is part of recognising faces, but I don’t know when these things occur. I have no personal point of reference: I’m an only child, and owing to various circumstances, I’ve never been around the little kids of family or friends, either. This has never seemed like a particularly remarkable thing, but the practical upshot is that while I’m perfectly comfortable talking to someone else’s pet, I have no idea how to interact with their offspring – even when both animal and child are in the same room.
Part of me wants to make this society’s fault (or at least, shift some of the angst in that direction): more than ever, we segregate our lives according to age, creating whole environments – kindegardens, schools, universities, workplaces, retirement homes – geared to keeping young and old apart. Even with siblings, most people are hard-pressed to have contact with people in a wide range of age brackets on anything near a weekly basis, let alone daily, and the norm is now for families to have fewer children. These aren’t bad things, but they do impact on cross-generational interaction. At the same time, there’s a huge amount of cultural anxiety on the best way to raise children, with the result that terms like helicopter parent are entering the common parlance. On top of all the usual reasons given for this mode of uncertainty, many parents are new not just to the world of child-rearing, but to children in any sense. This can’t help but lead to confusion.
Ironically, however, reactions like mine – and, presumably, those of others – are as much the cause of these problems as anything else. In this era, the conventional way to learn is through reading, but nerd through I am, I’m also a big believer in the idea that there are still some things which can only be learned the hard way. Overthinking what we haven’t experienced is only asking for trouble. When we realise how little we know, it startles us: we research, but don’t ask those who are older and more experienced. Possibly, this is another consequence of age-segregation in society – we discount the advice of people who’ve already been there, done that because they are old, and therefore unqualified to comment on current methods. Or so it often seems.
Long story short: in the Information Age, it’s confronting to realise that there are still things you can’t just google. And the sooner we get our heads around that, the happier we’ll all be – myself included.