Why are we, the skateboarding, Lego-hogging grownups of today, apparently so reluctant to act our age and let the children play?
|‘In the US, at primary school, children are taught to develop their leadership capacity.’ Photograph: Alamy
Before I knew it, the food had arrived, my crotchety mood had lifted and my daughter’s attention had moved on to other things. Little did I know, but I had become an unwitting part of a booming new sector of the economy: the infantilisation industry.
There is a flourishing market for products and services offering adults an opportunity to become a child again. In the publishing world, half of Amazon’s current top 10 bestsellers are colouring-in books targeted at grown-ups. Other bestselling books, such as the Harry Potter series, appear to be for children but are widely read by adults. The average age of people playing highly successful computer games such as Battlefield is 27. And one of the most popular themes for adult parties in the UK is “back to school”.
Some companies have redesigned their offices to resemble giant childcare centres – complete with soft toys, water pistols and giant cartoon characters originally intended to appeal to children under six.
Why do adults hanker after things designed for kids? One reason is nostalgia. We hope that by consuming products made for children, we can transport ourself back into our own childhood and reconnect with long-lost pleasures. I know many grown men who own Star Wars figures and vast collections of Lego precisely for this reason. By becoming a kid again, we also hope to momentarily avoid the burdens of adult life.
When immersed in a video game, it is possible to forget about all those pesky responsibilities that come with being an adult. Children’s toys can also help adults to avoid their inevitable fears of ageing and death. Riding a skateboard on the weekend can help a 40-year-old part-time dude avoid facing up to their rapidly growing beer gut and bald patch.
But recently, a new theme has appeared in the infantalisation industry: by acting like a child, companies claim, adults can maximise their personal “wellness”; by getting back in touch with the simple pleasures we enjoyed during our childhood, we can rediscover a state of blissful health and happiness. Adult colouring-in books were of interest only to a tiny group of people until publishers started to highlight their mindfulness-enhancing properties. By simply adding “anti-stress” to the title, The Secret Garden became a bestseller.
In The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederström and I took a long, hard look at the contemporary obsession with maximising our health and happiness. We noticed that wellness initiatives targeted at adults often have a distinctly infantilising tone.
Many of us are painfully familiar with being asked childish questions during “icebreaker” activities at work, such as: “If you were an animal, what would you be?” We found companies who tried to make their workforce happier by employing “funsultants” to teach employees how to play. We also noticed that many consumers were turning to technology to “gamify their lives”. One app, for instance, promises to “level up your life” by turning boring daily tasks into a computer game. When you complete the tasks on your to-do list, your digital double in the game gains points and is eventually promoted to the next level.
At the very same time as adults have taken to colouring-in books in the hope of feeling better, children have started to adopt the accoutrements of adulthood. Of course, children have always wanted to play at being grownups. But what is striking is how grownup practices are actively pushed on to our kids.
One spectacular example is a chain of adventure parks called KidZania ,which in the words of the UK chairman is “opening children’s eyes to the realities of life”. Each park is made up of streets filled with well-known brands including H&M, DHL, and Cadbury. Inside this mini-city, kids try out different jobs in order to earn fake money, which they can use to, say, rent a car. If they want to increase their earning power, they are able to attend college and graduate.
But fantasy spaces such as this are just the start. The school system has taken to the task of making children into mini adults with gusto. At increasingly young ages, children are required to take endless rounds of tests to have their performance assessed. In September, the UK government plans to introduceliteracy and numeracy tests for four-years-olds. In the US, primary school-age children are taught to develop their leadership capacity – some schools even have annual events where children can “showcase their management skills to community members and business leaders”.
Soon, children as young as five will be taught entrepreneurship skills in British schools. From primary school onwards, many children are encouraged to build up their CVs. In China, the pressure has become so intense that a lucrative industry has emerged for creating fake CVs for the under-10s that can run to hundreds of pages.
It seems we live in a world that has been turned upside down. While parents do colouring, or spend time playing at work, their children are busy building their CVs, developing entrepreneurial skills and struggling to hit their performance metrics (ie pass their exams).
Perhaps instead of continuing to load up our children up with ever more onerous adult responsibilities we might instead allow them to act like kids again.