I have a friend who subscribes to the "Bunghole Theory" of child-rearing. He believes that, at about the age of thirteen, a child should be placed inside a large wine barrel with a bunghole on the side. The lid should then be nailed onto the barrel and the child fed through the bunghole until s/he reaches the age of eighteen. Then the bung should be pounded in. I do not hold to this philosophy, of course. I think that when they get to be eighteen, you should let them out.
Nonetheless, I can see why some people might be pumping for abolition of the teen years. As a former teenager myself (no!), I suspect that my parents might quietly have supported the idea. There is at the same time something awkward and loveable about adolescents, and something that makes you crazy. Just when you're over changing their diapers and wiping partially-digested baby food off your shoulder, they're hanging Britney Spears posters on their walls and practicing with cigarettes behind the 7-Eleven.
But between the last Pampers and the first Players are about five magical years. From age six to age eleven are the golden years of childhood; they are by and large the least troubling and most rewarding of all the growing years. There is a certain maturity in people of this age that manifests itself until the teen years, and then disappears almost entirely until young adulthood. One of the greatest rewards in working with children is being able to share these years with them.
Until children reach the age of six, they are like really, really smart pets. The can fetch things, do really cute tricks, and perform simple but useful tasks around the house. But they are not consciously self-aware, they are totally dependent, and their intellectual universe is a crazy mixture of the immediate neighborhood and what they watch on Saturday morning tv. They are immediate-gratifiers who rarely do things primarily for the pleasure it will bring someone else. Yes, I know it sounds like your ex, and I once had a girlfriend who found deeper meaning in the affairs of the Smurfs than most of us might. But very young children are all like that.
About the time children turn seven, a remarkable transformation begins. It's called "developing a world view." From the first seeds planted on those kindergarten field trips to the farm grow the realization of a world independent of self that stretches far beyond the end of the street, the borders of the playground, and the bounds of the calendar. An eight-year-old's fascination with dinosaurs, space, and peace on Earth has its genesis in this rolling-up of blinds and throwing-open of shutters.
The process of emotional separation begins in earnest at this age. The majority of a child's relationships are with people outside the family circle, and it is here they discover not only the enormous number of personalities in the world, but that they themselves are not even close to being the center of the universe.
Yet, at the same time, much of the wonder is still left in life. Who has not run down the street, eight-year-old arms outstretched, knowing that just a little more speed would take them soaring into the sky? As adults, we have mostly given up trying to fly.
Most elementary school children have not yet been scarred by the more egregious experiences of life. The worst thing that has happened to many kids is being sent to their room without PlayStation. They are less suspicious of life in general and people in particular, and are more inclined to accept advice and direction from the advice-and-direction-givers in their lives. Particularly gratifying for parents and teachers is that they respond well to reasonable requests from authority figures. They do not hesitate to show either warmth or displeasure, and there are few things more genuine than a hug from an eight-year-old.
They are actively curious and ask serious questions about themselves and the world. Even though they tend to be non-critical about the information they get, their hearts are in the right place. They are adept observers and model the adults in their lives with uncanny accuracy. They begin to develop an appreciation for verbal humor, and have an amazing ability to remember off-color jokes. At best, they are what we wish people could be their whole lives.
Why is it that evolution chose to undo such creatures by then filling their bodies full of strange and powerful juices is one of life's mysteries. Whatever the reason, it results in dramatic and irreversible changes. Somewhere in grade six, a little switch flips, and the balance between peer acceptance and adult approval tilts in you-know-which direction. It's not so much that grownups become the enemy, it's just that they're, well, irrelevant.
Fortunately, the years of transition are, on reflection, few, and we soon welcome our children back into the human race. The serious business of being an adult has replaced the magic, but every so often, when we get to be a kid again, them magic returns and reminds us of what we once were in our golden years.
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