Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Over-cosseting is a Fawkes cracker all of its own
Children, children. How we love them. We stop them blowing their fingers off on an annual basis, only to shroud them in sexual hysteria and gorge them daily like so many Normandy geese until, for the first time in a century, their life expectancy starts to shrink, even as their girths expand. Is this, one asks oneself, a good deal?
We all want to protect our children. But a nasty question confronts us. Is there a link between the kiddie-cocoon we crave and the fact that, as the Preventative Health Taskforce found, “recent trends in Australian children predict that their life expectancy will fall by two years by the time they are 20 … “, taking us back to 1997 levels for females and 2001 levels for males. Are we killing with kindness?
Tonight is Guy Fawkes. I know, I know, Australia did it in winter, for fire reasons. But the rhyme has it right. “Please to remember the fifth of November …”
And yet sadly, although gunpowder, treason and plot have always been high on my personal list of spiritual observances, tonight will be quiet. Because what’s the point without intimacy or risk?
For me, in wet, pink New Zealand, Guy Fawkes was a rite of spring. Tingling the olfactory soul with gunpowder, wood smoke, bangers (of both sorts) and night-scented jasmine, Guy Fawkes’s intensity only heightened as one acquired the penumbral meanings around Catherine wheels, golden rain and general incendiary treason.
But the essential thrill was a dangerous one. Fireworks aren’t about watching. They’re about doing.
And sure, today’s children have Halloween, a blend of the Celtic harvest festival Samhain and All Hallows, Day of the Dead. But although the harvest aspect may explain the feeding of the knocking poor, trick-or-treating is a strictly modern invention. Now even the tricks have gone – tut tut, politically incorrect – leaving Halloween treat only. Guzzle those sweets!
Halloween isn’t just a kid thing. Last Saturday Sydney restaurants were so overrun by knife-pinioned ghouls, vampires with cleavage and fluffy-winged angels (uh, angels?) you’d easily have taken it for Mardi Gras on a rerun.
But the shift to Halloween from Guy Fawkes nevertheless reflects (as much as our relinquishment of Britain) our continuing reconstruction of what it means to be a child.
Scholars call it the “islanding” of childhood – as if the whole thing were some magical Swallows and Amazons caper. Some, like the German sociologists Helga and Hartmut Zeiher, see it as part of modernism’s zoning push, since only in the 19th century did child-only spaces become standard. Emotionally, the islanding of childhood reflects our desire to remove children from danger, and our need to reassure ourselves, as anxious adults, that innocence still exists.
But it’s more complex still. Since the Henson hoo-ha, photographers are regularly instructed to “for godsake avoid getting any children in the shot”. While littlies traditionally frolic naked on the beach, silicon toddler statues must be lycra-clad for fear of offending and photos of blind, frail pedophiles scandalise the entire populace. “So close to the toddlers’ pool,” we cluck, as though sexual abuse were a contagion caught through sand.
As though pedophilia weren’t an overwhelmingly at-home affair. As though the slavering Dennis Ferguson lynch mobs don’t seem to protest just a tad too much.
Plus, we’re grown-ups here, right? We invade other people’s countries, bomb their children. We’re fine with teenagers web-camming their privates to the outer galaxy. But we’re worried a half-inch silicon willy might what? Upset people? Inspire kiddie capture? Who’s afraid here, exactly, and of what? Are we fearful for our children, or of them, that we burqa them thus?
Schools respond by teaching self-defence, stranger-danger and children’s rights. Then reinforce the resulting sense of entitlement with food – sweets as rewards (we don’t use punishment, heavens no, only reward), parties every five minutes and each week another wretched cake stall, where your little Normandy goose must not only bring a cake but buy, and eat, and buy, and eat, and buy … like an EP version of the mudcake scene in Matilda.
Of course, as every childcarer knows, a full child is a docile child. But a fat child is a time bomb, and as the play equipment vanishes (liability insurance, you know) and the screens flick on, the stats get scarier. Obesity is said to be strongly socio-economic – the further west the fatter, loosely – but you only have to watch any inner-city soccer or water-polo to see that even in the silvertail east obesity is huge.
Back in Guy Fawkes days, when kids had to be parented – taught to see and defuse danger, not just play pretend – you’d have maybe one fat kid per class. Now it’s five? Ten? Twenty? Some experts predict 80 per cent obesity by 2020. Since few fat kids ever get slim, this is serious.
The suburban pedophile mobs look like witch-hunts, true. This is excruciating enough. But we’re the ones with caged kiddies. We’re the ones fattening Hansel.
As to motive, perhaps it’s our own terror that drives us, our own fear of fronting up. Perhaps we’re keeping the nursery warm, the nest feathered, just in case we suddenly need to hide like Peter in Wendy’s skirts. Never mind Tamarama’s silicon toddler, perhaps it’s we who are the lost boys.