Welcome to kidulthood

Originally published in The Guardian

We Americans call our nation the “land of the free and home of the brave,” but that’s not true anymore. Freedom is for adults, and childhood in this country isn’t a temporary condition but a permanent state.

When I was a kid, and probably you too, grownups had certain things that were forbidden to us. Maybe we complained this was unfair, but at least we knew someday, when we became adults ourselves, we could have them too. Then they changed the rules. Now I’m an adult but still treated like a child, with the additional indignity that sometimes actual children younger than the dust on my knickknack shelves tell me what to do.

Consider Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where a classful of determined seven-year-olds started a campaign, which 19 months later convinced state legislators to ban the sale of novelty lighters. The kids, of course, are proud of themselves, and the politicos are behaving as though it’s reasonable and even admirable for middle-aged lawmakers to seek counsel from people who still worry about the monsters under their bed.

It all started when a woman took her three-year-old to a dollar store, and the toddler picked up a novelty lighter shaped like a lion. Her mom apparently bought the lighter, since it later became the mascot of the second-graders’ campaign to ban it.

Children definitely shouldn’t play with lighters; if your kid wants a plastic lion, don’t give her one that makes fire. But the New Jersey law doesn’t simply ban the sale of novelty lighters to children, or mandate stores display them on high shelves out of a toddler’s reach; the lighters are banned for everybody in the state, on the premise: “If kids can’t handle this, adults can’t have it either.”

The kids meant well. You can’t fault them for thinking: “If I can’t have this, nobody can!” since they’re too young to know any better. The grownups in their lives lack that excuse. Adult citizens of an ostensibly free republic have no business teaching impressionable minds that banning what you don’t like is a righteous way to live. But that lesson is simpler to teach than “children, some things are appropriate for adults but not for you. When you grow up you can make your own decision about it”.

Except they can’t. The “for your own good” rules once applied to children are now inflicted on adults. When I was in primary school, the teacher wouldn’t let us outside in winter until we lined up and waited our turn to demonstrate, “Yes ma’am, I’m wearing mittens and my jacket’s zipped to my chin, see?” That rule made sense; we kindergartners really couldn’t look after ourselves, and needed an authority figure to do it.

Fast forward to my 30s, when I was late to work one morning after cops set up a “Click it or ticket” checkpoint. I had to line up and wait my turn to demonstrate “Yes sir, my seat belt is properly buckled, see?” And the drunk-driving checkpoints: “No sir, I’m not intoxicated, yes sir, my licence and registration are up to date.” (In Arizona, I’d add: “Yes sir, I’m an American citizen with the legal right to be here” to the litany.)

Innocent until proven guilty? That idea was for adults, and America is the land of perpetual childhood, where authorities believe we can’t look after ourselves but need them to do it. Prove you’re doing the right thing. Prove you’re not doing the wrong one. It’s the paradise promised in the Bible, where a little child shall lead them.

When I was a child I lived with the promise I could one day put away childish things and be an adult, with the freedoms and responsibilities that entailed. Now that I’m an adult the responsibilities are still there, but the freedoms corrode more every day.