When do children start becoming adults? For a long time in our culture 21 was thought of as the beginning of fully fledged adulthood, although nowadays we are used to seeing 18 year olds vote and see any film they like as well as drink legally; young people can go to war and shoot people when they are 16 and they can babysit others from 14 or is it 12 – I think I remember a TV thing saying the law was pretty unclear on that one. In days gone by, and by that I mean before the 18th century, childhood wasn’t even considered a thing. Children were simply viewed as little adults. That’s what Hugh Cunningham tells me anyway in an interesting book, The Invention of Childhood, which ends with, “We certainly wouldn’t want to put our seven year olds up a chimney to clean it. But children could do these things. So fixated are we on giving our children a long and happy childhood that we downplay their abilities and their resilience. (…) and it probably does no-one a service”.
I mention this because I do like to encourage my children to do things for themselves. A couple of weeks back I asked son no. 1 to go up to the counter and order his own drink and snack along with a cappuccino for me. He did unfortunately get the whole order wrong and forgot my card number 3 times in 2 minutes even though I was sitting less than 2 meters from the till. The guy serving behind the counter was extraordinarily rude and suggested I do the ordering myself next time. I should have told him to bugger off but I’m far too polite so made a a joke and then sat there seething (got to get over that – just be rude back, Sarah-Jane!) It’s not like he was busy and I think it’s important for children to get used to doing these things, and more importantly not to grow up expecting everything to be done for them. For children to grow up with a sense of agency does everybody a service.
Like so much in life there is probably no definite point at which someone becomes an adult; instead it happens gradually over time and one day we wake up and find out that we are no longer children, even though we may still feel that we are from time to time (I certainly do). Son no. 1 is 10 and he is beginning to show signs of being terribly grown up, despite his calamitous food ordering. The other day when we were travelling on the Undergound across London he kept offering to help with the toddler’s buggy, ensured his younger brother got off the train while I dealt with my littlest and even agreed that the restaurant we adults chose was actually rather nice, despite the horribly vociferous reservations he and his friend had had earlier. A few weeks ago he went upstairs to where I had deposited son no. 3 after he’d poured juice all over the sofa on purpose, and when he came back down stairs he told me that his baby brother had something to say to me, at which point, the naughty toddler said, “Sorry, Mummy’. I was immensely proud of son no. 1 who behaved in a far more mature way than I had just done, yelling and cursing at the mess, or rather at the three small boys who made so much mess.
All these things may seems small and insignificant but when it’s something you’re totally unused to it’s an absolute wonder, and I am so pleased to see my son showing signs of growing into a decent human-being. However, it can be quite confusing for me and probably him too because these moments are interspersed with bouts of extreme childishness and emotional hysteria – “I hate you, what’s the point of you, I wish you’d never been born!” – (no, that isn’t me yelling, in case you’re wondering) just because I say no more computer (after some hours of computer) or that he’s eaten enough biscuits for instance. I am never quite sure who I’m dealing with; kind, thoughtful and terribly helpful young person or monstrous, berserk, hooligan. Quentin Blake’s wonderful Zagazoo gives a brilliantly accurate description of this process. Well worth getting hold of if you have young children as it’s a lot of fun for adults to read too.
It’s important to remember that our kids are capable of far more than we give them credit for and when I take photos of children I really enjoy getting them involved, allowing them to come up with ideas and generally be part of the process. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does the kids are incredibly present in the images and that really goes a long way towards making a photograph that’s worth keeping.
This week I’ve posted an image of my boys during our trip during half-term to visit The Art of the Brick when son no. 1 behaved so well. Next week I’ll be sharing some lovely family shoots I’ve recently done. And jobs this month include a newborn and a christening so it’s all about the very beginning of the growing-up process. Don’t miss the cute baby shots to come!