[Christianity Today, July 10, 2000]
I’ve been thinking lately about Mary Hartman’s husband’s hat.
You might remember the late-70’s TV show, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” This Norman Lear satire of a soap opera showcased the strange citizens of the mythical town of Ferndale. Mary’s husband Tom was a comparatively normal specimen, though he was naive and boyish, hardly man enough to head a family. The audience could tell this as soon as he appeared onscreen, because he wore a baseball cap.
Armchair anthropologists will note that the cultural meaning of a baseball cap has shifted in twenty years. What used to be the equivalent, for an adult, of a flashing sign reading “I’m not serious,” is now ubiquitous. The phenomenon of “Casual Friday Creep” is elbowing business attire out of the rest of the week, and “casual” is slipping from khakis-and-loafers to jeans-and-sandals. Grownups dress like they’re headed to a play date.
A corresponding shift is happening at the other end. Grammar-school girls used to wear a distinctive dress, with puffed sleeves and a sash in the back. Now they wear skirts and knit tops, miniature versions of their moms’. The convention of little boys in short pants is long gone, of course, but their caps have been resized to fit their dads.
This is hardly the most pressing moral issue of our day. But the loss of separate clothing codes for children and adults is interesting, because it reveals the general loss of markers for adulthood. Used to be, replacing your baseball cap with a homburg told the world you had achieved grownup status. Now the boundary line for adulthood is indistinct. Grownups don’t know how to grow up.
There are reasons, of course, they might not want to. A century ago, adulthood was a proud achievement. Childhood was a time of preparation for adult life, and children were mainstreamed into that life as much as feasible. Parents diligently taught the skills and values necessary for effective adulthood, since that was where their children were going to spend most of their years. As children’s abilities grew, adults guided them into increasing responsibility. Graduation into adulthood, and out of “short pants,” was an honor.
But in the past century a sentimental view emerged that childhood should be a time without responsibilities — a precious season of sheer fun, before the gloomy adult world of bosses, bills, and worry. Adulthood no longer seemed an honor, and childhood became something to cling to as long as possible. In the mid-fifties Peter Pan sang, “I won’t grow up / I will never wear a tie / or a serious expression / in the middle of July.”
Nobody leaves Candy Land voluntarily, so childhood’s upper age limit began to stretch. Teenagers ceased being young adults on the verge of responsibility and became, well, teenagers. This age cohort, and its presumed need for extensive self-indulgence, had never existed before — because, before, economic realities had required maturity which teens had somehow been able to produce. With the dumbing of education adolescence could be stretched even further, through four years of college and graduate school as well. Even thirty-something “kids” weren’t eager to buckle down, when they could still party with friends and resent employers for expecting punctuality. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers had found the role of young rebel so intoxicating that they cultivated it well into their fifties.
The irony is that constant fun isn’t all that much fun. A scent of anxiety lies over a land where no one is in charge. In earlier eras we can see men and women of nobility and courage, then look around the current landscape and know that if there were a national crisis, we’d be in big trouble. Our right to sleep around and buy what we can’t afford and lie our way out of obligations has a corollary: others will betray us, rob us, and lie to us. Even when we get away with all the marbles, conscience murmurs a subtle refrain of shame and failure. Grandad, the World War II hero, may have been tragically un-hip—but he didn’t doubt whether he was a grownup, and a man.
Perhaps there could be a voluntary GrownUp Society, with its own code of honor: I will be chaste, I will be honest, I will put my children first, I will earn my paycheck, I will not spend more than I earn. The support of other GrownUps would be crucial, because the code will be tested over and over in situations where everyone else is doing it, and everyone thinks you’re an idiot for not doing it, and sticking to the higher standard is going to gain you nothing tangible except weariness.
Why bother? Because eternal childishness sounds like fun, but in practice it feels queasy. A life without honor, without self-respect, is an aimless and anxious life. Uneasy lies the head that wears a baseball cap.