Three Kinds of Childhood Innocence

[Unpublished; email to a friend, January 7, 2006]

There are three things people mean when they talk of childhood innocence: vulnerability, ignorance, and moral purity. (I touched on this in my First Things piece on “Against Eternal Youth,” but didn’t have room to get into it fully.)

A child’s (1) vulnerability ought to stir us; we want to protect them physically and emotionally. That’s one of our most urgent drives. But (3) moral purity is a chimera; children are born completely selfish, and slowly and painfully learn to make room for others in their lives. Their inability to commit grave sin is solely due to their size, eh? Imagine a 200 lb 6 foot six month old!

It’s (2) ignorance that’s a puzzler. I think about the glee with which little kids tell potty jokes; if there’s “innocence” in terms of a modest inclination away from such things, nobody told the kids about it. And I think how in most societies through history children were unavoidably acquainted with birth, death, mating, senility, and every other kind of physical condition that farm animals, or extended family living in close quarters, could provide. Children might be exposed to rude humor, banter, frank discussion and maybe even sexual activity, in one-room homes. In the First Things piece I said, “If it’s any consolation, things were probably the same in the time of Chaucer.”

The idea that children can be kept (2) ignorant is very recent, I think. It probably became enshrined during the postwar time, when WWII era parents made a strict line between childhood and adulthood. They waxed nostalgic about static childhood and no longer viewed it as a march toward adult responsibility. On the other hand, they segregated themselves by age and “played” with other adults rather than their kids, to an extent that would seem very strange if not cold to us today. And mass-entertainment reinforced this division. And so, no surprise, there was a generation gap about 20 yrs later.

I think two factors that broke down the generation gap were mobility away from extended family life (so you no longer think of yourself as occupying an age-specific strata), and also popular entertainment that appeals to all ages. There’s not a generation gap any more, and boomers are much closer to their kids that the previous generation was. We share a common news & entertainment culture, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music. The downside is that we can’t prevent young ones from hearing all the things that flow through. So I think its worth considering what kind of “innocence” is worth pursuing, and how possible it is, and what the tradeoffs are.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Marriage and FamilyThe CultureUnpublished