Opinion & Thought

Peter Pan


Another year recently added to the personal clock. A relative sent me the birthday card shown above.

It prompted a train of thought about how people behave in contemporary society – and what, if anything, constitutes the way they ‘should’ behave.  I feel I increasingly rejoice in what I suspect is the (sole?) benefit of ageing – greater experience and better judgment – but I suspect others just think I’m old before my time….

Etiquette maybe an old-fashioned word – but in many ways it is still relevant. There are just as many expectations around how people ‘should’ conduct themselves in society as ever there were – it is just that they are different ones. It is now expected that people will be ‘studiedly’ casual in everything they do. If you are not, you are at best un-cool, and at worst, out-cast. But this is just as much a ‘social pose’ as any other approach – one that involves playing the child.

At the risk of taking the birthday card too seriously, the caption claims that we are forever children inside. When I was a child, my mother taught me, “If in trouble, go to an adult for help”. Having now been an adult for far longer than I was a child, I can appreciate both the sense and the naivety in that comment: one might expect adults to have more control and a clearer perspective on the world, and to know how to sort out its difficulties. In truth, it is often not so.

There is no point at which we suddenly start feeling ‘grown up’. In fact, that sensation is probably more often experienced by those who aren’t. If there is a definable watershed, it perhaps comes in one’s mid-twenties, at which point one’s brain is finally biologically mature – but even then, there is no sensation of crossing a Rubicon, more of a gradual consolidation of one’s sense of self. And all too often, biological maturity seems to precipitate an urge to act the child once again, even before second childhood arrives…

We are confronted by a society that widely seems to want us to deny our adulthood. Everything from the way the media communicates to the way retailers promote their products now aims at our ‘inner child’. Much advertising targets an immature inability to resist gratification, to spoil ourselves, to give in to temptation in a way that one might have hoped a fully-formed adult would be able to override. Real adults exercise discrimination and restraint – don’t they?

The media too, seems to treat people as though they are inexpert, narcissistic children, endlessly seeking the next infotainment buzz. It tends to assume powers of understanding, analysis and attention that are more childlike than adult. Hence the term ‘kidult’ has become an important moniker of our time.

Some years ago, I took a party of colleagues to meet their counterparts in our partner-school in Switzerland. The Swiss head teacher treated us to lunch at a rather chic riverside restaurant in Basel. The Swiss turned up in their habitual understated, smart-casual wear for what was a partly-professional occasion, and some of the British managed to look not totally dishevelled too. But one character from our party appeared wearing open sandals, shabby cargo shorts, and an un-tucked, un-ironed lightweight check shirt that barely concealed his more-than-ample midriff.

He and I both chose a first-course that looked appealing: scallops. But when they arrived, they proved unexpectedly challenging, as they were raw. In order to maintain ‘form’, I struggled through a dish that was undoubtedly fashionable, but not actually to my liking – but my colleague turned his nose up, pushed the plate aside in the way a child might do – and ordered yet another beer. In the following days, the same individual also proved inept at engaging with the other social aspects of the visit in the grown-up way that is still the norm in Switzerland. The impression that this individual created, I later learned, was somewhat incredulous. It might not have been a big deal – except he was our headmaster.

You might be wondering what on earth this has with a blog called Sprezzatura about living well.

When it comes to good living, beauty can only be in the eye of the beholder – and yet a degree of wider social consensus still forms around what is desirable and what is not. Living well is, to some extent, about ‘form’.

This goes for personal behaviour as much as anything else. Some of this is social pressure, some of it genuine aesthetics at work. It is also true, I believe, that maturity brings with it the ability to appreciate things that one found inaccessible as a child; wine and classical music are examples that come to mind. Many of the ‘good things in life’ demand a degree of experience that allows one to refine one’s taste, a maturity of judgement that children simply don’t have. The ability to scrutinise and assess requires both a perspective born of experience and a level of objectivity that also hopefully comes with maturity. That consensus around the ‘good things’ might be deemed to be an unwanted social imposition – but I believe the things that comprise it are there for a reason: they are indeed widely found to be good.

It is no doubt true, however, that expectations are not the same everywhere: my boss’ error was in part his misjudgement of the differences between Swiss and British norms – though why he failed to get this right when others had done so might be more complex. Likewise, dressing the ‘full Italian’ in Britain is likely to attract unhelpful attention simply because the norms are different, and peer-pressure still counts.

Where the ‘truth’ might lie on this is even more difficult. On the one hand, I think that claiming that modern British society is a free-for-all for self-expression is disingenuous. It is just that the conventions are now those of kidults who have never in their heads actually got beyond twelve years of age. Expertise has been rejected in favour of ignorance in everything from dining to national politics; childishness has trumped mature judgment.

On the other hand, I think that birthday card is correct: inside, we are still the same people we have always been, it’s just that we adapt to society’s rules. In that sense, one could argue that allowing our inner child to escape is actually social progress: it frees people from the straight-jacket of needless, imposed social convention. But the pressures to conform are still there, only the criteria are now turned on their heads: anyone who chooses to behave differently risks being seen, however harmlessly, as stodgy, old-fashioned, eccentric, or ‘taking themselves too seriously’. The effort required to learn to speak and write well, think well, eat well, dress well – and generally live well – is something to mock, rather than admire.

What has actually happened is that one social convention has been replaced by another. Moreover, those influencing this have good reasons for doing so: by definition, kidults lack the developed critical faculties of fully-formed adults. They are more egocentric, less able to defer gratification, more prone to emotional outbursts – and less likely to have fully-formed views of their own. They are also more easily manipulated by others.

All of which suits those in society who have most to gain from keeping the bulk of the population in the state of uncritical self-indulgence in which they will spend the most and vote for who and what they are told.

Michael Bywater once wrote that caring for one’s outward presentation (and inner substance) is not vain; it is a form of respect for the others whom one encounters – to which I might add also for oneself – and the diverse situations and roles that we assume as adults. It acknowledges that this world is capable of delivering sublime experiences that require effort to appreciate – but it also presents us with difficulties and challenges, the best response to which is not a childish hissy-fit. What may seem to be fundamentally a trivial matter does have more serious implications – as my boss showed when he blew his credibility at that Swiss restaurant.

More worryingly, hissy-fits seem increasingly to be the way in which our serious matters are conducted too. I experienced this myself in the workplace, in the juvenile way those who discredited me resorted to dirty, childish tricks to get their way. A relative of mine is currently experiencing the same spiteful, childish treatment – because she had the professional maturity report some blatant malpractice. The same has infected our politics – from the inability of those in Parliament to make adult decisions (they seem to think that running the nation is just some sort of game for the uber-privileged) to the sheer spite in the behaviour of some throwing their toys out of the pram – and never was an analogy more apt – on both sides of the Brexit debate.

Whatever happened to the ability to run our affairs in a measured, mature way?

I doubt there is a simple answer to this; it is surely true that people should be able to live (within reason) as they choose. If that involves kidding themselves that they are Peter Pan, then so be it. When it comes to dealing with the life in the round, the ability to connect with one’s inner child may not be a problem – but an inability to connect with one’s inner adult most definitely is.

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