We recently found ourselves reading the autobiography of J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life, by the great British novelist and essayist. He writes, in a rather amusing, but also seemingly prescient way, about a particular childhood experience:
"My memories of Tsingtao are extremely pleasant, but my mother often told me that when I was a baby (in the summer of 1931 or 1932) the amah pushing my pram missed her footing on the grassy slope above the cliffs and lost control of the pram. It sped downhill towards the cliff's edge, where a chance British visitor ran forward and caught the pram before it went over the edge. Presumably he reported back to my mother at her hotel, though she never explained to me why a middle-aged Chinese woman, hobbling on her bound feet, should have been given charge of a large pram and told to walk along a cliff edge. Hitchcock," Ballard quips, "would have revelled in the scene, but I think there is a simpler explanation."
As Ballard goes on to explain,
"Parents in the 1930s took what now seems a remarkably detached view of their children, whose welfare if they could afford it was assigned to servants, whatever the hazards. My parents had been born in the first decade of the 20th century, long before antibiotics and public health concerns for vitamin-enriched foods, clean air and water. Childhood, for families of any income, was a gamble with disease and early death. All this devalued the entire experience of childhood, and emphasized the importance of being adult, an achievement in its own right. Children were an appendage to the parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient labrador, and were never seen as a significant measure of a family's health or center of its life. My mother claimed not to have known of my dangerous cycle trips around Shanghai, but many of her friends recognized me and waved from their cars. Perhaps they too felt that it was scarcely worth mentioning. And perhaps my mother was paying me a compliment when she described how I managed to survive at the cliff's edge."
While there are many possible points of contention in this rather short story, many of which Ballard himself anticipates, what alarms us most is the overall expectations of childhood, and how so many things have changed, as well as remained the same.
Basically, and to put it rather crudely, but hopefully not insensitively, children were not expected to survive at the turn of the nineteenth century. As a result, says Ballard, parents, and society as a whole, created a certain distance, or necessary buffer between their hopes and expectations for their children. Not expected to survive, quickly translated into an entirely different set of expectations.
Removing that limitation, what happens to expectations?