‘These are the best years of your life’: it’s so often said to children and to teenagers. Adults think they are encouraging young people to make the most of their opportunities, to live life to the full.
But it’s a terrible message to give. It’s dangerous and damaging in so many ways.
The idea that childhood and youth are the best years of your life is based on the Romantic myth of inherent human goodness. Following Rousseau’s lead, Romantics such as Wordsworth saw childhood as sacred, and lamented the corruption and artifice imposed by adult society. They believed in the noble savage. In doing so, they inaugurated an anti-intellectual, naturalistic ideology which has done incalculable harm over the last two centuries.
The traditional view is that children are working towards adulthood. They are developing the virtues and acquiring the knowledge that they will need in order to live fruitful and happy lives. It is an upward path towards greater happiness and freedom. The struggle to overcome one’s selfish whims and the effort to acquire important knowledge both lead to ever greater abilities to think and act rationally. The child becomes ever more human as he climbs the steep and rugged path upwards towards adulthood.
This traditional view is serious, positive and realistic. Instead of placing the child on a pedestal, it presents adulthood as a worthy and noble goal towards which the child must struggle. It gives adults their proper dignity and authority in the eyes of children, who do, in fact, wish to emulate them, unless they are educated out of this natural tendency.
We are raising adults, not children. But if we repeatedly tell them that childhood is better, that they are currently experiencing ‘the best years of their lives’, they will end up believing us, and lose the motivation to struggle upwards towards the happiness and freedom that comes with fruitful, responsible adulthood.