Kids R Us

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – December 15, 1997

Kids Are Us

These days, behaving like a grownup is child’s play.

A THIRD OF A CENTURY AGO, when I was nine, Mr. Magoo was a big TV star, but my friends and I were talking about President Kennedy, who had just been assassinated; the Rolling Stones, who were about to play the local auditorium; and the Disney movie “Son of Flubber,” which had just opened. At home I wore bluejeans and sneakers, unlike my father or any other grownup I knew, and for Christmas I wanted a set of plastic Mattel walkie-talkies and a “mechanical brain” toy. This month, a Mr. Magoo movie is about to open, and my friends and I have been talking about President Kennedy, who has just been reviled in a new biography; the Rolling Stones, who are about to play Madison Square Garden; and the new Disney movie “Flubber.” At home I wear jeans and sneakers, like other grownups my age, and for Christmas this year I would love a set of plastic Motorola walkie-talkies and a new Macintosh.

It used to be, during the Ford and Carter Administrations, that baby boomers were accused of clinging to an extended adolescence—sensation-seeking fecklessness as a way of   life. No longer: instead of   behaving like hell-raising college kids at thirty, we have contrived a culture that lets us feel at forty like very lucky fourth graders. It’s the “Big” generation, and the world is our rec room. Youth isn’t being wasted on the young anymore.

More than any other person, Steven Spielberg is responsible for this magnificent demographic blur. He invented the signal modern Hollywood hybrid—high-end Saturday matinées for grownups, children’s movies that adults unashamedly want to see, like “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park.” “Hook,” in which Robin Williams plays Peter Pan as a middle-aged yuppie jerk who must learn to be a boy again, was Spielberg’s one commercial disappointment in the genre, probably because it was too much on the nose thematically. “Hook” didn’t just pander to baby-boomer man-child hankerings; it was explicitly about them.

Themed leisure (Disneyland, then Ronald McDonald, and finally Chuck E. Cheese) was invented in the fifties, sixties, and seventies purely as children’s entertainment, but during the last decade fantasy environments for adults—Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Café, half of Las Vegas—have taken over. Now Spielberg is acutely theming: he is the creative mastermind behind GameWorks, the new chain of   big, state-of-the art, capital-intensive video-game arcades. There are no more perfect loci for the new culture of middle-aged children. The Saturday I visited the GameWorks in Seattle, most of the patrons were adults, most of them unaccompanied by children. The electronic game-pass vending machines took hundred-dollar bills. On the second floor were a Starbucks and a bar. There were nine-inch-wide glazed doughnuts for sale, and a storefront selling nothing but French fries, but there were also good, tasteful graphics on the exposed-brick walls—a French broadside from the twenties, a poster for a Malevich show—and soigné leather club chairs. Perfect: premium bits of adulthood (Sam Adams, grande latte) mixed and matched with pleasurable bits of childhood (the Vertical Reality ride, Indy 500 cars), and no upper age limit. The spirit of Seattle is the spirit of the permanent child—lanky summer-camp children who climb rocks and fly kites all day long, and precocious egghead children who stay indoors building models and fiddling with circuits.

Computers are what we have today instead of Etch A Sketches and Erector Sets and Morse-code telegraph kits. When I was young, anything small and plastic that had buttons and beeped was a toy; now it’s a cellular phone or a personal digital assistant, as quintessentially grownup as a briefcase or a bottle of Scotch used to be. The haircut, the glasses, the clothes, the nervous rocking, the overuse of the prefix “super-” (as in “supersmart”), the math-geek arrogance, the new Jetsonian playhouse that knows what lights and music you prefer: Isn’t Bill Gates just a very bright little boy with forty billion dollars—the real-life “Big” kid?

Coping with delayed gratification is—was—a definition of maturity. Demanding satisfaction right this instant is a defining behavior of seven-year-olds. The powerful appeal of the World Wide Web is not, as its ideologues claim, the “community” it provides but, rather, its instantaneity: you can send a letter now, get your question answered now, pick your airline seat now, buy anything you want right now. The Internet, empowered by FedEx and U.P.S., finally and fully satisfies our inner child—the impulsive child with zero tolerance for delay.

Adults of my parents’ generation did not bicycle, roller-skate, or play army; adults my age spend whole weekends mountain-biking, snowboarding, and dressing up in camouflage gear to fire paint balls at each other. What are sport utility vehicles but insanely fun generational fantasy toys? As children we watched “Combat” and “The Rat Patrol” and Roy Rogers; as adults we get to drive Jeeps and Expeditions and Land Rovers. When did Halloween become an adult holiday? When did Americans over twelve begin eating Pop-Tarts? Ice cream used to be a children’s treat, but starting with adults of the Ben & Jerry’s generation it has become a central form of self-pampering, a kind of kids-are-us sacrament. And, until adults became devoted to the stuff, no manufacturer would have dared produce a product as exquisitely, childishly indulgent as chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream—just as it took Spielberg to make kids’ entertainment good and lavish enough to appeal to adults.

In the early sixties, I would have been frightened to meet a grownup who read “Fantastic Four” or “Justice League of America,” but of course in the eighties and early nineties it was adults (still pretty creepy adults) who drove the comic-book boom. Our parents may have glanced at “The Flintstones,” but it was no grownup’s favorite show; “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” and “South Park” are. It can’t be coincidence that a majority of the celebrated younger American artists have worked most famously in neo-kiddie media—Julian Schnabel’s broken crockery, Keith Haring’s notebook doodles, Jeff Koons’s nursery-school tchotchkes, Cindy Sherman’s spook-house dress-up photos.

After backpacks became faddish among schoolboys and schoolgirls, they also became de rigueur for fashionable women. One female movie producer I know wears a Curious George backpack, and another buys clothes for herself out of her daughters’ Hanna Andersson catalogue. Why can grownups wear sweatsuits in public? Why are chinos and polo shirts replacing suits and ties in the office? Because our mothers don’t dress us anymore. Who wouldn’t rather stay in play clothes all day long? In the coolest offices—in Seattle, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood—they don’t just dress like kids, they actually stock the places with toys and games, Slinkys and Mr. Potato Heads, Foosball and Mortal Kombat. These days, if you want to ask someone under fifty how the job is going, even if she’s a deputy attorney general or a C.F.O., the standard form of the question is “Are you having fun?”

The trouble comes, naturally, when moral sensibilities become juvenilized as well. What do the naughtiest children do? They spit, like Roberto Alomar, or, worse, bite, like Mike Tyson and Marv Albert. What do we tell nice children about their ugly scribbles and cockamamie ideas and pointless stories? That they’re all just great, no better or worse than any other child’s—which, carried full-strength into the adult world, becomes an undiscriminating hyper-empathy, where Maya Angelou is a great poet and Marianne Williamson a philosopher. When a child screams that the distribution of   Fig Newtons or Barbie accessories is “not fair,” she means that she has not got precisely what some other child has got—the same crude notion of “fairness” that propels the flat-tax movement. The Great Society was surely misguided in many ways, but liberal altruism was an adult impulse; the contemporary politics of selfishness is more childlike, policy doctrine à la “Lord of the Flies.” Who are this moment’s religious superstars, the subject of best-selling nonfiction books, TV series, prayers for intercession? Angels. And soon elves: a woman has published a book based on her conversations with the elves who live on her farm in southwest Michigan. I’m not saying angels and elves don’t exist. And I’m not telling my seven-year-old that there’s no Santa, either.