Having lived with my younger brother more closely these last six months since the lockdown, I have seen him become more in tune with himself. What I have also seen is a shift in what it could possibly mean to be a child in this world, as the gap widens between innocence and experience. When I was a boy, for me, innocence was Winnie the Pooh and the 100-Acre Wood and reading Enid Blyton novels. My brother is twelve years my junior and is really the first generation to grow up with the internet. There are a few saying that the Coronavirus pandemic has taken away this generation of children’s innocence. However, I am not sure if there was any innocence there to begin with — growing up with the internet, social media and influencers alike.
At twelve, I had MSN and My Space but his peers have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and more, and are more exposed to the ills of the world than I was. I’m not saying today’s 20-somethings grew up without the internet. Simply, we were on the margins of both worlds. Born in 2008, he will never know a world before YouTube. In April 2020, an article entitled ‘Coronavirus isn’t the end of ‘childhood innocence,’ but an opportunity to rethink children’s rights’ was published by The Conversation. Not only is this the time to rethink children’s rights but also what it means to be a child in the twenty-first century. As despite there being just over ten years between me and my brother, that is long enough to entertain a sort of generation gap.
Whilst I was born in 1995, growing up in the 2000s, he will never understand why Pokémon was all the rage. That despite Pokémon still being around now (with Pokemon Go and such), it’s not what it was. When I was eight, ten and twelve, Pokémon was it, including those Game Boy cartridges. What about Tamogotchi, Jetix and a Toonatic? Despite being an active user of social media now, this is a new feeling for me, since this stuff wasn’t a dominant when I was younger. To put into context, I was eight when Facebook (2004) was launched, nine with YouTube (2005), and ten with Twitter (2006). And I didn’t really take notice of it until 2012–2015 (16–19).
At fourteen (2010), Instagram was launched. Social media is not something I was born into but it’s something that just arrived as I progressed through my formative years.
In 2017, Simon Curtis’ film Goodbye Christopher Robin was released. A film about children’s author A. A. Milne with Domhnall Gleeson in the lead role. It follows Milne and his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin Milne. His son went on to inspire Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Here was a film that shows childhood innocence being stripped away with both Billy (as he was known) becoming a child celebrity, and growing up under a father with shellshock from war (today, that’s PTSD). This picture shows the life of a child that carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and came through it “okayish” in the end. However, did it have to be that way?
It’s a story that shows children at their most innocent — from the direct approach of asking questions to their frankness, to loving-nature and playfulness, and jolly humour. And despite COVID, which has impacted everyone to varying degrees, children continue to show their resilience. The pandemic may have interrupted their childhood but their innocence to some extent has not been lost because it wasn’t there to begin with — in a society that is global and information has never been so accessible, the ability for children to be naive has fast slipped away, unlike when my parents were kids. My parents protected me from a lot when I was ten and twelve (2005–2007) which is not as easy over a decade later for my brother — a time where information is more accessible and where trauma can be streamed onto a smartphone or tablet.
What I admire most about parents today is how they parent between the wide-reaching spectrum of innocence and experience. Now having to discuss Black Lives Matter and racism with children, not just in reaction to societal trauma but because it is the right thing to do. From discussing police violence and the racial differences, to the slow ‘drip-drip’ of racial microaggressions and the legacy colonialism left behind. Being a parent in 2020 in this “perfect storm”of Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter… it looks tough, but children are often more open than grownups and are constantly full of surprises.
On what would become Winnie the Pooh, Domhnall Gleeson’s Milne says “the creatures in the story are toys — they’re toys but the woods are real.” The days of my early years are gone now, playing in the woods of Salcey Forest without a care in the world. The winds have changed. I grew up on the margins — on the faultlines of a new world. To my brother, as there is over a decade between us, I am relic to a bygone era. I am a person that does not remember 9/11 outright but also someone that remembers how it made other people feel. I am someone that remembers how the world wasn’t the same after that, and then the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, trauma porn on BBC News at Ten.
When I watch him online with his friends playing videogames, am I seeing innocence, an innocene applicable for his generation and generations to come? When he’s at drama engaged in theatrics and dance, am I seeing it again? Childhood innocence is ineffable and it alters from generation to generation. Do children his age have more in common with the children that lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918) than they do with me? Maybe that’s a stretch. Where is the line between innocence, ignorance and experience? To no longer believe in Father Christmas or the Boogie Man, or the Tooth Fairy, creatures and monsters in the closet. And to not see the sadness behind your parents’ eyes when they pick you up from school.
He (my brother) is often asking me if I am okay. “Are you okay, Tré?” he says. “Are you okay?” And the hardest part is to tell him “No”, but always suffixed with “I will be.”
Innocence is more than ignorance and / or lack of experience. I suppose it can often feel like magic — going to the cinema and shutting off for two hours, excluding yourself from the society outside. Maybe this is why I associate popular culture so heavily with feelings of innocence — Paddington Bear and his marmalade sandwiches included. And other things, like Christmas; and Easter eggs; and stories of seagods and mythical beasts — things so divorced from this wartorn world of rationality, as if that is all there is to hang on to.
Childhood innocence is a myth but the perception of it is clung to. Yet, we cannot deny the fact children all experience sadness and grief, pandemic or no. And for children that have experienced disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, poverty, and traumas — but also the children that experience racism and xenophobia — COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter will not be the first time they are faced in reliving those traumas. Yet, in the West, where concepts of “childhood innocence” are most dominant, this may be a chance to decolonise these concepts, which really are only most prevalent when you walk through halls of middle-upper class straight, cis, white, male privilege — somewhat very 19th/20th Century — from Victorian novels to Disney princess films.
I remember when he was born and I often have to stop myself thinking about him as a small child when he will be man before long. What the pandemic is also showing is that children still need to be allowed to be children. Most of us are taking precautions to protect ourselves and our families (quite rightly) but like many diseases, I am thinking Coronavirus is simply one more that we will all have to grow accustomed to, following our ancestors that lived in a world post-Spanish Flu in 1918 which was then followed by an economic crisis (1929) and the Second World War (1939–1945). Despite a pandemic and the biggest anti-racist movement in human history, as well as a tattered UK economy, children will still find ways to be children and they must always find ways.
And whilst this concept of “childhood innocence” is mythic, that does not make it negative. That spirit that comes so naturally to children should not be stifled with excuses like “it’s time to grow up now” (there’s plenty of time to adult later). Despite the myth of innocence, children will be children only once. Like the Spanish Flu (1918) and The Bubonic Plague (1665) before COVID, children must be allowed to exist in their ‘100-acre paradise’, whatever that looks like. No matter our locale, children have always found ways to express themselves in the ways that come naturally to them.