David Aaronovitch: What's so smart about being childish?

'I don't like to see adults reading Harry Potter when they haven't read Nabokov, or men on shiny scooters when they should be on foot'

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Last Saturday night, we left the kids with a priceless aunt and went on a rare visit to the cinema. Usually, I fall asleep during the early ads, and only wake up in time for the censor's certificate signed by my colleague Andreas Whittam Smith (at which point I have an urge to shout out that I know him, that he's very liberal and that the audience is in for an evening of heaving flesh). But this time I stayed awake, and discovered that the ads for Hague's gin and Martini had gone. Instead the cinema full of grown-ups was being invited to purchase Maltesers (which used to melt in your mouth and not in your hand ­ a sentence that simply cannot be used innocently any more) and Smarties.

Smarties? In the old days (ie the days of my adolescence), adults could be invited to buy Turkish Delight from a belly dancer, Bounty from a rather unlikely Tahitian maiden, and Cadbury's Flake from the lascivious lass with the big lips. These were chocolates for grown-ups, for men and women who would enjoy the pleasure of the cocoa-bean and then ­ stimulated ­ enjoy each other. Smarties, however, were for children. Little children. That's why they were so small and coloured, like dummies or rattles.

We should recall here that advertisers test their ads on focus groups before they screen them; they don't just pay a fortune to the cinema chains and then cross their fingers. So what I saw was what the marketing people had discovered would sell Smarties and Maltesers to adults. And the Smarties ad in particular commanded everyone's attention. In it, a man and a woman in their mid-thirties stuck out their tongues to show which of them had won the competition to make their Smartie last longest. They might just as well have shown each other their bottoms. This was beyond regression, and I was left thinking that it was only because my own children (aged eight and four) had got well beyond this stage that we had been happy to leave them behind.

Is this anything more than a cultural irritation? Ads have always been banal, and why is it any better to sell chocolate with sex than to sell it with infantilism? Because ­ a voice in my head tells me ­ sex (however silly) is adult, it is part of the world of negotiations and relationships and responsibilities. I don't like to see grown-ups reading Harry Potter books when they haven't managed Nabokov, and men on shiny scooters should be walking or cycling. When I became a man ­ give or take a Tintin key-ring ­ I put away childish things.

The advertisers are aiming their candy darts at what are known as "kidults", something they describe as a new "consumption phenomenon", consisting of "thirtysomethings who are fond of their childhood and buy brands that they were familiar with as children in the 1970s and young adults in the 1980s". A French website cites the example of Petit Bateau, a manufacturer of children's underwear, which has recently added a range of knickers and nighties that can be worn by their mothers.

This retro-culture is not confined to Europe and the US. In Japan last year, young women began filling their gaudy handbags with mobile phones, pens and credit cards all marked with the image of a cutesie little kitty. By the winter, "Hello Kitty" had reached France and was chosen by the Galeries Lafayette department store as a key "kidult" brand for the Winter 2000 catalogue. Hello Kitty? In my younger days, I used to give a wide berth to the type of woman who kept her stuffed lion on her pillow.

What's going on? In my own case, my long-standing desire for a Scalextric set (realised by proxy on behalf of the eight-year-old last Christmas) had something to do with it being unaffordable when I was a kid. But some sociologists argue that the new urge to regress is connected with the uncertain economic circumstances in which many young adults were brought up. They can somehow re-achieve stability and comfort by surrounding themselves with the products and the images of their childhood. This would also explain the distressing TV polls in which millions vote for the best kids' TV programme of all time and then, once it's chosen, go out and buy the video.

Not every real grown-up thinks that this is a bad thing. In a Thought For The Day last autumn, the bishop of Bath and Wells commended childishness. "If we kill off the child in us," he said, "we can become habitually self-important, moralistic, bossy and pompous adults, without any inkling of our own absurdity." And this must be partly right, because you can't hold a Smartie-licking competition with chums without being aware of your own absurdity, can you? Can you?

But this tolerance doesn't convince me. Something shouts that this kidulthood is a way of avoiding reality rather than of understanding it. Kidulthood wishes to escape the world rather than to engage with it. As the Scottish writer Pat Kane asked in The Scotsman recently, "If Toys R Us, then Who R We?" He answered, gloomily, that, "We R infantilised kidults, taking refuge from the world's difficulties in a Disney Universe (or maybe even a Plutopia) of happy endings, gentle humour and endless plenitude".

My psychotherapist friend tends to agree. He sees in this trend a refusal to choose an adult identity, and a determination to be everything: to be the adult and the child, the father and the mother, the man and the woman. He links it, not to economic changes, but to changes in the structure of the family, with an increasing number of single-parent families, step-families and families in which there are no distinct roles. Women, for instance, are now asked to be mums, chums, professionals and lovers all at once. The one thing that can be reliably distinctive about them is their childhoods. The problem is that children are not required to negotiate long-term adult relationships and partnerships. So, increasingly, neither do young adults. You only had to see Bubble from Big Brother blubbing in self-pity about his "little gel" (I was forced to watch by my eldest) to realise how easily the roles of adult and child are now reversed.

If kidults desire childhood, there is a fairly obvious danger in this for real kids. It's not just that their world will be increasingly aggressively colonised by the advertisers, but that they themselves will be increasingly desired by adults. And the peril for the adult world is even more intriguing. I discovered this warning on the Net. A company selling computer security sold its wares with this warning: "With growing numbers of 'kidults' ­ children who never grow up ­ office solutions about handling technology is (sic) critical. Firewalls and products like X offer enterprise solutions to make your network and its external connectivity kidsafe and/or lawsuit protected." Kidsafe from adults! Here is a picture of a Jim Carrey dystopia full of inane sabotage enacted by men and women old enough to write novels or run hospitals. Or to reach with adult muscles for real weapons when someone takes away their toys.

I don't want to fetishise childhood. And on the whole it seems better to me to stretch the perceptions of children than to limit the sensibilities of adults. I only realised quite recently that I had been feeding my children on a diet of "kids" animated cinema, when they should also have been watching more substantial stuff. But I also believe in something called "man's estate", and the raw virtues of actually bloody growing up.

DavidAaronovitch@btinternet.com

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