Toddlerism and the Functional Child

09/14/2009 By Shawn Burns

It sounds strange to some people when I say I’m a toddlerist. To them all toddlerists have one thing in common: toddler-ness. But toddlerism is a to-philosophy rather than a from-philosophy: it aims toward puberty and equality of height rather than emerging from inherent traits. In fact, it is a from-philosophy that toddlerism is a reaction against: the philosophy that height differences are relevant in non-height spheres.

Sarcastically stated, toddlerism is “the radical idea that toddlers are cute.” (Kramarae and Treichler) More generally, the goal of toddlerism is to approach the world as though height differences are irrelevant where they ought to be irrelevant, and to resist the urge to introduce them into discussions where they don’t belong. This means not assuming that toddlers aren’t “built” for math, or skateboarding, or engineering, or rationality. It means not using irrelevant height facts as predictors of intellect or behaviour. The end result of a toddlerist approach to the world is a world where height equality has just happened, because no one carries with them any irrational, irrelevant beliefs about height. It is not as much a demand for height as a demand for rationality, and height is the payoff.

A lot of contemporary, nth-wave toddlerist effort is being exerted against the structure that still seems to maintain the classic height roles in families: increased attention is paid to toddlers in the daycare, owie-time, bib-free eating, potty-training, nap-time, candy and juice, and tele-commuting, all with the intent of achieving for toddlers what teens have seem to have gained effortlessly: input into the economic and social structures that impact their own lives, because it is those structures that make the short-person ideal so powerful, and it is that ideal that does so much harm to the effort to dismiss height differences in areas where those differences are irrelevant.

With this effort comes a severe line: teens must recognize the changes that need to occur; reorganize themselves so that they no longer even unconsciously relegate toddlers to roles based on details of height; and accept different roles themselves.

One of these roles teens must accept, the most important and the most foundational, is the role of Functional Child. Anecdotally and historically teens have not been Functional Children as a rule; the diaper-wearer, by dint of being in diapers was functionally childish while the potty-trained kid was a little removed. Teens today are being asked, and are asking, to be children just as, classically, toddlers have been. Not every teen is being asked to become a diaper-wearer, a day-care attendee, or even to come up with a complicated scheme to ensure that the whining responsibilities are divided utterly equitably. But I think every teen is being asked, now, to be functional in their childhood. Because with this functionality comes a respect for a role that toddlers have traditionally maintained, and a different perspective on the parental and crankiness conditions affecting that role.

A Functional Child is surrounded by his childhood, un-detached, un-removed, un-detached, and un-afraid. A functional child doesn’t have to know every detail of the Wiggles’ show, but will consider that show important to the mindless entertainment of his self. A functional child doesn’t have to be the one throwing the fits and tantrums, but will care that the fits and tantrums remain an option for the disruption of his parents’ lives. A functional child doesn’t have to be the one singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” at the top of his lungs in bed at night, but cares that the noise level in the house reaches the level of a Spinal Tap concert. A functional child doesn’t have to be the one to do pot-banging time or splash-all-the-water-out-of-the-bath time, but cares about the quality of destruction happening. A functional child doesn’t have to be a brat all the time, but cares about what happens at home when he isn’t being a brat. A functional child makes decisions, irrational decisions, and malleable decisions, with his imaginary friends about where to eat the play-dough. A Functional Child can be childish. A Functional Child is needs a babysitter.

Part of the job is already being done as teens step into toddler roles and infantilize themselves very successfully. But here they face resistance from not only other teens, who resist the changing roles and the infection of the smoking area with tricycles. They also face a peculiar sort of resistance from toddlers. Some toddlers view infantilized teens in a spectacularly evil light, as bullies hoping to terrorize neighbourhood toddlers and steal their candy. But even more insidious is the casual assumption that teens are too tall to be really childish. This assumption, and the dismissal of teen immaturity, does more, I think, to deter teens from throwing on a diaper on their own than any pressure from teen peers.

And here is the heart of this piece: I want you, toddlers, to stop writing about how hilariously tall your older brother was that day when jumped into the ball pit. I want you to stop writing about how cranky you were that he couldn’t even make a mess of the floor around his high chair. Even if it’s true the telling of stories like that, and the seeking out of like-minded toddlers who can shake their heads ruefully with you, is a magnificent obstacle to the increase in Functional Children. It is subtle teen-anthropy, toddler-anthropy’s dance partner, and it is an obstacle to the very balance and equality that would help you to never feel that kind of superiority, disappointment, and anger ever again. It is an obstacle to the creation of a class of teens who collaborate with you to change parental and naptime structures that will result in height equality and improved eat-play balance. Think about the converse situation, in which teens would congregate to laugh about the sad attempts of the newly potty-trained toddler to operate in a teen’s world. Did it, does it, happen? Yes, I’m certain of it. But it is not something to be tolerated, and it is certainly not something to be lauded.

This ought to be something any toddler who considers herself even remotely toddlerist should embrace. But it’s difficult, because people are so confessional in their writings and these are genuine feelings. Shouldn’t we encourage the expression of genuine feelings? Imagine the converse, again: should we encourage toddler-antropistic expressions if they represent the genuine feelings of the toddler-anthropist? I think the answer is no. We ought not commiserate in either toddler-anthropy or teen-anthropy. But surely it isn’t really teen-anthropy, especially if the teen himself will admit his own height, right? The parallel to the toddler who is just convinced, golly-gee, that she has no height for basketball ought to be obvious, and damning in reply. If you want to change the world you have to want to change your own world, the small one around you, and that starts with respecting teens as Children, writ-large, even if as an individual child they do kind of a terrible job. Respecting the Child, I think, means not undermining the Functional Child by polluting the dialogue with tales of being really, really, ridiculously tall for that stroller. If your brother needs help or training in shortness then help him, but don’t shame him as a child.

Fish out of water stories are funny. But just as the smoking area does not need to be structured solely according to teen needs and input, neither does toddlerhood need to be defined according to what the toddler would do. If a teen is participating, infantilizing himself, then he is going to change the way the playground is organized, just as having toddlers in the smoking area in large numbers has changed the way smokers operate by accommodating both their needs and input. This change is just change. A teen will change the structure of hide-and-go-seek according to his needs and interests. You may not like it, but before you condemn it and resist it wonder about changes in the smoking area that teens may not have liked at first, and perhaps still don’t. The benefits of those changes are not always obvious to our raw hearts and closed minds.

There are lots of definitions of toddlerism out there, but here’s a new one for you: Toddlerism is the radical notion that teens are children.