David Anderegg

David Anderegg Ph.D.

Young Americans

We are always amused

Kids are always amused; is this a problem?

Posted Aug 18, 2009

Well, it's been a while, but your faithful correspondent has been doing fieldwork! That means in this case I have been spending time with my baby relatives, observing their little ways "up close and personal," as they used to say on TV. My own babies are long since grown up, in body if not always in spirit, so I always relish the opportunity to watch young families living their lives in real time. In the present case, spending some days at a vacation house with four children under the age of six was a real eye-opener (and a real ear-opener, especially in the wee hours of the morning...but I digress).

One of the things that has changed- gradually changed, but changed nevertheless, in the last decade- is the fact that new equipment for young is so amusing. I offer here a few examples: a plastic drinking bottle equipped with a cover and a straw designed for easy drinking. But it is also designed with a cute little whistle that makes a cute noise every time the child stops sucking the straw. The cute noise has no function, except to be cool, to amuse, to add a little fillip of entertainment to the pedestrian business of drinking from a cup.

Then there are the shoes, more and more of which do non-shoe things: they light up, they make little musical noises, they do all kinds of things to amuse. After a while they are so amusing they can actually get a little boring: they are kind of like bad comics who tell the same jokes over and over again, the Henny Youngmans of the kid-shoe world. This is just to say that they are not yet programmable, with a set of entertainment options and a "shuffle" function, although it is only a matter of time before children do have such shoes. Right now, they still do a lot more than shoes have ever done, even if they do it over and over.

Is this something new? In degree, yes, but not in kind. Our basic education in art history informs us of all the utilitarian objects that have been made amusing over the centuries: pitchers in the shapes of frogs, knives with snake handles, and so on. Upper-class people (and upper middle-class people, when they appeared on the historical stage) have always had a taste for the amusing object: where would P. G. Wodehouse be without his ubiquitous cow-creamers? People have always found it diverting to blur the lines between the functional and the decorative, and as long as the object remains truly functional (as a pitcher, or a knife, or a creamer, or a plastic cup or a shoe) who cares? Contemporary technology just makes it cheaper, and therefore easier and more widespread, for kids' stuff to call attention to itself.

But does it change the kid? Are we subtly raising the bar for everyday objects, or for our children's own expectations of amusement? Will they slowly come to expect every single object- every pencil, every cup, every sock- to contribute to the general hilarity? Will they be more easily bored? Hard to say. Kids being kids, they may eventually rebel against the Baroque splendor of their childhood objects: the popularity of plainer-than-thou American apparel V-necks among post-adolescent hipsters may be just the kind of thing we would expect.

I was still mulling this over when we went to a special dinner without the charming and delightful children. But then the lovely waitress announced the dessert choices: "Tonight we're doing a triple chocolate mousse with a salted-pretzel crust and candied hazelnuts; a raspberry polenta cake with home-made sweet-corn ice cream; and a crème fraiche panna cotta with local blackberries and blackberry coulis," and I thought maybe I had my answer.