One day my schoolchildren, aged from seven to eleven years, wrote compositions on the subject of “Grown-ups.” The word had been written on the board, and they were told to write whatever idea it brought to their minds with the promise that the compositions would not be read aloud in class. They had no chance to talk it over with the other children, nor much time to think about it in the bare half hour allowed them. These papers, sixty-one in number, were brought to me uncorrected, and I read them with much interest and a little dismay.
Let me begin with a few general descriptions:
“You are a grown-up person when you are married or over 29. When you are grown-up you can bos yourself.”
Letitia’s definition is even briefer: “Grown-ups are people who boss you.”
Agnes says that grown-ups are “very much different than children. They think we are cold when we arn’t and make us put on coats and hats when we don’t want to. They make me very mad at times and other times make me very happy but never mediom. They are either very quite or very noisy. They don’t have as much fun as we do. Their hair is always fixt and hands washed. It has always been a mistory to me how they do it.”
On the other hand, Lucy says that “grown-ups are just children that have stretched” — a surprising point of view for a child of eleven years.
She continued: “They are nice most of the time. But you’ve got to be careful. They get cross quite a lot. They are always talking grown-up things, stock market and such. They are everlastingly going to meetings and luncheons and stuff. They’ll have parties and play contract bridge, what fun do you get out of it?”
The liberty to do as one pleases makes grown-ups enviable to many of the children. Thus Constance writes: “I would like to be a grown-up because I could go to bed when I felt like it and in the summertime I could go swimming when I felt like it so no one could say ‘You can’t go swimming today because its too damp and you have a cold.’ ”
But Eleanor “would hate to be a grown-up and not be able to go to parties and have to clean up the house and have to boss everboddy and have them call you bossy. And have to put things in your hair to make it curly. And put your hair up in knots. And where long stockings and long dresses. But they would not have to go to school and have lots of homework and they can stay up late at night.”
Molly is even severer: “I should hate to be a grown-up, but I guess I’ll have to be one some day until I die. I think I’ll stab myself or commit suicide when I’m almost twenty years old. But in one way I think I would like to be one so I could boss myself and not have a lot of people say, ‘Molly do this and Molly do that!’ ”
Even in some of the most youthful papers there is a note of outspoken rebellion. Paul struggles to express as well as an eight-year-old can what is wrong with his parents and his relations with them. “Grown-ups give me a pain in the neck. They are too stuck up. When everybody else is going swimming — no you can’t go. You have to obey them or get scolded and then you get mad and scolded some more. Sometimes I get scolded I throw things at people so they try to keep me from getting mad. Once I was scolded for something I didn’t do and I got so mad I broke three windows and seven glasses I threw books and magazines at everybody I saw.”
Arthur is Paul’s twin soul; he starts his indictment in the same words: “Grown-ups give me a pain in the neck. I don’t like them because they try to boss you around a lot and say you must go up and brush your hair or you mustn’t have to much candy. Or don’t run because you have a little cold. I would like to take them over my knee and give them a good spanking and make them yell once.”
From “Parents as Children See Them,” which appeared in the December 1931 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available here.