Thanet Writers Research Fear of Children

Writer Luke Edley researches fear of children (paedophobia) on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Johanna Vergouwen / Public Domain

Fear of children, also known as paedophobia, has often provided inspiration for many famous works of literature over the years, but writers must think carefully before opting for a ‘scary kid’ archetype in their stories. A fear of children should not just be a lazy plot device to be toyed with without much forethought – paedophobia must firstly be understood by examining the root causes for why human society is so uneasy and unnerved by childhood in the first place.

The important thing which may go unmissed, particularly by those unfamiliar with seminal works of paedophobic literature or film, is that fear of children is all in the subtext. Often, the discomfort people have with children is either a manifestation of, a) wider social attitudes to youth and/or ageing which are prevalent at the time; or, b) a psychological aversion, either to one’s perception of their own childhood, or to a personal lack of interest in biological reproduction and having children of their own. Obviously, this is simplifying the issue somewhat, but let’s make a start nonetheless:

What is paedophobia?

Putting it simply, paedophobia is a fear of children or an aversion to anything related to, stemming from, or associated with childhood states. It can also be termed more generally as a fear of youth, or ephebiphobia, which has been used in media reports as describing an anxiety about teenage miscreants and/or delinquency. Obviously, wherever there is fear, it is ripe territory for writers to exploit, but what basis is there for paedophobia?

Well, according to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development), 30% of European women remained childless in the age group of 25-49. This is at record highs compared to the previous century, so in other words, more and more women are actively choosing to avoid having children. This doesn’t mean they’re afraid of kids, of course, but as a society, it’s clear we’re moving away from the old-fashioned notion of the nuclear family and towards an age of voluntary childlessness.

Paedophobia, however, has its roots long before voluntary childlessness become an academic concern. When compounded with fears the elderly harbour about youth crime (hyped by tabloid controversy or not), it’s as much a modern concern as it is an ancient one. Those who have a deep-seated hatred of kids may remain in the minority, but a culture which fosters the idea that human reproduction is nothing but a personal choice can surely expect to impact literature on some level. Could this be behind the rise of the ‘scary kid’ archetype?

Why are people afraid of children?

This is difficult to answer, but one explanation could be that children are feared by adults simply because they will eventually grow to replace us. Our own children, being younger, will grow up to become adults in their own right and our own mortality is therefore threatened by their existence. Other people’s children, therefore, are even more of a threat to us, given there’s a risk they will grow up to become better, stronger and more intelligent than us and end up supplanting our roles in modern society and making us dispensable.

On a deeper level, before Sigmund Freud re-introduced the Oedipus complex as something far more perverted (upon which he wrote about a child’s unconscious sexual attraction to its own parents), the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus itself told of a tragic hero who killed his own father and slept with his own mother. There is this sense, then, that even myths of old addressed the idea that children, because of their youth, can be seen as threats to our own place on this earth, and thus should be feared as a result.

As a work of supernatural fiction, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw hints at Catholic ‘Original Sin’ and connects this with The Governess’s conflicted relationship with the children in the country estate of Bly. Despite her affection for them at times, she seems unable to accept their innocence, possibly because of the sexual act which begat them. When ghosts begin to haunt the children it’s as though it’s a metaphor for sexual guilt and how it’s passed onto the next generation. On a similarly sombre note on the issue of guilt, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

So, fear of children expressed in literature could be connected to guilt and/or deeply embedded religious attitudes to generational inheritance, or a fear of being supplanted. In a modern context, a Home Office study conducted in 1995 found that 55% of boys and almost a third of girls admitted that they had committed a criminal offence at some point, so a propensity for crime could also be a reason to fear young people. Alternatively, of course, it could just be that modern couples literally see having children as a hindrance rather than a blessing. A recent study has revealed that 37% of parents were less happy after they had kids than beforehand. Either way, there’s clearly something about kids which rouses anxiety.

When did our fear of children originate?

Possibly since the dawn of time, humans have identified children as the heirs to our thrones and our legacies, so the accompanying fear of usurpation probably stems from this in various forms of storytelling. However, the concept of childhood innocence is surprisingly new and only began to surface during the Romantic Age in English literature. As life expectancies increased, children were allowed to be young for longer, whereas historically they were either rushed into child labour, or fast-tracked into adulthood.

This change in societal attitudes is exemplified nowhere better than William Wordsworth’s line “Child is the father of the Man” in his poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold.’ What Wordsworth meant was that childhood is the embryonic stage of manhood, therefore it is symbolic of a time of innocence deserving of recognition as important in the development of human maturity. However, this innocence brought with it new anxieties:

Depictions of pregnancy in literature, for instance, despite usually being seen as a time of gestational innocence and maternal purity, take on a dark, paedophobic edge in the likes of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. The idea that a foetus or an unborn child is inhabited by some kind of dark energy – a demonic possession, for example – is emblematic of this fear of children in modern fiction.

It’s no coincidence Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1967 at the height of a younger generation embracing ‘free love,’ thus inferring that the youth had metaphorically unleashed some kind of destructive force which was threatening to destroy traditional societal norms and values. Each of these perspectives underline how a fear of children has been multi-faceted and ever-present throughout the ages, and how literature has been continually inspired by it.

How has literature depicted society’s view of children?

Not kindly, in some of the most notable cases, it has to be said. The plot of William Golding’s post-World War II novel Lord of the Flies follows a group of British schoolkids who find themselves stranded on a desert island and are forced to work together to survive. Spoiler alert: they end up resorting to the same acts of savagery and violence that one would expect from adults in a time of war, shunning childhood innocence in favour of brutality when corrupted by the survival instincts modern civilisation thrusts upon them.

In Anthony Burgess’s work of dystopic fiction A Clockwork Orange, the younger generation are also regarded with heavy dollops of scorn, released in 1962 following a moral panic in the media about youth violence (Mods and Rockers). In Burgess’s story, gangs of youths called ‘droogs’ are little more than conformist waifs; slaves to fashion; addicted to pop music; jabbering in a strange and incomprehensible brand of ‘nadsat’ slang; and stalking the streets with menace and entitlement. As with Golding’s story, Burgess casts significant doubt on the permanence of the innocence of youth and is concerned with how quickly this disappears.

The portrayal of youth as a ‘folk devil’ may be far from the truth, but the point is both Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange reflect a fear the reader shares about young people standing in stark contrast to behaviour one would expect of the right-thinking, albeit older, majority. Burgess’s ‘droogs’ wilfully trample on the value systems of their elders and Golding’s island-dwellers throw morality to the wind in the absence of adult influence, so there’s this general sense that a fear of children is more about a fear of immaturity and anarchy than anything else.

What does a fear of children say about the adult world?

Children and/or young people tend to be depicted as threats to be looked down upon by adults, yet literature has also been fond of imbuing childish characters with otherworldly, even supernatural, qualities to elevate them spiritually above us too. Both of these conversely oppositional literary approaches tend to reflect society’s fear of children, largely as they try and set children apart from grown-ups and suggest they are abnormal or even inhuman.

In John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, for example, children are portrayed telepathic with their eyes lit up like fireflies, their age appearing to accelerate inordinately and even resorting to mind control to dominate the adult populace. Yet again, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke gives children a similarly frightening and inhuman depiction, with kids acting as mere psychic vessels for an alien invasion of Planet Earth and embodying the next step in human evolution. Either way, adults have grown familiar with seeing children portrayed in modern literature as insidious and alien-like.

Stephen King has been no stranger to this literary device either, having depicted Carrie in his breakthrough novel as suffering with telekinesis, as well as having the younger character of Charlie McGee in Firestarter having pyrokinetic powers. “Schizoid behavior is a pretty common thing in children,” even King once wrote. “It’s accepted, because all we adults have this unspoken agreement that children are lunatics.” Therefore, the notion of a child having abilities well beyond adult capabilities engenders our fear that due to a child’s emotional immaturity they cannot control it, hence why it’s so effective for authors to do so.

On this basis, if anything, literature tends toward the view that adults are paragons of normality and beacons of accepted wisdom, whereas children and young people are the rabble-rousers of abnormality, defiance and rebellion. When writers portray children as ‘otherworldly,’ it is done to play on the fear grown-ups have that their position of authority in the adult world is being undermined. Our reason to fear children then is ultimately because we fear our days are numbered.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the fear of children has become such a staple in fiction that it’s fair to say we won’t be seeing it abandoned any time soon. It taps into something at the core of the human experience – that our fear of ageing causes us to regard youth with deep suspicion – but as long as writers understand the context of this, it remains a valid topic to explore.

That said, as this research piece has made clear, subtext is everything – if writers continue to depict children in a way which subtly reflects contemporary society (rather than lazily writing a ‘scary kid’ into a horror novella, for instance), as well as underscoring any moral dilemma perceived to exist between the different generations, then it’s clear there is plenty of mileage in this concept. Whether it’s true or not in the real world is somewhat irrelevant – if there’s a story to be told, it will be found.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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    This is such a useful research article. There is certainly something quite supernaturally intuitive we possess as carefree children that we lose as we age and the stresses of everyday life fill our minds. It’s the same reason I always get extremely freaked out when my friends three year old plays peek-a-boo with her imaginary friend. The actions and motivations of children are not something we can completely understand, and what we can’t understand terrifies us.

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