Have you noticed how often adults – particularly of the earnest, nagging variety who work in the public sector – are behaving like children? I don’t mean acting childishly, but literally behaving like children.
Last week delegates to the NUS women’s conference were using ‘jazz-hands’ instead of clapping – in case it should trigger an anxiety attack. I can think of five-year-olds who would squirm at that spectacle. Meanwhile, Brown University in America recently debated sexual assault on campus. A serious topic, but the authorities deemed it necessary to create a ‘safe space’ full of play-doh, bubbles, calming music and colouring books.
Yes, colouring books. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. As the New York Times reported at the weekend, an ‘adult’ colouring book called Secret Garden – 96 pages of twee black-and-white ink drawings of flowers, trees and birds – has sold 1.4 million copies. The author is 31-year-old Johanna Basford from Aberdeenshire, who confesses that at first ‘I was worried that colouring for adults was silly’. But the New York Times didn’t think it was silly at all, noting approvingly that Basford’s book has triggered a fashion for ‘mindful colouring’, of which the Brown University ‘safe space’ is presumably another example. To quote the Times:
Hard-core fans often buy several copies of [Basford’s] books at a time, to experiment with different colour combinations. Others have turned it into a social activity. Rebekah Jean Duthie, who lives in Queensland, Australia, and works for the Australian Red Cross, says she regularly gathers with friends for ‘colouring circles’ at cafes and in one another’s homes.
Nowhere in the article is there a suggestion that there’s something ridiculous about all this. Grown-ups don’t colour in. The fact that they are doing is indicative of a wider trend of infantilisation, often justified on grounds of mental health.
There’s nothing unusual about the use of methodical busywork to combat psychological difficulties. Churchill used to paint watercolour scenes during periods of depression. It’s the form it’s taking that’s disconcerting. People are being encouraged to infantilise themselves in a way they would never have dreamt of even a decade ago. The only people who can afford to indulge in such mawkish activities are of a certain background – this is all very middle-class and woolly. (Ms Basford, we learn, ‘started out in fashion, working on silk-screen designs. Then she opened a studio on her parents’ trout and salmon farm in Scotland, and began designing hand-drawn wallpaper for luxury hotels and boutiques. When the financial crisis hit, her business evaporated. She closed the studio and found work as a commercial illustrator for companies like Starbucks, Nike and Sony.’)
The concept of the ‘inner child’, a crude psychological metaphor fashionable in the 1960s, is back with a vengeance, in both the private and public sectors. Account managers, Catholic priests, police officers, you name it – they’re all marched into ‘workshops’ where they’re encouraged to role-play or otherwise behave like children in order to realise something about themselves or their colleagues. There is a soft play centre in Portsmouth that hires itself out for corporate events.
As a society we’re more and more obsessed with celebrating vulnerability. Whether through colouring books or video games, adults are wallowing in fantasy worlds which allow them to hide from the real world. The irony is that the same liberal ninnies who are urging us to behave like children also expect children to behave like adults. Kids these days are expected to absorb adult ideas about the way the world works. They’re required to monitor their language. Understand the politics of race. Eat culturally appropriate food.
Forgive me if I seem terse. Today I don’t have very much patience for adults behaving like children – I’m juggling writing this piece with looking after a three-year-old and five-year-old. They enjoy colouring in, but if they’re still doing it in 20 years’ time we’ll be having words.