Americans were left reeling in recent days at the sight of grown men who aspire to George Washington’s job mired in what can only be described as potty talk. “Mr. Rubio suggested Mr. Trump had urinated in his trousers,” The New York Times archly noted. The insults went downhill from there, as Trump defended the size of his genitals during a subsequent live presidential debate.
The obvious conclusion is that grownups are acting like preschoolers. But this characterization of young children is actually quite misleading. When given the opportunity, preschoolers are capable of far greater generosity and respect for their peers and sophistication of thought than people have seen on display this election season.
Moreover, in today’s “no excuses” educational climate, they are held to higher performance standards, too. In fact, there’s a troubling kind of role reversal going on in American society today: As adults race to the bottom with childish antics that would have imperiled careers and marriages in previous eras, young children are the ones being forced to act like the adults.
The evidence is sobering. Behind the head-scratching headlines of 5-year-olds toiling at treadmill desks and a judge’s recent claim that a 3-year-old can serve as her own immigration lawyer lies a growing portrait of “adultification” of early childhood—that is, the imposition of adult beliefs and norms about how young children should behave. While unstructured playtime has declined dramatically in recent years, preschool expulsion and attention-deficit drugs are gaining traction as the go-to solutions to adult expectations of little learners.