The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.
– Aldous Huxley
The spirit of the child. Hmmm. We put a lot of psychic burden on children. They are our hope for the future. They are our reason for living. They keep us young. They are our reason to preserve the environment. They are so beautiful as children.
To all who hold these beliefs about children close to their hearts and to all those who only mouth the words but really don’t mean it, I apologize in advance: This stuff is crap.
Over the years I have seen hundreds of people as individual clients and in group therapy as their therapist. Those who have expressed deep sorrow and anger over having been made to feel burdened by their childhood experiences are an easy majority. Their feelings of having too much pinned on them as children, their feelings of taking care of their parents emotionally, and their sense that they needed to entertain adults instead of just having their own lives – these feelings are not my interpretation of their experience. It is their interpretation.
I think that this notion of the child having some greater talent for life than adults or people with advanced age is nonsense and, in some ways, even dangerous. We rely on children for physicality and play. Something happens during adolescence and young adulthood that moves people from play to sport to spectator. The zestful participation in both cooperative and parallel play seems to get thwarted by competition. For many the cool of adolescence replaces the joy of imagination and creativity that happens when little slivers of problems are solved through improvisation.
Across many class and social levels, we festoon children for holidays and events as though they were statues of the Infant of Prague. We name them princesses and princes though their royal lineage is dubious. We cluck at their beauty or cuteness and spit-wipe their faces publicly to keep them free of the dirty blemishes of play. A few of these children will escape adolescence with a sense that they are in fact beautiful, but many more will never learn that we are all beautiful all the time without artifice. Many of us live with the wistful, misguided impression that we were once beautiful but no more.
In childhood we learn that we are good boys and girls or we are bad boys and girls. In recent months, with the encouragement of my friend Rose, I have been teaching my dog to skateboard. Our daily forays across the patio are remarkable for many reasons, but none more so than his nervous attempts to do what is expected to hear the clicker and to get a favored treat. When I fail to promptly reinforce some approximation of the target behavior, I may not see that particular attempt again for some time. I am struck by how children are seen as good or bad instead of us noticing that we are not attending adequately to their incremental development. Nor, for that matter, are we generally agreeing on what we want of them as engaged adults.
We often fail to see children as sentient, capable, and dependable. In adolescence we have them working jobs that others would not want, tell them what to do instead of asking them how they would do it, and publicly defame their lapses in judgment. Our nagging, rolling-eyes, and sniping does not seem to make arrive on time. I recently witnessed a pre-teen turn from a parent who was scolding him about not being ready for something. The boy was mouthing the words, “But, I am ready.”
The accumulated distresses of childhood – hurts at the hands of adults – may dampen our enthusiasm in adulthood at times. However, equating age with disinterest and childhood with enthusiasm is not the same thing. Just as we cannot literally lose our minds, we cannot actually lose enthusiasm; it has nowhere to go. Similarly, we cannot fail our childhoods. Adults can fail us in childhood.
Communities that actually value children create and support systems that provide for their safety, foster their learning, engage their creativity, nurture their social aims, and defend their personhood. Adults, not just parents, have this obligation in community. Lately children are increasingly being used as political pawns. That is a shameful social failure commensurate with abuse and neglect.
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
– Winston Churchill