The Object of this Book
On the fly-leaf of one of George Meredith's novels, all of which I was reading assiduously during my early twenties, I have come across the following pencil note:
"Children those little monstrosities whose disproportionately large heads are beneath our clouds and who are yet treated as if they were above them."
The date in the book is 1906. So that I must have written this note over forty years ago. It is a little extravagant. But it shows whither my thoughts about children were then tending and indicates the annoyance I was beginning to feel, which has increased to this day, over the modern child and the treatment he was receiving.
Almost three generations have grown up in my life-time. I have seen each as children and I have found all of them more insufferable than their predecessors.
Not a child-lover?
It depends what is meant by the term.
If it means that I do not adopt towards children that attitude of prostrate veneration which has increasingly characterized the adult world ever since I was born; if it means that I cannot display that immoderate enthusiasm about them which leads most people to set them above adults, I am certainly not a child-lover. Perhaps my memory serves me too well to allow me to indulge in these excesses.
And yet, whenever I pass any comment on a child, which seems severe or censorious to people really in the swim that is to say, not really swimming, but floundering in the shallows of modern sentimentality and sweetness I am immediately told, "You forget you were once a child!"
When I see a company of adults suddenly electrified by the intrusion of a child in their midst; when I behold the sometimes unaffected, often resolute, reverence in most of their faces for those whose reverence is affected, resolutely display it in order to conform with a mode of behaviour considered estimable I am convinced that it is not I but they whose memory is failing.
Perhaps this is comprehensible enough. There is so much that we are glad and relieved to forget, especially about our childhood. Indeed, what was wrong with Wordsworth was not that he fell technically short of being a very great poet, but that he had an inaccurate memory. Give him a memory equal to Clio's, and with his exalted gifts he would have written poetry both magnificent and true for all time. As it is his poetry is magnificent, mais ce n'est pas la vérité!
But is all the inordinate adulation of children amnesia?
There is more to it than that, and it was partly with the object of investigating this plus that I thought of writing these pages.
If all had been well with the modern world and with its children and its grown-up children in particular, this investigation would have been a piece of gratuitous supererogation. But as hardly anything is well either with the modern world, or its children, grown-up or otherwise, the investigation is warranted.
To begin with, let no one suppose that children are either too guileless or too unobservant to feel and appreciate the stir their sudden advent causes among a group of average
The very fact that, if these attentions are not spontaneous, it will promptly take steps to evoke them and nowadays will be able to count on not being corrected for doing so, can be verified by anyone who keeps his eyes open. But this alone shows that the dutiful courtesies of the adult passengers are neither unobserved nor unappreciated by the child.
The question is, can it be good for a human being, so early in life, to be made to feel so important more important than adults and their mature preoccupations? Can it be wise to make any living creature, in its most impressionable years, feel that it is a king, when it has no prospect of being a king? Is not the world already too full of these disillusioned royalties? Is it not only too plainly written on the faces and in the temper of most adults to-day that as infants they thought they were royal, and that now they cannot forgive the world for having dethroned them?
On the principle that he who putteth on his armour ought not to boast as he who taketh it off, we, who watch a creature who at some future date will put on his armour, should not be so deferential to him as we are to the man who is still battling in it, or is about to take it off. It is surely, therefore, not unreasonable to see something topsy-turvy in this comparatively modern attitude of deference to the child. And since topsy-turvydom cannot at any time be good, and is liable to drive the blood to the head, if not to cause a swollen head, I challenge these child-adulators of to-day to justify their conduct, or at least to admit that in what follows
For this child-adulation which has overtaken the modern world, high and low, amounts to a cult. It is as much a latter-day cult as the equally suspicious and universal insistence on "a sense of humour," and on "unselfishness." People pick it up in the air they breathe. And so anxious are all social creatures, especially the least alert, to conform with what their betters approve, that a certain modicum of child-adulation is now held to be essential to "decent" behaviour. It is part of the routine of good manners, bon ton. It matters not that your betters are merely they who enjoy superior pecuniary prestige. You know no other "betters." If you do, you are an eccentric in modern society.
So deeply, indeed, do modern people feel that it is decent, well-bred and a sign of elevated character, to defer to the child and to exalt him, that they strain in company to excel each other in these practices. Often, to the point of bitter rivalry, they will vie with each other in convincing all present that they yield to none in child-adulation. And he or she who outstrips all competitors in the contest passes automatically for one beyond reproach.
Conversely, he or she who holds aloof from the contest, displays indifference to children and, above all, refuses to allow a child's question, or remark, or antic, to interrupt his conversation, his reading, or his revery, is frowned upon and held to be fit only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. Such a one may be thinking of the child's future, wishing to spare him the corruption of unearned homage. No matter! Not to conform with the rules of the cult is to offend against accepted usage and it is not forgiven. In the eyes of the modern world such conduct appears to betray a base and disreputable character.
But, to return to my question can it be good for a creature at once diminutive and immature, unaccomplished and uncivilized, to be made to feel, at the most impressionable
No sensible person, calmly pondering these questions in private, could possibly hesitate for a moment about how to answer them.
Look at it the other way round. If it cannot be good for the child, and if, despite its damaging influence on the child's future and character, it is still persisted in, it must be doing some one else good.
Who is it then that benefits? Whose interests are served by the cult? In other words, who derives enough satisfaction from child-adulation to make him or her overlook its effect on the child?
This question seems worth investigation. But as its investigation will lead us far afield, I shall deal with it in the ensuing chapters.
Meanwhile, a few obvious explanations may be disposed of.
It will occur to many that behaviour of the sort described is pleasing to parents. It is, therefore, good manners; because sociability takes for granted a desire to please those in whose company we are thrown. No doubt mothers in particular appreciate any attention paid to their offspring. It is the surest and quickest route to their hearts so much so, that in the realistic societies of southern Europe, a man who pays marked attention to a young woman's child is soon suspected of ulterior motives. Even the young mother herself, especially if she does not reciprocate the man's feelings, may become alarmed.
But in an aristocratic society ruled by values which recognize a natural hierarchy among human beings, and consequently not unmindful of the relatively subordinate position of the child, the mother herself would have been trained to
Even in a society long bereft of aristocratic values, however, a sanely matured female, who has rid herself of her infantile adaptations, and who is genuinely concerned about her child's best interests, would wish to spare it the dire consequences of feelings of self-importance. Whilst in any society, of what constitution soever, the mother of a normal or large family, finding herself bound to apportion her own attentions in nicely measured doses to each of her children, would instinctively resent any stranger's upsetting her routine rationing of love and care by trying to out-mother her.
So that although all mothers may be peculiarly susceptible to praise and admiration lavished on their offspring, it argues a decline from sane standards if they can tolerate the kind of child-adulation and deference which is common to-day. The fact that now they not only tolerate it, expect it, exact it, but also excel in it themselves, is ominous.
Another point may occur to many readers. Just as all young animals, owing to their fresh bloom, their sleek, unhandseled appearance, their "mint state," unthumbmarked by life, make an irresistible aesthetic appeal, so children in this world of increasing human ugliness and ill-health, rivet attention. The usually clean, sweet, savoury state of their organisms, their beauté du diable, seduces us. They may not be beautiful or free from superficial dirt. But we feel that they are fresh from the anvil unrusted, undented, untarnished.
James Sully is among those who have noticed this fact. He speaks of "the aesthetic charm of the infant which draws us so potently to its side and compels us to watch its words and actions." (Studies of Childhood, London, 1903, p. 2).
The aesthetic pleasure derived from contemplating a young animal should not, however, justify conduct calculated to jeopardize its future character. Unless, therefore, by some compelling motive serving our own interests, we are driven to risk this consummation, it would hardly seem consistent with mature behaviour to allow our pleasure over a young animal's charm to lead us unduly to inflate a child's self-esteem.
Thus, it would seem not unlikely that this compelling motive in ourselves, which to-day inclines us to exaggerations and over-tones in our attitude to the child, was too potent to allow us to reflect on the remote consequences of our excesses a state of affairs clearly calling for investigation.
A further reason for the modern cult of the child which may occur to some readers is really but a variant of the aesthetic motive above. It consists in our weakness, as a nation of manufacturers and factory hands, for raw material.
The taste of the average English man and woman not to mention the American has for four or five generations now been notoriously in favour of the primitive, the inchoate, the crude; of things, in fact, which have escaped the modifying or transformatory influence of Man's mind and hand. This may be due to an ideology which spread through Europe fairly late in the 18th century; but it has perhaps been largely conditioned too by the surfeit of cities and of their artificiality in all highly urbanized countries. More potent still have probably been the harassing complications and complexities of urban life which incline the average adult to seek a restful respite from so-called "civilization" by recourse to the rude, the simple, the immature and the raw.
Rousseau first made articulate this craving for the raw and the rude when he wrote in La Nouvelle Héloise: "on sait déjà ce que j'entends par un beau pays. Jamais pays de plaine, quelque beau qû'il fut, ne parut tel à mes yeux. II me faut des torrents, des rochers, des sapins, des bois noirs, des montagnes, des chemins raboteux à monter et à descendre, des précipices à mes cotés, qui me fassent peur."
Describing what he sought on his walks, he says in his Lettres Nouvelles adressées à Monsieur de Malesherbes: "J'allois . . . . chercher quelque lieu sauvage dans la forêt, quelque lieu désert, où rien ne me montrant la main de l'homme ne m'annonçat la servitude et la domination."
How precisely these lines reveal l'âme moderne, especially as it is found in England!
Now children are the raw material of the world of to-morrow. To be with them is to recover something of the unexacting simplicity of unsophisticated conditions. It means contact with ignorance, in circumstances in which ignorance may be unblushingly displayed. The painfulness of accuracy, felt especially by women, is suspended. One can interest and even enchant by departing from factual knowledge. If one's learning is poor, this is a help rather than a hindrance. One holds one's own an achievement constantly menaced with frustration in adult company. Adaptation is, in fact, easy.
Furthermore and this is most important success with children, as with dogs, is felt in England by both those
To my pained surprise, Robert Hichens exploited this superstition, at least as far as it relates to dogs, in his famous novel Flames. And we have only to listen to the thinly veiled boasts of women in particular about their triumphs in the nurseries of their friends in order to appreciate that it is widely believed if only in connexion with children. Such adult conquerors of the child's heart expect their listeners to feel more esteem for them for having found approval among infants.
Naturally, therefore, where such superstitions prevail, there is a great temptation to try to achieve popularity among the immature, as with dogs, and this probably accounts for the determined struggle, often rising to bitter rivalry, in which the modern adult world (or that portion of it constantly requiring fresh sustenance for its self-esteem) will engage in order to secure the approbation of children, without considering the effects of such behaviour on the children themselves.
Finally, as many readers may have anticipated, there is the factor of power. From Aristotle to Adler, the more trustworthy observers of humanity have maintained that "all men strive after ascendancy." Now one of the easiest ways of gratifying this impulse, at least in our relations with the living, is obviously to associate with those over whom ascendancy is swiftly secured, or, better still, with whom ascendancy is patent from the start. Hence the attraction of children, dogs and the poor.
The lady who is full of good works and an ardent amateur of slumming will usually be the first to feel snubbed if a friend's dog remains indifferent to her advances, or if a child
All these reasons for the adult attitude of deference and adulation towards children, and for forgetting its undesirable. effect on the young, will probably have occurred to my readers.
But I submit that there must be deeper reasons than those enumerated above, and I shall set about investigating them with all my accustomed indifference to popular opinion and, above all, to popularity.
It is the more important to undertake this investigation seeing that the adult attitudes described can have no foundation in any genuine concern about children's best interests and ultimate welfare.
If a deep and passionate concern about children's best interests did animate the population at large, and manifest itself in a manner commensurate with the prevailing adulation of children, how is it that so far we have witnessed no nation-wide movement to stop the crying scandal of children's deaths and grave injuries on our roads a scandal well known to all for close on three decades?
Long before the War for Polish Independence I was agitating to arouse public opinion about this matter. I wrote to most of the leaders of modern society, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Lord Cecil of Chelwood, to try to initiate a powerful movement of protest. But we still see no nation-wide and determined demand for a suppression or even an abatement of the slaughter.
Even before Queen Victoria came to the throne, men like Sir Robert Peel the elder, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley) and Michael Sadler, began successfully to stir the national conscience about the grave injuries and loss of life caused among children by the mines and factory
But although with the advent of the motor-car, the annual toll of young lives soon soared higher than that of our pre-Victorian and early Victorian factory and mining systems, there have appeared no determined leaders and no nation-wide revolt to arrest the routine havoc on our highways.
Year after year I have expected an uprising powerful enough to force the necessary legislation through Parliament. I looked especially to the educated women and mothers of the country to inaugurate it. But apparently our middle-class females, who did not shrink from chaining themselves to railings, suffering death under the hoofs of race-horses, enduring insults, molestation and imprisonment and the agonies of prison hunger-strikes, in order to secure the glamorous but wholly illusory honour of quinquennially dropping a marked paper into a ballot-box not even these women, or their daughters and granddaughters, have felt any equally heroic impulse to save the lives of the thousands upon thousands of children who are now maimed or killed on our roads.
Not even among women M.P.s has there been any concerted and determined action to accomplish this end.
Before the War of Polish Independence (19391945), the toll of children's lives reached an average of 1,500 per annum. Only recently, i.e., on December 9th, 1946, our Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport disclosed that about 120 people were killed on the roads of this country every week, of whom about 20 were children, most of them under the age of five. Did this harrowing announcement provoke a national uprising? Nothing of the sort! It was forgotten by the time the next morning newspaper could be read.
As Sir Ernest Graham Little, M.P. declared at the meeting of the Pedestrian Association in 1944, "if an epidemic of disease were to descend upon the country and result in
Thus, it would seem that, apart from other evidence already indicated above, there are grounds for supposing that the inordinate exaltation of children which has become an. increasingly prominent feature of our national life for over half a century and which, in my opinion, is having very adverse effects both on our children and the population at large, may have little to do with any genuine concern about their good, their best interests, and even their safety. It may be, therefore, that it is to a great extent merely a matter of gratifying the adults who are guilty of it, whose protestations of devotion and deep attachment to children are but a rationalization of deeper and more personal impulses. If this is so, it will repay us to take some trouble to examine this form of adult self-indulgence, to follow ruthlessly whithersoever our inquiry may lead, and in the course of our examination to establish such facts about the nature of children and the best way of training them as will make our world a saner and happier place to live in.
In prosecuting this inquiry I shall not relinquish a fraction of my customary independence of both prevalent opinion and prejudice. But I shall nevertheless so far depart from my usual practice in the writing of a treatise of this kind, as no longer to rest my more scarifying arguments and illustrations on heavy plinths of supporting and confirmatory footnotes.
Hitherto, I have felt it incumbent upon me to adopt this method, because, when a writer like myself makes it his business to provoke salutary reforms by exploring in detail the partie honteuse of a nation's life, he meets, in the majority of his readers, with the kind of resistance and wishful thinking which stubbornly declines to accept, if they are unpalatable,
This time, therefore, I shall expect my kind readers to have already satisfied themselves by a glance at the massive slabs of erudition in my previous works, that I am not in the habit of writing at random, and that I usually know the relevant literature and recognized authorities on the subject I happen to be discussing, and that only when I invite them to swallow a particularly indigestible bolus of fact or reasoning shall I attempt to reveal the identity of their actual tormentor.
Thus, I hope they will take it for granted that I know my Freud, my Adler, my Jung, my Melanie Klein, my Pfister, my Sully, my Anna Freud, my Susan Isaacs, my August Aichorn, my John Watson, et hoc genus omne, on whom the arguments of a book of this sort may at times have to rest. Only when I depart from established authorities, only when I draw wholly on my own experience and observation, shall I be exasperatingly original and open to angry attack, and these departures will be so clearly evident in the text for I am only too anxious to bear the whole onus and ignominy of them that misunderstandings are hardly likely to arise.