The Joy of Children
We have all witnessed adults reacting to children. We smile when seeing them, laugh at their antics, cheer their first word or step. We fall captive to their wide eyes and beaming faces.
Witness the hullabaloo when a baby is born and how much we cherish the visits of a granddaughter or nephew. And, of course, there are the countless adults eager to have children of their own. So many of us enjoy children.
Many reasons are given to explain this phenomenon. Kids are beautiful. They're funny. They're innocent. They're so honest. They're so open. And, of course, the Sally Field answer: they like me – they really like me.
I think there is a deeper reason. Some years ago, when I watched my three-year-old daughter interact with the world, I got the feeling that she was good. I felt the same way when I watched other little kids. My daughter was too young to have developed any real sense of ethics or to have taken any actions that I could applaud as morally significant. Yet I kept feeling that she was good.
In what sense was my daughter good?
In her spirit – that child spirit that most young kids exude. It was the way my daughter's mind faced the world. She was purposeful, exploring reality as if it were a fascinating science project. She was curious, wanting to understand everything, always excited to learn. It was the way she was self-directed and fully focused when studying a friend's piano or dog. The way she struggled to be efficacious in new skills like cooking or shopping. The leitmotif of children could be my daughter's constant demand: "Let me do it!"
Vital to the child spirit is how children view life innocently. Little kids generally expect good things to happen, and when good things do happen, they react with unclouded joy. And kids have honest relationships. We have all experienced some tot telling us that we are bald, fat, silly, or wonderful. Kids express their thoughts not to be mean or ingratiating, but just to state facts.
The best description I've read of the child spirit was by novelist Ayn Rand, describing one of her adult fictional heroes: he had a "face without pain or fear or guilt."
In short, the keynote of children is their benevolence. Children express in their selves and actions that the human mind is efficacious and that the world is a place where success and happiness are natural and normal.
Compare this face and life attitude to that of many adults today. "Grown-ups" are too often hurt, fearful, and guilty. And they're often anxious and bitter, believing that their minds can't deal with life, that failure is the norm, and that misfortune is to be expected. Such adults are implicitly, and some even explicitly, telling children, "Wait 'til you grow up and see the real world."
Many children, sadly, believe them. As many children age, they give up thinking for themselves and lose their benevolent premises or are taught by adults to replace them with more malevolent ideas. For instance, a child might be taught that people are incomprehensible and that the world is a dangerous place.
Thus, tots – who have the natural, benevolent, correct relationship with the world – learn to be fearful, unconfident, and despondent. Spirited children become dispirited adults.
The fact that many children are benevolent and that too many adults are not leads us to the deeper answer of why so many adults find joy in children.
Many people feel enormous pleasure when experiencing a beautiful work of art. They feel that such a work shows the world as benevolent and life as good. In a similar way, adults need to experience other humans they feel are good and right with the world – someone confident, purposeful, cheery. The deeper reason why we enjoy children is because in their being and actions, they embody the benevolent sense of life. Children are humans as we could be and should be – in spirit. Children are an affirmation of life that is good for adults to experience.
We also love children because they remind us of ourselves at a time when many of us were more benevolent – that is, when we were children.
To adults, children are therefore a manifestation of humans at their best psychologically and a mirror or echo of what too often have been their own best selves.
The need for many of us to see human right-mindedness and benevolence is greater and harder today because of the state of the culture. Although there are many positive things in today's world, especially science, technology, and medical and communication advances, our culture, especially as the now omnipresent media depicts it, is one too often of anti-heroes, celebrities famous for being famous, twerking pop stars, instantly gratifying social media and video games, economic malaise, and ugly news headlines. Today, there seem to be fewer public figures whom we can contemplate and enjoy. Jackie Robinson and Neil Armstrong, where are you? And today there is little if any new serious art that dramatizes characters of great virtue and benevolence. We no longer create the Jean Valjeans, the Dagny Taggarts, the Atticus Finches, the Virgil Tibbses.
Because of this cultural state, adults have a greater need to interact with children and experience their benevolence. To further preserve their benevolent sense of life, adults also need to stay true to the premises that underlie benevolence. When adults live this philosophy and teach it explicitly to children, they help them greatly. It is not easy for a child to retain his implicit benevolent premises and make them explicit and strong against the bad luck that can happen in life, the innocent mistakes that any child can make, and the bad ideas promoted by many adults and institutions. But adults – whether they are parents, teachers, pop stars, Hollywood producers, or intellectuals – are crucial to teaching children to learn or keep benevolent ideas. Then our children will have a chance of retaining their child spirit.
In helping children retain their benevolence, adults will be helping themselves. As noted, adults who enjoy children gain spiritual fuel from them. Ironically, the child of the man has become the spiritual keeper of the man. Adults who reach out to a child reach out to touch the face of life.
Scott A. McConnell is a writer/producer/interviewer in Los Angeles and Melbourne (Australia) and the father of a 12-year-old.