Letter: Look Out Kid, It’s Something You Did

Dear Rail,

In your May/June issue, Jill Clateman, in an essay titled “Marx On the Playground,” above her sons’ greedy ways and what they boded for the visions of a certain famous radical philosopher. That thinker needs no defending, but maybe the kids deserve a token objection to sentences like these:

Young children, in their sweet and irreproachable way, care nothing about their community or fellow man. They are wired for one thing, self-gratification ­—the satisfaction of their every physical and emotional need.…Marx said nothing about parenting, nor about how young children’s inability to share fit into his vision of a communist society —a society where people are not driven by material self-gratification and don’t draw blood over the last gummy bear.

It’s all such nonsense I hardly know where to start. Kids care nothing about community? But they quite plainly do care: they like companionship, they are sociable —and companionability and sociability are simply experienced community. They are wired for self-gratification? Children are not “wired” for anything at all, and that worn-out meta-phor should be forever banned. But yes, they try to satisfy theur every need —come to think of it, doesn’t the whole human species? As to small children’s alleged inability to share, the first mother I questioned about this disagreed immediately. (Ms. Clateman also observed that “infants cry for no reason;” but Germaine Greer has written that, while living among the poor of southern Italy, she never heard a child cry —except from pain.) It is not implausible the toddlers in New York City’s playgrounds are actually different than children elsewhere: we simply don’t know how soon they pick up on the energy of the societies and homes in which they live. For all we know, they begin to absorb it while in the womb.

Where this essay really fell short was its suggestion that children’s drive for gratification is some kind of liability. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely their imperious demand for happiness —which is what self-gratification is all about —that is children’s greatest strength. Little kids know what they want: it is a source of enormous power, one we can hardly overstate. We perplexed adults are not always so sure what we’re after; we long ago learned to forget our deepest wishes. As Wordsworth wrote in a famous poem, “Shades of the prison house begin to close/upon the growing boy.” Small children, however, are not out of touch with themselves, and surely this is one reason they have gotten such good press from the sages and poets —think also of Blake, Emerson, and certain sayings of Jesus Christ. Children are the true royalty: imperious, capricious, passionate, and utterly determined not to be denied happiness. And, “we are only happy,” as Herbert Read has written, “so long as our life expands in ever widening circles from the upward gush of out earliest impulses.”

Children’s demand for gratification is something to celebrate; it means that they are neither little angels nor savages, but simply healthy lively creatures. To nurture this demand is to lay the foundations of their future happiness, and this is in itself a subversive act. I am not saying, of course, that every childish whim should be indulged. Nurture partly involves showing children how gratifying social play can be; Marx believed, contrary to the way he’s been portrayed, that we are guided by self-interest that can only be satisfied in society. In his own words, “Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.” I don’t see how anyone who cares about self-realization can disagree. Nurturing children, then, means among other things validating their impulses, teaching them how to live them out intelligently, fruitfully, and without hurting themselves or others. Incidentally, nurturing also means ignoring a lot of needlessly repressive conventional morality and the requirements of civilized decorum.

If things are as bad as Ms. Clateman suggests, it’s nothing short of miraculous that humanity has managed to cooperate in all the vast enterprises that it has. If children can be taught to reverse so thoroughly tendencies that are supposed to be innate, you’d think that they can be taught just about anything; they could even be taught to be —heaven help us —communists! If anything, children learn the cooperation lesson too well, at the expense of other impulses: so they grow up to be overly tame adults and end up with the “government they deserve,” having cooperated with every mediocre opportunist who came along. In other words, the consequences of gloomy and cynical estimates of children’s nature, of saying things like “young children care nothing about community,” is usually to aid and abet the Bushes and Giulianis —or the parties of Order and the tin-pot dictators —for if kids are inherently self-centered, then by God we must tame the little savages, mustn’t we? This overt message of the moralistic crowd has also been the thrust of civilization. And that is one reason why civilization is in such a sorry state.

—Chester Layman

            Brooklyn, NY

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