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Self-Knowledge • Mood

In Praise of the Melancholy Child

It’s an axiom of modern parenting that a good childhood should, first and foremost, be a happy childhood. This means that from the start, there should be smiles. No sooner has a baby found out how to control its own mouth than it should be up for games of peekaboo. Visitors who pick it up and give it a friendly cuddle expect to be rewarded with at least a few bouts of giggling. At nursery, small children who have just been dropped off by their parents for the day will be asked to sing, clap their hands and dance in unison in celebration of jolly themes, many related to farmyard animals – and may quickly be singled out as unusual if they don’t manage a degree of ardour that would put a North Korean festival organiser to shame. Then there are the birthdays, key occasions to celebrate the joys of being alive, when parents and relatives strain every sinew to ensure that the child will display appropriate evidence of delight. The jollity extends to the visual atmosphere of childhood: primary colours, bold brushstrokes, cartoonish bright faces – and an absence of charcoal greys or muted greens. To cap the impression, advertising is certain that any child fit to appear on a screen or a billboard must be an exuberant one, touched to the core by the discovery of a new kind of corn-syrup infused cereal or trans-fat rich mid morning snack.

But all this jolliness leaves aside a crucial truth that adults wilfully ignore when it comes to children: that every life, even a very good one, is filled with challenges that warrant regret, anxiety, grief and feelings of loss. Sadness is not an anomaly, it’s an apt and appropriate response to the tragedy of  being alive. One shouldn’t have to worry that someone is sad, one would need to be alarmed if they didn’t know how to be so rather often.

It’s sometimes suggested that childhood should be ‘easier’ than adulthood, and therefore a lot sunnier, because children do not yet have to pay a mortgage or go to the office. But this is to forget how much small people have on their plate from the very start. First comes the definitive loss of one’s first home, the womb and its incomparable convenience and cosiness. Then a baby has to adjust to the incessant frustrations of the early weeks and months in a brightly lit harsh world: suffering feelings of wet and cold without any understanding of why or how, a sore scalp, dry skin, a burp that will not come, a stricken sense of being uncomfortably bloated and full, a colon that does not yet properly function, an irritating ray of sunshine that is blinding one but that no one else has spotted, an inability to do anything but scream when it might want to share so many nuanced and subtle thoughts, long nights when one feels bereft of touch and lies marooned and helpless for what can feel like a century, wailing one’s lungs out from panic and finally falling asleep in sobs of uncontained distress at one’s apparently definitive abandonment. In the day come spoons full of unfamiliar and often distasteful foods, then constant bouts of socialising with other confusing babies one is meant to find interesting. At all times, the parents one adores are in danger of finding better things to do: maddeningly, they seem to have friends of their own that they love to see, they might even have another child, a source of distress no less great than is an affair in an adult relationship. A child might be historically-speaking in a privileged position, there might not be a war or a food shortage. But still, there are so many toys one can’t have, car journeys that don’t end, drums and cymbals one’s meant to love hitting, endless school with its strange smells and very bizarre teachers, the meanness of other children, the arguments of one’s parents, the siblings one fears or resents… And to think that on top of all this, one would be expected to smile.

A good childhood isn’t a cheery one, it’s one where a young person is allowed to feel real, which is a far greater and more useful achievement. This might mean that one regularly has a chance to have a good cry and lose all hope. Or that one can sit and look at the rain fall and be deeply regretful and bleak. Or that one can refuse to put one’s hands together and clap – given that Mummy won’t be back for another five hours. 

Applying pressure on someone to be content when there isn’t an authentic reason to be so isn’t kindness. It’s a form of well-meaning coercion which forces a child to lose connection with their own reality and to distance themselves from an honest relationship with who they actually happen to be. True care for a child should mean allowing them to have, not so much positive feelings as their own feelings – which might include some giggling and heartfelt delight, but could also involve resentment, moroseness, hopelessness, sorrow and dejection – all profoundly legitimate responses to the world as it is. One shouldn’t worry about an occasionally sad child; one would have to worry about a child who had been given no other option than to smile.

The most smile-sensitive parents in the history of humanity were those of an Indian prince called Siddhārtha Gautama, known to us now as the Buddha, who was born in the 5th century BC near India’s border with Nepal. Legend tells us that the Buddha’s parents decided that his childhood should be entirely happy: all references to sadness or grief were banished and the prince was surrounded only by evidence of happiness and health, bountifulness and beauty. But the Buddha sensed that he was being shielded from important truths and, stifled by the denial, eventually slipped out from the palace to discover what the world was actually like. His response made its way into the philosophy of Buddhism, which reminds us in categorical terms – in its first and most important tenet – that ‘life is suffering’. Paradoxically, Buddhism is a hugely joyful creed, but the joy isn’t of the sentimental kind that denies that pain exists, it’s the joy that springs forth with particular vigour once one has a proper measure of how difficult things really are; it’s the determined joy of those who have squared up to misery and are therefore – at moments – all the more alive to the converse.

A place for sadness is especially key in adolescence, when a child not only has an unparalleled range of issues to deal with, but might also be coming under particular pressure not to be morose. What allows parents to tolerate their children’s sadness is, ultimately, a proper confrontation with their own sources of grief. They may need to acknowledge, first to themselves, and then the wider family, how much they regret and are sometimes at sea, how little they understand and how vulnerable they can feel. Strangely, the result won’t be to drag the other members of the family down, it will be to give children vital role-models for how to accept their own darker emotions and respond to them without shame or fear. The kindest thing a parent might do for a child is to admit that feelings of sadness and confusion lie at the heart of a good enough and responsible adult life. We should never, like the kindly Gautamas, be tempted to educate our children to expect a world that does not exist.

Put another way, the happiest families are those that know how to be – when the situation demands it – melancholy. Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of all experience. Melancholy springs from a rightful awareness of the tragic structure of our lives. We can, in melancholy states, understand without fury or sentimentality, that understanding other people is hard, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. The dominant cheery tone of many familial relationships falsely presumes that the best way to please others must be to present ourselves in a vibrant mood, when in fact, admission of our despair, and of the number of moments when we wonder if it can really be worth it, are key tools in the process of kindness properly re-imagined. The jollying parent is driven by a compulsion to impose a mood which has no basis in reality. The jollier doesn’t just want the child to be happy; it can’t tolerate the idea it might be sad – so unexplored, unresolved and potentially overwhelming are their own feelings of disappointment. Childhood is necessarily full of sadness (as adulthood must be too), which means we must perpetually be granted permission to have periods of mourning: for a broken toy, the grey sky on a Sunday afternoon or perhaps the lingering sadness we can see in our parents’s eyes. The good carer needs to remember how much of life deserves solemn and mournful states – and how much love we will feel for those who don’t feel aggressively compelled to deny our tears. The more melancholy a family can be, the less its individual members need to be persecuted by their own failures, lost illusions and regrets.

Across history, the articulation of melancholy attitudes in works of art has provided us with relief from a sense of loneliness and persecution. Among others, Pascal, Keats, Shelley, Schopenhauer and Leonard Cohen have been able to reassure us of the normalcy of our states of sadness. It’s a pity that so few works of art have allowed room for the melancholy child.

But the few examples that exist show us how valuable such art could be – demonstrating that children don’t always have to be smiling or celebrating, but can also be distant, lost in their thoughts, and sizing up the world for the pains it will deliver them.

It isn’t an insult to us or a sign that we have failed our children if we sometimes find them in their rooms disconsolate and in tears. It could be a sign that we have been brave enough to allow them to understand life on its own terms.

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