On the Sweetness of Children
If there is one generalisation we can hazard around children, it is that they come across – on a good day at least – as markedly ‘sweet’. Their attitudes, mannerisms, games, smiles and ways of curling up in bed at night all point in this direction. Though the idea of sweetness might seem to lie at the more trite or sentimental end of childhood, the term captures a range of important values that might fruitfully be investigated and untangled; we should dare to ask why childhood sweetness sometimes touches us so much, especially at this point in history – and how an encounter with sweetness could help us to reconsider neglected aspects of our own psyches.
We can start in Washington D.C. in 1961, in the Department of Justice, in the office of Robert F. Kennedy, the US Attorney General. Alongside pictures of the navy from the government’s art collection, Bobby Kennedy chose to hang a selection of drawings made by his then young children. They showed docile animals, vast flowers, implausible spaceships and the antics of a gang of irreverent siblings.
For almost all of human history, it would have been unthinkable for anyone laying claim to any sort of decorum or sanity to pin a picture by a six-year-old on the walls of their office or throne room.
But the art that people are drawn to – at an individual and collective level – reflects much about what is missing from their lives. The particular register of emotions we’re sensitive to in the visual sphere hints at what we long for, but don’t reliably have a connection to, in ourselves. In the nineteenth century, as Britain rapidly industrialised and much of the population moved into cities, there was an explosion of interest in paintings of rural scenes – especially depictions of shepherds, cottages and fields grazed by peaceful cattle. People living in crowded, polluted and busy streets wanted to hang on their walls evocations of qualities they no longer so securely possessed in their souls.
Likewise, as northern Europe became ever more regimented and morally less permissive over the century, so too people felt drawn to a kind of art that depicted economically undeveloped societies, especially those of the Middle East, which seemed redolent of an ‘exoticism’ and sensual enchantment no longer available in Berlin or London.
The logic guiding Kennedy’s aesthetic interest was identical. The job of Attorney General had brought with it exceptional responsibilities and obligations: days of meetings where extreme discipline had to be maintained, where enormously consequential decisions were taken – and where no one would especially have appreciated small talk or vulnerable banter. No wonder that Kennedy might have longed for his eye occasionally to encounter a very different atmosphere in which there was room for spontaneity, honesty and idealism. Like many art lovers, Kennedy was seeking in pictures some of what was no longer so available in his life.
Kennedy was typical of his time. The modern age has become especially interested in children, in their vivacity, lack of guile, energy and defencelessness, qualities that we group together under the term ‘sweet’. What seems to touch us in children are elements that are now particularly under threat in adult lives and yet which we unconsciously recognise as precious to our sense of balance and psychological wholeness. The ‘sweet’ is a vital part of ourselves currently in exile.
Societies grow sensitive to things that they are missing. We live in a world of highly complex technology, extreme precision in science, massive bureaucracies, insecurity and intense meritocratic competition. To survive with any degree of success in these conditions, we have to be uncommonly controlled, forward-thinking, reasonable and cautious creatures. And yet it can be hard to see the nature of our burdens. It is rare to acknowledge head on that we might need more flights of fancy, more innocent trust, more gleeful disregard of expectations… we simply find it moving – in fact sweet – to encounter such things in symbolic forms in the ways of children. By decoding children’s sweetness, we have an opportunity to get to know our own needs. These small people are, in their own way, bearers of compact manifestos for some of what we urgently need in the anxious, compromised conditions of modernity.
By examining the ‘sweet’ behaviour of children, we stand to be reminded of virtues we honour in humans large and small – and might aspire to have more of throughout our adult years.
Children are – as we know – singularly honest about their feelings and though we do a good show of looking appalled by certain instances of their candour, we secretly cheer them on for their forthrightness. They tell the self-important guest that he has a very boring face and the pretentious restaurant that their apparently healthy salads are a grim mush. They declare the prestigious film overrated and tick off their neighbour for not playing enough with their daughter. They aren’t interested in having to seem kinder than they are: ‘No mine,’ they will say in their very early years with admirable abruptness when another child comes to have a play with their firetruck – all part of the work of reminding us of a raft of important feelings that we have forgotten how to register and unfairly sacrificed on the altar of propriety.
We tell them, again and again, that the books belong on the shelves, but what can that matter when it is frankly so interesting to pile them up on the floor or knock them down and hear them tumble with a fascinating thunderclap into a dust-releasing heap. Our lives would be nothing if we had not learnt the art of discipline but nor are they properly worth enduring if we do not sometimes remember the importance of placing our own self-focused pleasures at the center of our actions.
Children are full of plans: what should be taught at school, what films should be about, how bedtime should happen, how to colonise the Andromeda galaxy, the best way to deal with pigeon droppings, how to live in a cupboard on almost no money – and a thousand other utopian proposals besides. A five-year-old might over supper muse on how it would be nice to have a career that combined being an astronaut with being a chef for the blind; his sister might plan to keep an elephant in the garden; a boy might say he’d like to marry his elder brother, another that he wanted to invent a machine that would allow him to reverse time. Rather than dismissing these ideas as idiotic or impractical, we may be enchanted; our pleasure is a sign that we have grown painfully short of the freedom to imagine the better world we privately long for and still somewhere believe in.
The questions come thick and fast: Why is the sea salty? How did the earth begin? What would an orang utang look like if you shaved its whole body? There is nothing remotely uninteresting about such enquiries; they get a bad reputation only because of the poor and hasty way in which they are often answered. The questions of children might frustrate us; but they at the same time hint at how clever we could be if only we knew how to keep probing at reality with innocent determination.
Children upset the customary hierarchy of importance. We buy them an expensive toy, and they far prefer the box than its contents. They spend an hour examining a brick wall or a zip. They cannot get enough of trying out the light switch. They bang on a bucket and don’t tire of the resonance. They don’t mind a bit of repetition, everything is anyway so wondrous. That’s why we should read the same book fifteen times over, there is always something new to enjoy in it. They see the funny side of small things that we have long forgotten to notice, for example, that we have ears, and how properly incongruous and therefore comedic it would be if we tried to put a cheese cracker or two inside them.
They are on hand to remind us of the wondrousness of so much that we have taken for granted. They don’t think there’s anything at all normal about taking an aeroplane or using a nutcracker. In the early modern period, our ancestors remembered what fascinating mechanical objects locks and keys could be. That’s why, aside from ensuring their functionality, they tended to add on some pretty decoration to signal their delight.
Small children, unlike their parents, aren’t in any danger of forgetting the magical beauty of keys. That’s why it can feel so important to suck the front door one repeatedly and see what might happen if one shoved the back garden one into the butter to study its imprint. Children are the secret aesthetes of the everyday.
The traditional assumption in drawing is that being ‘good’ means paying precise attention to what is in front of us. The artist must learn how to observe the world faithfully, and in order to do so, must put a lot of themselves to one side. However, when children draw, they tend to be a great deal more interested in what they feel than in what they see. Rather than being painstaking or faithful to the objective facts, children let us know about the emotions they experienced on seeing a duck or their teacher, their little brother or the first flowers of spring.
If it is a faithful graphic representation of reality we are after, we can take a photograph; but if we seek – and it can be more interesting to do so – a portrait of our inner lives as they come into contact with the external world, then we should revere the raw and wonky masterpieces of the under-fives.
We know we can get hurt in love – and that is why we are so coy and so reserved, but no such inhibitions attend small children. They will tell us, with reckless honesty, that their love for us is as deep as the Mariana trench and as wide as the circumference of Jupiter. They swear that we are the best mummy or daddy in the world, which doesn’t mean that they won’t be very fed up with us again in a minute – but why not share the momentary enthusiasm without compunction or caution? They haven’t, like us, grown to expect trouble from every direction. They haven’t learnt the dangers of trust – or the safety of cynicism. Our tears at their declarations remind us of how much we long to recover faith in one another.
It can be moving simply to see the clothes of young children: the impossibly little shoes, socks, jackets, or knitted jumpers, so like our own but many magnitudes smaller… The feeling can be more powerful still if these clothes belonged to a long-disappeared young person – a child in a century far from our own.
Part of what we may be moved by is a recognition of how small a child is in relation to the obstacles it faces. It must encounter frustration and confusion, sorrow and boredom while no taller than a chair, and with fingers no larger than twigs. Yet this physical vulnerability is sometimes accompanied by bold and brave declarations on their part: they offer to fight with any burglars that might appear or to carry granny back home if she were too tired; they tell us if that if the money were to run out, they would go out and start a business or that they would piece us back together again if we died. When they are just learning to speak and might be struggling to open a door, they might bat away an offer of help with a stoic: ‘No me do it myself.’
We adults must appear no less incongruous in the face of what we have to deal with – if viewed through a telescope from another planet. We too make daring stands against insuperable forces, our whole lives are gambles against impossible odds and almost certain defeats – which we nevertheless largely refuse to contemplate or be worn down by. We call children sweet in the way they attack their challenges, but sweet is how we must appear in the eyes of the gods, contemplating the arduous struggles of our lilliputian species, building cities and writing books, putting up hospitals and running elections, buoyed by ambitions but destined to oblivion.
The interplay between bravery and suffering is never more apparent than in children who are sick or die before adulthood. If we were really focused on the poignancy of the human condition, we might cry without end at the sight of Alfred Owens, aged 10 months, who died in early March 1868 – and whose serious and determined expression bears testimony to a courage that was no match for the unjust horrors he faced.
There is nothing petty or sentimental about the sweetness we locate in children. Adults too are as sweet, if we only we knew how to detect the quality in them. It is in many ways a sign of progress that we have gradually learnt to see the sweetness in children; it will be further progress still when we more reliably learn to see the sweetness in one another.