On the Delightfulness of Children

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis offers the example of small children to show that there is such a thing as “objective value,” a goodness that things can have irrespective of whether you are too much a weirdo to appreciate it:

“Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from use whether we can make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children; because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself. – just as a man may have to recognize he is tone deaf or color blind.”

This is a nice passage in so many ways. First, it faithfully records a common aspect of the male psyche, in our fallen state at least: as men, we often get excited about children only after the fact. Lewis did not have small children of his own (he had adolescent stepsons from his late marriage to Joy Gresham), so he, like many other men, just did not see the attraction in small children. This still holds true; I have confirmed it in conversations with other men. We aren’t against the idea of children; we don’t dislike them. We just aren’t radically excited about the idea. It is part of the “package deal” of marriage, but there is no need to dwell on it, no need to pick out outfits for a child who hasn’t been born yet, no need to engage in some sort of strange ritual called a “baby shower” in which you sit in a circle and open up delightfully wrapped packages . . . of diapers.

But then, when the little child is born, when he sleeps on your chest for the first time, and you realize that you and your wife are all he has in the world, something new arises in you. You awake to the objective value of the child. This awareness can manifest itself as a sudden and unexpected proclivity to force people to look at pictures of your baby. You make sure to point out the slightest variation of posture or wakefulness: “Look, his hand is open in that picture.” Or, “He just got done smiling at the dog when I took that.” Or, “We make him wear that outfit every day.” However, this new sense of value can also manifest itself in far more primal ways. One of the most faithful Catholic men I know once explained to me, with a calm and composed demeanor, how easily he could kill anyone who threatened his daughter.



However, the even more amazing thing about that passage from The Abolition of Man is that Lewis is capable of recognizing his lack of a delight in small children as an objective flaw in himself. He knows that the delightfulness of children is a truth–it is simply a truth in which he cannot fully participate. Yet he still can form words for those of us who do have access to this truth.

Why are small children delightful? Why can you be happy just watching a small person toddle around the room in triumph because he managed to grab a cookie? What makes his happiness so infectious?

Perhaps Immanuel Kant, another man with no small children of his own, can point us in the direction of an answer. Consider the following passage from The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

“The sight of a being who is not graced by any touch of a pure and good will but who yet enjoys an uninterrupted prosperity can never delight a rational and impartial spectator.”

Kant’s point is that it is part of the very way you are “wired” as a human being to be sickened by a disjunction between goodness and happiness. The sight of a bad person who is happy is rather disgusting. No right-thinking human should go around saying, “Oh, look at how happy that child molester is. How nice. I love happy people!”

No, as Kant says, as humans we are instead prone to think that “a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of being even worthy of happiness.” Goodness is the natural prerequisite for happiness. We like happy people . . . but only if they are good.

I believe this is part of what we love about children. They are good, and so their happiness seems true and right to us. It is fitting that good little people should be happy. And, on the other hand, this is why it is excruciating to watch children suffer. We cannot bear to watch the good suffer in general. Our rationality rejects it.

This entry was posted in Immanuel Kant, parenthood and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the Delightfulness of Children

  1. sjm says:

    Enjoyed the article and insight you provided, very good!

  2. clairewv says:

    I second that, Steve! Sooo good!

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