We idealize children’s tears. Atticus Finch tells Jem, “Seems that only children weep.” Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club pronounces, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Both characters speak sentimentally of the deep feelings of children, raising up their emotional navigation of the world as an inevitably crumbling ideal. How many other films, television programs, and books are founded on the premise that kids perceive and feel what adults cannot see or forget? We hold a cultural belief that children’s naiveté affords them wisdom—to our detriment. Emotional vulnerability is not a polestar; adulthood does not consign us to coldness. Romanticizing children’s feelings prepares us only to grieve what we’ve lost, rather than building durable beliefs, feelings and understandings that can sustain us through adulthood.
Children intuit fairness and rightness, guided by their gut. (Their sense of right and wrong is not always so infallible as popular culture suggests, but we’ll leave that aside.) But to evaluate justice and morality through personal feelings is to follow a dictatorship of one. Are we to always trust our feelings as right? What if our feelings change or lessen? Outrage is powerful; outrage often fades. Better to construct a deeper, fuller understanding over time. Ethical principles might begin as feelings, but they are built on complexities, reasoning and examples. We need the structures to outlast youth if our world is to improve. Additionally, leaving oneself fully open to pain is not a pathway to moral enlightenment; it’s a recipe for madness and paralysis. It’s true that calluses on feet and hands make feeling more difficult, but it’s not impossible, and the tougher skin makes it possible to keep working. Moral anger is useless if the person feeling it cannot work to make things better.
In a very different vein, we sentimentalize the fresh joy of children. It’s hard not to—set up a sprinkler for a group of kids on a summer day and just watch, or think of the happiness of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. We should take delight in the joy of children. We make a mistake, however, if we pine for that simpler joy. It might be powerful, but it is not more meaningful than adult happiness. The new-toy-from-Santa smile is not more profound than the warm-home-with-family smile. In later childhood, first love is transporting and absolutely absorbing. It feels very different from third love—but the emotional intensity of first love does not make it deeper or richer than the bond of a longtime relationship. And seeing the beauty of a frozen lake or a mountain or a bird does not have to matter less when we’ve seen it before. In no small part, childhood joy depends on novelty. A thing quickens a child’s heart because it’s special, and it’s easy for a thing to be special if it’s new. Familiarity and contemplation can also uncover the rarity of a thing, however, and more meaningfully. Newness can come from nuance, not just brevity. And nuance, thankfully, is infinite.
We can and should remember the feelings of childhood. Those tears and laughs meant something. But if they dry up as we grow, if they appear less readily, if they come from emotional swings of lesser force or rapidity, that does not have to mean we’re dead inside. Childhood feelings must be a starting point from which we grow, not only rising upward but also sending down roots lest the coming winds uproot us. Instinctive outrage and novel joy are superficial for all their strength. We owe it to ourselves, children, and society to cultivate something lasting. An oak outlasts the bloom of a flower, and it’s no less beautiful.