It is obvious that our physical skills decline with age, and although it is an unpopular idea, there is incontrovertible evidence that our intellects also begin to become less alert, flexible and reliable after the age of about twenty-five. Although there is no reason to suppose that our moral sensitivity should be exempt from this general decline, the notion that children might be morally superior to their elders arouses an indignation that is sometimes close to fury.
Memories of moral awareness
Basic moral assumptions [are hampered by] adult interference. I remember my own desperate determination always to tell the truth, and my reluctance to humiliate any adult by beating them in a game. These attitudes resulted in some curious behaviour; I once reported myself for talking in the dormitory after lights out, and when playing cards with my mother I had sometimes to face the terrible dilemma of whether to win, or to cheat – which was another despicable action – in order to avoid winning.
As I write these words I find it necessary to adopt a mocking tone as a form of self-defence. If I were writing of the time I ran away, or the times when my friends and I hid so that they could not be taken home, or the times when I made the adults caring for me cry, then I would not feel the same anxiety about being taken for an imbecile.
I committed another act of shameful benevolence at school at the age of nine, when we were each supposed to be checking our neighbour’s answers to some test; instead of putting ticks by the right answers and crosses by the wrong ones, I corrected his mistakes and ticked them all.
I wept when I read Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, particularly “The Nightingale and the Rose” and “The Happy Prince” because the birds suffered as a result of their efforts to do good.
My mother had a book of children’s songs in which the story of the Babes in the Wood had been blacked out with thick lines of ink because when she sang it to us, my sister and I had been so distressed. I do not remember the occasion of the singing, but I remember the blacked-out verses and the explanation. It is extremely difficult to confess to virtue. It is not surprising that most people writing of their own lives prefer to make themselves out to be hard.
I still remember my distress over the Oscar Wilde stories, and it was of quite a different order to the deepest reactions to works of art that I have had more recently. In the last ten years or so I have been moved to tears by Othello, and, rather surprisingly, by Candida, but the experiences were trivial compared with my childhood grief. We train ourselves to withstand emotion. Part of growing up is learning not to cry over fairy-tales, but in learning not to care too much about the fate of characters in fiction we diminish its power to move us. What is worse is that we also learn a certain indifference to the sufferings of real people.
I quote my own comparatively trivial memories of moral dilemmas in the hope of prompting similar memories in the reader.
Children are aware of the differences between their own moral principles and those of the adults around them. It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand, and who made no effort to understand mine, wrote Maya Angelou of herself at the age of eight.
Gwen Raverat, in her secure middle-class home, had the same old quandary too:
Prayer was not the only idea of the grown-ups that seemed to me wrong in itself. They had a complete set of values for Badness and Goodness, which I will call System A; and this only partly coincided with my own private set of values, System B. I was always troubled by the confusion of trying to reconcile the two incompatible codes. System A and System B overlapped and agreed in disapproving of dishonesty, cruelty and cowardliness; but otherwise they had little in common. . . Obedience, though important in System A, had no place at all in System B.
In Sheila and Celia Kitzinger’s book Talking with Children about Things that Matter, there are accounts of children’s moral actions from an adult point of view. The behaviour of children who are dying in hospital is often extremely moving.
According to another doctor (Edmund Pellegrino) many children ask their doctor whether they are dying long before their parents consider telling them, and the child’s first concern is, ironically, often to conceal this from her parents, “so as not to worry them” and “because I don’t want to be a nuisance.” Many children express concern about the time and money spent on them, and feel guilty and ashamed about the grief they are causing their parents. They hope that by concealing the fact that they are dying from them they can spare them some grief.
This reversal of the adult view of the situation, in which it is the child that has to be protected, shows how adults often underestimate their own children, and how much more rewarding their relationship could be if they were able to appreciate their children as they really are.
I hope I have given enough examples to show that children often set themselves extraordinarily high standards. The usual adult response to a child’s high moral demands is illustrated in this passage by Osbert Sitwell, about his sister Edith.
As she grew older, instead of allowing her to find her own range, in the same manner that she had taught herself to read, they tried to force her to comply to their own measurements. Her seriousness, and an attitude of criticism which gradually developed in her concerning current class beliefs (such as that the poor deserved to be poor, the rich, rich, or that sport was of more value to life than art) terrified my mother.
Even if it is used slightly facetiously, “terrified” is an extraordinarily strong word in this context. The other quotations I have used described children’s attitudes; this is a description of an adult reaction. Why should an adult be terrified by a child’s moral views? If she is wrong, surely the child can simply be corrected.
The source of terror for the Sitwells’ mother, was, I suggest, that she knew Edith was right. She was not terrified for Edith’s sake, she was terrified that she herself might be obliged to reject the whole structure of her social world. In order to grow up an acceptable member of this society, the child would have to abandon many of her accurate moral perceptions.
Talking with Children about Things that Matter gives another example of a way in which a child’s moral concern can outmatch an adult’s.
In it a woman said that 5-year-old Stephanie “cried and cried about the starving babies in Ethiopia – she was inconsolable for a while, until I thought to suggest helping by sending her pocket money, and she has done this for some weeks now.” Wanting to help by giving toys or money is a common response even in these very young children.
We adults, who are capable of so much more, may perhaps give toys or money, but we have schooled ourselves to be sufficiently indifferent to avoid the inconvenience of continual tears.