Other People's Children

An American philosopher who writes as skillfully as he talks, IRWIN EDMAN has been teaching at Columbia University for thirty years. To his books (Philosopher’s Holiday and Philosopher’s Quest), as to his lectures and table talk, he brings the wise detachment of a bachelor, the urbanity of a sensitive New Yorker, and the penetration of a disciple of George Santayana and John Dewey.

by IRWIN EDMAN

1

CHARLES LAMB’S “Dream Children” has become a classic (ext for wistful bachelors. But I have no need to indulge in reverie to have some of the pleasures, if few of the responsibilities, of parenthood. For many years now I have known its joys vicariously. I have had the special and touching pleasure of being a close friend to other people’s children, very often children of my own close friends or children whose parents were and remained strangers to me.

I realize well enough what an unearned increment of satisfaction I have derived from other people’s children. It has cost me very little financially or physically. Nothing more than a fair amount of books and phonograph records, if I were to count them up, that I have given away on birthdays and at Christmases and graduations. I have not had to suffer through these semi-foster-children’s childhood diseases, or childhood tantrums. I have known them at their most attractive best, for many of them I have come to know first as pupils in my college classes, and they have had a warmheartedness, a responsiveness at once good-humored and deferential that they have not always, I suspect, shown at home.

I have indeed developed without realizing it a feeling that other people’s children are born about sixteen or seventeen years old. For that is the age when I have come to be acquainted with most of them. I am vaguely aware that they had earlier existences, that they were once crying babies, obstreperous brats. Even when I have been a visitor in households where there were attractive small children I have, however well I might get along with them, not really felt they were my friends. I was rather their extracurricular uncle and definitely to them one of their parents’ generation and essentially one of their parents’ allies. There have, it is true, been occasions when I have come to know other people’s children from their earliest days and been astonished suddenly to find standing in my study a young man whom I could not identify with the infant I first remembered.

There is Carl, for instance, whom I definitely recall from the time now twenty-three years ago when, invited to do so, I gingerly took his six-weekold self into my arms. I’ve known Carl ever since and I am happy to say he has grown in grace and truth as compared with the squalling infant who burst into shrieks the moment I picked him up. I have all my adult life been a Hausfreund of Carl’s parents, so I have seen Carl, for the most part on Sunday afternoons, at all the stages of his life.

I think we first really came to know each other because I remember a good deal of children’s verse and like to retell children’s stories. There was a period when Carl made visits somewhat uncomfortable by demanding a story the moment I entered, or insisting on or objecting to the repetition of one I had already told, or rebelling particularly at a repetition with any detail varied. There is the Carl of the raucous twelve-year-old stage when he did not know the difference between a shout and a whisper and despite an earlier enthusiasm for The Wind in the Willows had developed a fantastic addiction to westerns and crime programs on the radio and, for music, variations on “Your Hit Parade.” By the time he was about fourteen or fifteen, the gangling Carl seemed to me to have become a perfect stranger. Only his vitality remained attractive, though the things that caused his large eyes to open wide with admiration were not those with which I had much sympathy or patience. And at that time I think Carl had practically no interest in me at all.

Suddenly, at sixteen, Carl and I became friends again. It seemed gradually to have dawned upon Carl that a bachelor was a rather different category of human being from the married friends of his parents. I seemed younger to him than I was, simply because “older” people were, as a rule, married. I was not in his eyes committed to the conventional prejudices of family men. He had apparently formed the conclusion that I did not regard him simply as part of his family, and certainly not as part of my own. He was clear that I did not think of him as someone to be adjured, scolded, even persuaded.

I noticed when Carl was about sixteen that he began to greet me as if we were buddies, I a rather more lucky buddy than others of his. I had more money to spend and my movements were freer, I could travel and I had traveled. He would drop a remark here and there that indicated that he thought he and I were pleasantly leagued against the absurd demands and injunctions of his own family — their requirements that he do not go out week nights, that he be home by a certain time on week-ends, that he maintain a certain standing in his grades, that he practice on the piano a certain number of hours a day. He would recite these fantastic requirements of his family to me as to one who would merely have to hear such parental insanities to understand how weird and unjust they were.

He knew his father and I were devoted friends. But he would tell me in confidence things about his father that he felt perhaps I had not realized or known: “Dad is really so old-fashioned in his view, he simply doesn’t keep up with modern ideas; he’s another generation.” And then Carl would look at me sheepishly and say, “But then, you are, too, aren’t you? Another generation, I mean. But I guess it’s because you’re not so settled and married; you understand modern improvements.”

Carl went away to college and he’d drop in to see me on his visits back to town on holiday. I would notice that he would pick up books on my study table that had been so much Greek to him only two or three years before. And he would of his own volition raise questions about laissez faire and collectivism, war and peace, and the nature of good and evil itself that I had a hard time realizing issued from his mouth. The war came and the next time I saw Carl he was a naval officer. The peace came. Carl is a veteran and, though young, grave. I realize I think of him no longer as somebody’s child, but as a grown man.

Carl is only one of many. Carl has always been almost pure pleasure to see, for he has, so far as I know, escaped the more feverish crises of adolescence and young manhood or they have left him unscathed.

2

THE visits of other people’s children are not always so sunny. Sometimes another person’s child comes to me in some moment of crisis. This is perhaps less surprising than it seems, that he should come to me rather than to his parents. But it is astonishing the number of things a child will not confess to his parents, quite innocent things, too, such as the fact that he has changed his mind about a profession he has decided to go into. Sometimes the memory of several young men merges into one. And I am not sure whether it was Tom or Frederick who came to tell me he had decided not to go into law (or was it engineering?) as his father had hoped for him or intended because he was a lawyer or engineer. Let’s say for simplicity that it was Tom and that it was a lawyer he had intended to be. Suddenly in his eighteenth year Tom had discovered poetry and literature in general, and while he was by no means sure he wanted to be a man of letters, or that he could be one, he was quite sure he was not cut out by talent or temperament to be a lawyer.

There were several reasons he felt diffident about explaining that to his father, a successful lawyer who had looked forward to his son’s carrying on his practice. I had known the father a long time, and found him a competent if not too imaginative man. Tom found it hard, as I note youngsters often find it hard, to communicate a new-found enthusiasm, especially in art or letters, to a practical parent with practical hopes for his son’s career. Moreover, Tom had awakened not only to poetry but to politics and economics and he found it hard to tell his father, though his father and I were close friends, what he somehow didn’t mind telling me — that he did not think much of the legal profession and that it was a parasitic growth (Tom, though far from being extreme left had picked up the Marxist vocabulary) on the capitalist economy.

A good many youngsters discover what they take to be the facts of life, and not only the sexual facts of life, and they hesitate to tell their parents about them. They feel they would be laughed at at home if they told their burning aesthetic or social zeals. Tom, among others, felt he could tell me these things. After all, I was a teacher and therefore among the underprivileged, he thought. I was a humanist and therefore would not laugh at his poetic enthusiasms. I was a professional mentor and friend of youth and would not mind if he were a little vague about what he wished to do.

“I’ve known your father for years,” I said. “You can talk to him about all these matters. I can and do.”

“I can’t,” said Tom. “Perhaps you can explain these things for me.” I have sometimes been enabled to help explain their sons to their fathers, although often the fathers, as I well knew, did not require much explanation. Hearing the confidences of other people’s children has made me realize how pathetic, in some cases how tragic, it is that parents and children are separated by the barriers of shyness on both sides and mutual illusions of obstinacy or ignorance.

Occasionally I have seen other people’s children in the midst of more intense crises. I have been alarmed sometimes by being expected to be what one of my friends has called an academic baby-sitter. It is perfectly clear that some of the young men I have known have turned to me at moments when they ought to have turned to a psychiatrist, and I have told them so and they have often known it. But there are things that trouble them, not major or upsetting enough to drive them to psychiatry or analysis and yet too urgent and private and delicate to discuss with their own parents. An older friend seems the ideal confidant. For they are aware that their sudden falling in love will at home too likely be dismissed as calf love; their sudden moral or social or even religious enthusiasm will be treated as something humorously incidental to adolescence. Those I have known have turned to me as they have turned, I know, to others, because they could count on not being treated simply as a child in the house and on not having their conflicts and problems dismissed as mere growing pains.

As for myself, I have most enjoyed other people’s children when I have shared with them the companionship of ideas. For on that level, time and age do not matter much to either them or me. They know that I am of their parents’ generation. But they do not feel the need or the occasion, when we are conversing in terms of the mind, of treating me as if they and I were of different vintages. I am for them in a pleasant no-age land between their own and that paleolithic era when their parents were at college. They note that I remember further back than they do and have had a vaguely longer chance to observe life. But Plato is not much further away from them than he is from me. In the realm of art and thought we can speak something like a common contemporary language.

It is true, as Santayana says, that our devotions in the arts come from our first masters and our first loves. The young men and women I know will never feel as my contemporaries and I once felt about Galsworthy and H. G. Wells. I cannot pretend to feel quite the enthusiasm some of them seem to have about abstract art or melodyless music, or hard-boiled, lusterless prose. But one of the things other people’s children do for me is to remind me that the world of creativeness and freshness did not end a generation ago. One of the things I seem to do for them is to remind them that the world of originality and directness did not begin the day they began to discover the world.

For myself as for others who are interested in other people’s children, the experience of knowing and being interested in them is itself, in addition to being a delight, a peculiar discipline for the emotions. I can only imagine from the observation of an outsider the possessiveness in parental love. I, too, have become attached to the children of other people by bonds of affection, and often deeply concerned for their future. But I no more feel a special possessiveness about them than one feels about the birds, never the same twice, that turn up in the spring. The birds leave in the fall, and to a warmer South.

Other people’s children pass out of one’s life, too. For a time some of them retain and show evidences of retaining a special affection for one who was perhaps the first adult to take them seriously as adults. They “come back” as to a place they had once known in childhood, as to a landmark in their past. But their social world enlarges, soon they are grown-up themselves and know many other adults. The older friend becomes one among many personal memories for them, notes in their biography. But if it is foolish of parents to demand filial piety from their own children, it is certainly absurd for any outsider to expect it. One learns to enjoy them for the promise and charm and hope they embody so freshly while one knows them, and to further as best one can, while they are still within one’s orbit, what is best in them.