Children Are More Sagacious Than You Think
As parents, we are assailed by injunctions to protect our children, to engage with them creatively, athletically and intellectually, to feed them nutritious food and make them floss their teeth. Even when not being given direct advice, we listen out, comparing ourselves with others, wondering what we’re getting right or wrong. Usually, I mind the interference, but during the first COVID-19 lockdown I minded it even more when the voices of teachers and other parents stopped. I found that I didn’t want to be left to look after my children without the input of others, so I listened even harder to guides and authorities online, and on the airwaves, all of whom seemed to be doubling down on their sense that they alone had the right vision of childcare ready to dispense. And so, a few weeks into ‘home schooling’ – a wildly optimistic description of the 10-minute chunks of learning I could persuade my son to do without formal, primary school education structures to aid us – I found myself turning to the search engine instead.
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Looking for companionship more than advice, I typed ‘How to make my child…’ I ignored the more extravagant options eagerly thrown my way – ‘How to make my child a genius’, ‘How to make my child successful in life’ – in favor of a simple request: ‘How to make my child do homework’. I was skeptical about internet advice – surely, we all are – but glad to feel that others had confronted this recalcitrance too. Here were the voices I had missed, just waiting for me to dismiss them and continue to fail in my own way: ‘In this article, I will share the secret on motivating your child to not only do homework but also love homework.’ The secret, according to that particular website, is to ‘intervene early, like in kindergarten or even before kindergarten.’ Don’t stand back and let them get on with it. Do the homework with the child! – ‘parental involvement is associated with better school performance.’
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This wasn’t going to sustain me for long. But as one day followed another, bringing a soundscape of the Oxfordshire countryside – birdsong, lawnmowers, occasional bursts of shouting from within our house – I was still listening intently for the absent voices. And then one came crashing in, insouciant, peppy, completely different in tone from the other childcare advisors I had read, yet determined to give me childcare advice. I was researching a book about D H Lawrence, and it had turned out that, as well as seeing himself as a religious prophet and a priest of sex, he saw himself as a guide to child-rearing.
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‘Oh, parents,’ Lawrence exhorts us in his short, consciously provocative polemic Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), ‘see that your children get their dinners and clean sheets, but don’t love them. Don’t love them one single grain, and don’t let anybody else love them. Give them their dinners and leave them alone. You’ve already loved them to perdition. Now leave them alone, to find their own way out.’
The book I was writing put Lawrence in urgent dialogue with my own life and times, though I wasn’t using him as a guru, and I was certainly not here for self-help. Lawrence is too turbulent, too meteoric for that. Instead, Lawrence was both stimulus and provocation. There was an emancipatory quality in reading him, because he never thought about what was expected of him, but examined his own thoughts by a bright, exacting light and took seriously what it might mean to think the opposite. Through all this was his deep immersion in the lives of others: his novelistic ability to observe everyone, from children to animals, closely and vividly, and to see the world as they might.
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Lawrence’s philosophy of parenthood was based on just-about-benign neglect. He thought we’d become too self-conscious, and that we inflicted self-consciousness on our children by loving them too much. In the essay ‘Education of the People’, written in 1918 and published posthumously, he advised that ‘babies should invariably be taken away from their modern mothers and given … to rather stupid fat women who can’t be bothered with them.’
He’s not saying we shouldn’t actually love our children, more that we shouldn’t inflict our love on them.
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It’s tempting to dismiss Lawrence’s ideas about child-rearing, just as we dismiss his ideas about democracy (he hated it) and race (in his 1925 essay ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’, he signed up to an idea of racial hierarchy). I don’t think there can be any contemporary readers who admire everything that Lawrence wrote, and I find that it’s often necessary to separate the complex wisdom of the novels from the more glibly single-minded pushiness of the essays. So often, Lawrence used his essays to drive thoughts to their comic extreme, but I think there was value in this. He was a writer who allowed himself to play with ideas, to hold two thoughts in his head at once, to permit every intellectual position to coexist with its opposite. I’ve found this helpful in our own divided age, where it feels increasingly less possible to admit to ambivalence and contradiction. When it comes to parental love, I think there’s enough truth in the thought that we need to avoid smothering our children with love that it feels worthwhile for him to overstate it. It feels true to me, at least, that parents who demand an emotional response all the time, turning every argument into an emotional struggle, deprive their children of privacy, and the blank curiosity about the world they need if they’re going to feel their way into it as independent beings.
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Lawrence’s advice about excessive love makes sense to me. He’s not saying we shouldn’t actually love our children, more that we shouldn’t inflict our love on them. He’s especially clear about this when it comes to telling off our children or imposing our demands. Before the lockdown, I had been trying out something akin to the psychologist Oliver James’s concept of ‘love bombing’, responding to my children’s protests or anger with love. If my son shouted at me, I would simply love him back. I kept my demands to a minimum but pleaded that he fulfil them, presenting it as a personal favor to me. I wasn’t alone in doing this. At my toddler daughter’s swimming lessons, I was surrounded by mothers pleading and cajoling their children to take their clothes on or off, to get in the water or out of it, to eat their snacks or relinquish the café’s toys.
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Reading Lawrence, a whole other way of being presented itself. For Lawrence, all this coaxing and loving is a form of bullying. ‘Why try coaxing and logic and tricks with children?’ he asked. ‘Children are more sagacious than we are,’ and they catch the falsity of our wheedling. ‘The only thing is to be direct. If a child has to swallow castor-oil, then say: “Child, you’ve got to swallow this castor-oil. It is necessary for your inside. I say so because it is true. So open your mouth.”’ When we are angry, he urges us to spank our children cheerfully. ‘Not brutally, not cruelly, but with real sound, good-natured exasperation. And let the adult take the full responsibility, half humorously, without apology or explanation. Let us avoid self-justification at all costs.’ We may not be prepared to spank our children. But, as one week of home schooling followed another, I found that I needed to say ‘No’ sharply; to say that schoolwork must be done because it was necessary and I said so and it was true.
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Raised voices have always frightened me, and it was partly out of fear of frightening my children that I avoided raising my own. But, reading Lawrence, I started to feel there was something fake about speaking gently when I was angry, and that he was probably right that children are sagacious enough to recognise this. I began to match anger with anger, and discovered that the moments of conflict became briefer, and that we could move on and get on with our days, because the conflict did not become curdled with love. I began to enjoy my time with my children more easily and to feel more fully myself when I was with them.
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Lawrence is an unlikely guide to child-rearing, partly because he had no children himself and partly because he was so resistant to having children in his life. When he eloped with Frieda Weekley in 1912, she was mother to three small children. Her parents tried to persuade her to leave her husband quietly, with no mention of Lawrence, so she could get custody of the children. Lawrence wouldn’t comply. This was love, and he wanted to shout about it, convinced he’d found in his new experience of love a cure for most of the world’s maladies. He wrote to Ernest Weekley, Frieda’s husband, telling him about their love affair.
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Arguably, Lawrence didn’t want Frieda to get custody of her children because he was jealous of her mother love: ‘I have cursed motherhood because of you, / Accursed, base motherhood!’ he wrote in a poem called ‘She Looks Back’ during their first year together. The same poem suggests that motherhood itself is a false feeling, a false fortification. Lawrence’s own mother had loved him excessively, and he now began to scourge all mothers. At this point, he was revising Sons and Lovers, and he wrote to his editor claiming the book was about the ‘tragedy of thousands of young men in England’ who were selected by their mothers as lovers and couldn’t love as a result. He convinced himself that, if Frieda were to leave him and return to Weekley, she’d become the kind of frustrated mother who lived through her children, turning them into mini-suitors, forcing an idea of love on them that suffocated their capacity for unconscious life.
I felt angry with Lawrence on Frieda’s behalf. His denial of her motherhood was all the more frustrating because he was so wise on children in his novels: their little bodies, their intensity of affection. It must have been painful for Frieda, reading The Rainbow (1915), with Lawrence’s tender portrayals of childhood, not least the moving scene in which Tom takes his stepdaughter Anna out to feed the cows while her mother gives birth. She is crying at first, but then he calms her, holding her close, until ‘the eyelids began to sink over her dark, watchful eyes’.
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Moments of violent tenderness can be followed only by leaving children to become themselves in quiet darkness.
The major literary contemporaries in Lawrence’s time weren’t as a whole writing about childhood, and certainly weren’t writing childcare manuals. However, Lawrence’s style seemed to be calling out for children to describe. They are ordinary, they are like us, but they are also wholly distinct, and given to intensities of mood far beyond our own. For a writer who wanted to describe people in constant motion, children are ideal because they are always changing, always ready to assert a new will. I believe that it was Frieda who showed Lawrence that children could be one of his great subjects, and helped make available for him his unidealized, rich perspectives on them. This is tangled territory. Lawrence’s writing about children was in dialogue with Frieda’s longing for her own children, but he seems to have needed to keep them at bay in order to be more objective and unsentimental about the children he invented. Lawrence is hardly anyone’s ideal of a stepfather, yet he came out of this as a brilliant writer about children. And Frieda’s intensity is there, too, in the parents that Lawrence portrays.
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Lawrence is compelled by the intensity of feeling – the mutual engrossment – between parents and children, and, as with the engrossment between lovers, it maps on to the intense intimacy of his address to us as readers. He is reaching out to us, lifting his arms up and down towards us, as Anna’s daughter Ursula does, running down the hill to her father, ‘a tiny, tottering, windblown little mite with a dark head’, running ‘in tiny, wild, windmill fashion’ until he catches her. These scenes in The Rainbow are scenes of parent-child love that don’t go against Lawrence’s insistence to let our children be. They are moments of violent tenderness that can be followed only by neglect – by leaving children to become themselves in quiet darkness.
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Over the first lockdown, I was grateful for Lawrence’s suggestion that we should leave our children alone.
I had never found it difficult to do so. I have too much need for mental space not to seek this when I can. But I often experienced guilt in sitting reading while my children played, rather than joining in with their games; or in refusing demands to join their games because I needed to get through domestic tasks. At best, I could persuade my daughter to help with the laundry so that it became a shared task; I bought plastic knives so she could help cut up vegetables. But we are not always at our best, and I was grateful to Lawrence for telling me that it might be just as good to leave her to get on with her own life while I got on with mine, alongside her, as Anna and Will do with their children. And there was a new pleasure in separating ourselves now, when we were so much together. When I said ‘No’ when they asked me to play with them, when I heard my son upstairs conducting his own games with his Lego figures, or watched my daughter doing her puzzles next to me on the sofa while I read, I heard Lawrence telling me to leave my children in darkness, to avoid tangling them up in the ‘intimate mesh of love, love-bullying, and “understanding”’.
Part of what is appealing about Lawrence as a writer is that, however polemical he is being, I don’t feel he is bullying me. There’s a curious take-it-or-leave-it aspect to his hectoring, unlike many of the voices of the internet. He’s laughing at himself when he calls his chapter on child-rearing ‘Litany of Exhortations’. He’s not cajoling us or wheedling or trying to persuade us that he’s sympathetic. Instead, he offers us comically excessive polemics and leaves us to it. It’s this aspect of his writing that makes his parenting theories convincing to me – or more helpful than theories I’m more easily convinced by. As a reader I can appreciate the appeal of being left to my own devices, and can see that my children might like being left to theirs as well. I cannot remember how much schoolwork got done in the end during those weeks when I stopped cajoling, but I’m sure it was as much as had been done beforehand.
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Since that year of lockdown, I’ve found other writers I can turn to when I need to hear that I should leave my children alone.
Lawrence wasn’t the only man of his generation to tell women to stop smothering their children with love. Others had the future of the British Empire in mind, worrying that mothers were weakening their children. In his influential manual Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), John B Watson described spoiling as an infectious disease that could maim a child for life. By this point, Frederic Truby King’s manual Feeding and Care of Baby (1913), advocating mothers to avoid cuddles and to feed only on regimented schedules, had gone into many editions. Lawrence’s ideas came out of the same moment but it’s only Lawrence who insists on freedom, going back to something more like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory that children should be left to grow up in accordance with the dictates of nature, so they might be free to become themselves.
Not long after Lawrence, there was the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, with his liberating theory of the good-enough mother. According to Winnicott’s posthumously published book, Babies and Their Mothers (1987):
There is room for all kinds of mothers in the world, and some will be good at one thing and some good at another. Or shall I say some will be bad at one thing and some bad at another?
In our own day, a growing body of child psychologists are urging us not to helicopter parent, arguing that parental anxiety leads us to raise anxious children. According to a study conducted by the Yale psychologist Eli Lebowitz and colleagues in 2019, retraining parents not to overprotect their children has as much effect on childhood anxiety as does giving the children themselves CBT. Lebowitz trains parents to leave their children alone, Lawrence-style. He urges us not to accommodate our children’s desires for us to be with them at every moment, to sleep in their beds, to protect them from the sources of their phobias. Instead, he encourages us to live more lightly alongside our children, turning them into independent beings sharing our homes.
They don’t respond to sentimentality either, emerging as all the more robust and fully themselves in consequence.
For the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter (2016), contemporary parents see ourselves too much as carpenters, hammering our children into preconceived forms, and not enough as gardeners, creating the conditions for growth and then waiting to see what emerges. Gopnik dislikes the word ‘parenting’ as a verb – it makes us sound too actively engaged in turning our children into better or successful adults:[I]f being a parent is a kind of work aimed at creating a successful adult, it’s a pretty lousy job – long hours, nonexistent pay and benefits, and lots of heavy lifting. And for 20 years you have no idea if you’ve done it well, a fact that in and of itself would make the job nerve-racking and guilt-inducing.
This is who we are when we Google how to turn our children into geniuses or how to make them do their homework. If you see yourself instead as a gardener, you can appreciate ‘that our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control’.
One of Lawrence’s most enticing portrayals of the parent as a benignly neglectful gardener comes in his wonderfully amiable poem ‘Tortoise Family Connections’ – part of the series of tortoise poems written in Italy in 1920 that ends with the ecstatic agony of ‘Tortoise Shout’. He was spending time in a villa owned by his friend Rosalind Baynes, with whom he had the only affair of his long marriage. Rosalind later described him playing with her young daughter Nan, and understanding her, ‘as he did with children – with delicate, amused perception’. There were tortoises on the grounds of the villa, that he watched mating and doing their tortoise version of family life. Out of Rosalind’s girls, and the tortoises, and his new happiness, came a lighter account of his ideal relationship between parents and children:
On he goes, the little one,
Bud of the universe,
Pediment of life.
Setting off somewhere, apparently.
Whither away, brisk egg?
His mother deposited him on the soil as if he were no more than droppings,
And now he scuffles tinily past her as if she were an old rusty tin.
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Here is the baby tortoise going off into the world, purposeful, ready to leave his parents behind. The poet watches the tortoise and his parents wandering around the garden, each apparently unaware of each other. It’s no use his telling him, Lawrence goes on: ‘This is your Mother, she laid you when you were an egg.’ The tortoise just looks the other way, and his mother does the same. Tortoises don’t look for companions because they don’t know they are alone. ‘Isolation is his birthright, / This atom,’ he goes on to say. They don’t respond to sentimentality either, emerging as all the more robust and fully themselves in consequence. In a garden tended by a good-enough gardener, the baby tortoise fully inhabits his tortoise-hood becoming as self-sufficient, as lordly, as Adam. He hasn’t been weighed down by ideas or ideals, hasn’t been claimed by the clammy bonds of parenthood. Here he is, ‘wandering in the slow triumph of his own existence’, sure of his own right to bite the frail grass.
I hope that I can bring something of that tortoise’s insouciance into my own life now – and that there can be more moments when I radically distance my inner self from the inner selves of my children.
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My years with Lawrence have changed me, though not in any straightforward improving sense.
I believe that literature can be a force of moral change and insight, but Lawrence more than anyone (sometimes deliberately, and partly through his own errors and blindspots) shows us how difficult and fraught that process can be. Reading, for him, was a disruptive force: a way to open ourselves up to being unmade and remade by the world. Listening to Lawrence’s tirades, watching his fictional characters spun ecstatically and despairingly between moods and states, I have felt myself slipping away from the moorings of safe opinions, glad to leave behind the calm waters of Mumsnet homilies and launch myself into a crashing sea in which nothing can be taken for granted.
Reading may not be an easy source of self-improvement or self-care, but I will continue to open myself to being changed by pungently formidable voices from the past and to chart the process of that change.
By Lara Feigelis, professor of modern literature and culture at King’s College London.
Edited by Marina Benjamin