What is True About “Kids”?

The back page of The New York Times Sunday Section for July 29, 2018, in the section devoted to children, listed, in large bold print, 19 statements about “kids.” Each statement began with the phrase “The truth is kids….” Nothing else appeared on the page except the words The New York Times. No one was listed as the author of these sayings. No explanation was given about why or how these 19 statements were chosen—except that we know the newspaper is selling it as a poster for $50.

Naturally, for someone steeped in the dubious tradition of Pilate’s “What is truth?” this sudden discovery in the New York Times that we are now learning the truth from the mouths of babes and infants comes as an almost complete surprise. The slogan “All the news that is fit to print” has always been, in my opinion, a red flag. If something is presented in the Times as true, my instinctive reaction is that it is best to check the facts from another source. Beyond the contemporary New York Times, this learning from children is a familiar theme from the New Testament itself. Christ often called children over to him. We were told to be like unto them.

The New York Times listing seems to be given by adults for adults. It is a kind of dreamy philosophic meditation. The first statement is this: “The truth is that kids want to be part of the conversation.” Part of the responsibility of adults is to protect children from many conversations. We are told not to scandalize the little ones. Just because kids want to be part of the conversation is not necessarily a reason to let them.

The second statement reads: “The truth is that kids are more curious than adults.” Is it always a virtue? The word “curious” usually means seeking to know something we ought not to know but want to know anyhow. Something like “curiosity killed the cat.” No one wants to remain a kid forever just to have the curiosity of children. We are told at some point to put away the things of a child.

The third statement is very important for a newspaper. “The truth is that kids know that lies are bad.” Yet many kids still lie. We wonder why. However, did not Machiavelli try to teach the Prince how to lie to stay in power? But lies are bad, as the Commandment teaches. The father of lies has always been considered to be the devil.

The fourth item tells us that kids think “cash is still cool.” I take this to mean that even a kid with a credit card will know what to do with a fifty-dollar bill that his grandfather gives him for his birthday.

The fifth statement tells us that kids “don’t let differences divide them.” My recollection of youth was predicated on the formation of clubs, circles, groups, teams, or gangs that separated themselves from others. Nobody wanted to look like everyone else. The purpose of “elite” schools is to divide. Kids know there are real divisions that cannot be ignored.

In number six, we are told another truth, that kids learn something new every day. They usually forget something every day also. They may be so busy learning what is new that they cannot judge what is important, new or old. We do not have enough days given to us to know everything that is new. Being a kid is just a start.

Number seven tells us that “kids are smarter than you think.” Some are; others are not. To be “smart” can refer to capacities that are never actualized. Smartness and laziness are not incompatible in the same person. Some kids are dumber than we think also.

In number eight, we are given this truth that kids can turn “any place into a playground.” This is true, but they can also turn any playground into a mess. Teaching children to “pick up” after themselves is a never-ending admonition that most parents and teachers quickly learn to give.

Number nine tells us that “kids can make a difference right now.” The very existence of a child, from conception, makes a difference right now. If we kill it in the womb, it still makes a big difference. Kids do teach us that something new can come into our lives, but what is new in this case is another human life following its trajectory from conception to natural death.

In the tenth statement, we find that kids “feel things as deeply as adults do.” The operative word is “feel.” Much of our literature tells us about things that happened in childhood that changed lives, from traumas caused by divorce to the delight of our first little league game. The criterion of comparative feeling between children and adults is not clear. What is clear is that feelings in both adults and kids need control and guidance.

We find in number eleven that “kids do not need candy to feel better.” The point here seems to be that we should not bribe them to do what they ought to do. Nobody needs candy. The whole point of candy is that it is not needed by anyone. Still, it is really good and adds something over and beyond the ordinary. Most kids like candy.

In truth twelve, we are told that “the kids will inherit the earth.” In the Beatitudes, it was the meek who would inherit the earth. The truth is that all children grow up and grow old leaving the earth to others who will likewise follow the same path. The Old Testament was concerned with the sins of the fathers being held against the sons. Generational Theory in history holds that we neither learn much from our parents nor they from us. To say “kids will inherit the earth” means that kids will grow up. The earth will for a time pretty much reflect what they are. Then their kids will arrive.

Kids have “big dreams” according to number thirteen. They will also have small dreams and bad dreams. Presumably “big dreams” mean that children think more wisely than their parents. Dreams are dreams. Most of our lives consist in seeing that reality is not a dream, big or small.

“Kids want to discover the world,” number fourteen tells us. Sometimes all they need to discover is their own backyard, which contains enough of the world they need to know at their age. If they discover the whole world too soon, they will likely never be content to be in the small part of the world in which they live and work out their own destiny. They will always want to be someplace else, and never feel at home where they are. Hopefully they will also learn that here we have no lasting city.

In fifteen, we are told that “kids expect honesty.” Honesty is not something only for kids, of course. However, it is all right to kid and tease. Plato said that the worst thing that could happen to us would be to have a lie in our souls about what is. It is an important day in our lives when we realize that someone is, in fact, dishonest. It is an even more important day when we realize and repent of our own dishonesty.

Thinking that it is the “simple stuff that is funny,” is the truth kids believe according to number sixteen. Everyday life is often filled with humor, and with the incongruity of things. Why anything is at all funny is one of the great human mysteries, and one of the best things about being human. The baby’s first smile is a major event. It is the first real sign of intelligence in this particular child. A friend of mine had four children. He collected their “sayings” as they passed through childhood. They really were amusing. Simple stuff is funny. This is why we can be happy almost anywhere.

In seventeen, we are told that kids “bring people together.” They do. But they separate also. Kids take a lot of care. They need a full-time father and a full-time mother; we are becoming a land that does not admit this truth in order that we can pursue our happiness and vocations in our own way. Kids bring us together only if we stay together with the kids.

In eighteen, kids are said to “appreciate a good story.” I have known boys who have read Tolkien several times. Living a human life requires more than the lives immediately around us. We need time out of time in which we can discover what others have imagined or lived, in histories and stories. Kids who are read to and kids who learn to read have already taken the first step to that liberty made available to us by the enormous number of ways a human life can be led.

The last truth is that “kids can handle the truth.” Does this imply that adults cannot handle the truth? If so, it means that something is lost in the process of growing up. This consideration goes along with the honesty and the do not lie admonitions of earlier truths. What truths are there for kids to “handle”? Are they to hear the truths of revelation or the truths of reason? Will they ever hear the truths of mathematics and the contingent truths of history?

This page of 19 statements all beginning with “The truth is that kids…” causes us to wonder whether we could ever find another 19 statements that begin with “The truth is that all men are created.” It comes almost as a shock that the Times is concerned with the truth about kids. Do its editors and writers hold that infants in the womb are kids? If they do not, is there a lie or some dishonesty involved somewhere? No matter, it is indeed refreshing to see the “t” word, the truth, being used so freely, so provocatively.

In the end, the very meaning of our lives is to find out and live what the truth is. Even for newspapers, as well as for kids, truth is the conformity of mind and reality. The truth was once defined as “I am.” It still is.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is an image of altar boys playing marbles painted by Charles Bertrand D’entraygues (1850-1929).

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

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