Today marks the 305th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It isn’t so often noted that the enlightenment philosopher didn’t have an ideal upbringing, to put it mildly, his childhood years filled with sadness.
Here’s some of what I write about this in The Philosophy of Childing:
After his mother died at nine, his father, a watchmaker, remarried and left Rousseau to fend for himself with an abusive uncle. His childhood irretrievably lost, Rousseau fled Paris for Geneva, where he slaved away at a variety of odd jobs.
Likely both despite and because of his harsh younger years, Rousseau went on to become one of our most celebrated philosophers, his keen insights on moral and political thought influencing not only the French Revolution, but the evolution of modern political, social, and educational theorizing. In Emile, his famed treatise on education published in 1762, he made the impassioned argument that the all too fleeting stage of childhood should be cherished. Rousseau exhorted parents to allow children to “love childhood, indulge its sports, its pleasures, its delightful instincts.
Who has not sometimes regretted that age when laughter was ever on the lips, and when the heart was ever at peace? Why rob these innocents of the joys which pass so quickly, of that precious gift which they cannot abuse? Why fill with bitterness the fleeting days of early childhood, days which will no more return for them than for you?
It may well be that Rousseau was thinking of his own father’s neglect when he went on to write these moving words:
Fathers, can you tell when death will call your children to him? Do not lay up sorrow for yourselves by robbing them of the short span which nature has allotted to them. As soon as they are aware of the joy in life, let them rejoice in it, so that whenever God calls them they may not die without having tasted the joy of life.
Rousseau anticipated forceful objections to his stance: “I hear from afar the shouts of that false wisdom which is ever dragging us onwards, counting the present as nothing, and pursuing without pause a future which flies as we pursue.”
Yet when he was a young parent, Rousseau himself did not practice what he came to advocate in Emile as a fifty-year-old. After his stint in Geneva, in his twenties, Rousseau returned penniless to Paris, where he had five children with his lover, a seamstress. Rousseau relates in his Confessions that, unable to care for his brood, he persuaded his mistress to leave them at a foundling hospital. At the time, child abandonment was commonplace in Paris among poor parents. A decade later, Rousseau tried mightily, to no avail, to find his children.
One thing many of us parents know all too well today is that you can be physically present, and yet absent, mindlessly lost on cellphones and tablets and such — though studies show incontrovertibly how a dearth of involved and immersive interaction harms your children in every way, from their language development to their the full cultivation of their most constructive social skills and emotional habits.
So when I’m with my kids, I attempt to be ‘present’ 1000 percent, setting aside as best I can my cares and worries (not to mention addictions to electronic devices) to bask and revel in their company. Because those early precious ages and stages pass all too quickly.
Oh, the noted and notable people I’ve known and known about who have received widespread adulation among their vast followings — but were never there for their children, nearly always absent, even in those sporadic times when they were physically present, because they were cluelessly basking in their notoriety, oblivious to what should be among their important duties and invaluably rich experiences.
For anyone who takes on the commitment and responsible to be a parent, and has the means and wherewithal, it’s incumbent upon us to see to it that our young charges flourish fully in these times, as an end in itself to be sure, but also to markedly improve the odds that as they carry these ages and stages with them into later life, never shedding them completely, they flourish fully in all their later years.