What Do Kids Think About Government?


The Political Life of Children, by Robert Coles, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 341 pages, $19.95

Once, while living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, I knew a fellow named Joe Gould who attracted some weighty attention (including a long profile in The New Yorker) because he was writing what he called "the oral history of the 20th century." His method was to take detailed notes of every word he heard uttered during the day. Whether this would ever have provided raw gold for other, more-selective historians is not known to me, since I lost track of Joe many years ago and so, apparently, did everyone else. What old Joe's technique did accomplish with notable efficiency was to keep Joe awash in beers bought him by young admirers such as myself who felt, in those odd years, that anything weird was also bound to be wonderful.

I thought of Joe Gould often while reading Robert Coles's latest book, which is a continuation of what could be called an oral history of children with exactly as much precision as Joe Gould's boxes and boxes of notes could be called an oral history of the century. Presumably, Coles is doing as well as old Joe at collecting beers and such for his effort. Just offhand, I'd say that old Joe might have more to offer in return for all those oceanic tides of suds.

The dilemma in reviewing a Robert Coles book involves figuring out ways in which to restrain yourself from dithyrambic excursions of ridicule of what must be the most pompously naive, self-consciously self-effacing, and extraordinarily self-serving literary style on the planet earth. (The entire enterprise might be written off as an academic justification for the most permissive work and travel schedule that could be imagined. Imagine being paid for decades of world travel, recording the lisping lore of little folk! Even Charles Kuralt never had it so good.)

As an example, there is Coles's psychiatrically informed reaction to a young Cambodian boy (now living in America) who had survived the bloodbaths in his own country and was adjusting nicely to the bourgeois life of his new country. The lad had brought Coles a drawing of geese flying. (Coles, incidentally, puts a good deal of stock in the drawings of children. He derives from them just about every imaginable conclusion except the one that young children often are limited in what they can portray by an as yet undeveloped array of motor skills. He never considers the possibility that some of their drawings are purely accidental in nature rather than being crystal-clear windows to the darkest recesses of their minds.)

"Khek [the Cambodian lad] said this to me: 'Do you think they [the geese] watch us, like we watch them? Do you think they wonder where we're going?' I could only say 'maybe'—and stop and think. How much this boy had taught me about the manner in which children leave a nation, go to another nation, become exiles, learn to feel at home in a new place, dream still of a return, feel increasingly comfortable where they are, hold on to old social and cultural values, gain new ones, and finally feel less and less part of one country, more and more a part of another one—and in their minds wonder, and like geese, wander, as they try to figure out the why, the where, the whither of this world." Imagine, children adjust to new surroundings!

In another instance, Coles interviews a young girl in Ireland. Her brother had been killed by members of the Irish Republican Army, but she told Coles that "we should pray for those we fight with, and if we don't we're going to be in a lot of trouble when we meet Him." Coles, bowled over by this tiny religious sage, says: "I call that remarkable—a girl of only nine, and with a lot of cause to be full of vengeance. She loved her brother, and she mourned him. She loved Jesus, though, and remembered his teachings. These can be pensive lads and lasses, even the wee ones of five or six. They ask me tough questions for which I'm not sure Socrates would have easy replies. A Catholic boy, only eight, asked me one day why the Prince of Peace didn't come and make peace, just like that—and the child snapped his fingers. I told him I didn't know, but I wished He would. The boy promptly said that maybe God can't do all He'd like to do! I believe theologians are still sweating over that one!" Imagine, a child of eight has a question about God!

And to think, Coles, the man, only had to go to college for umpteen years and buy a tape recorder in order to stand in awe of such wisdom as those children keep producing for his wondering, and wandering, ears to behold. Lest anyone think that only the humbling sagacity of the young puts Coles into a tailspin, however, I must quote what seems to me the absolute gem of the entire book. At one point he finds himself "noticing how widespread an imagery can be. When I shared some of these statements with Miss [Anna] Freud, she gave an ironic, wry smile: 'The directness of symbolism—we must not make too much of it; or too little, either.'" Coles has the decency to call that Delphic, but he did not have the decency to omit it from the book.

Other items of astounding information that Coles was able to pick up after only about two decades of interviewing the kiddies:

• Kids pick up many of the things they hear around the house.

• They learn nationalism both at home and in school.

• Some of them mistrust, trust, hate, or admire the same people their parents, peers, or teachers mistrust, trust, hate, or admire.

• Many of them have some rudimentary knowledge of what goes on in the world. (One youngster told Coles that the president is "some fast talking dude who has wax on his shoes and can dance his way around anyone in sight." Another one points out that a judge who orders a socially disruptive school busing plan "lives in a fancy suburb, and no one in his family has to go through what we're going through.")

• Children have feelings, emotions, and opinions (almost like real people, eh?).

• Poor children are more preoccupied by the lack of money than are middle-class children. The children of the rich fear social change.

• Class (rich or poor, roughly) plays an important part in shaping the attitudes of children.

• Even the children of the poorest or most oppressed and fearful parents (blacks in South Africa, for instance) still feel patriotic about their country and regard it as theirs, speaking even at their most violent of making their government do the right thing.

If all of this sounds as though there is nothing of value in the entire book, it should be remembered that the reviewer has a low threshold of patience for the entire psychiatric enterprise and also, being somewhat childlike himself, is not at all surprised that children can surprise you. Coles, a proclaimed grown-up, is unwaveringly astonished.

Now then, for some useful things either that are in the book or that you might be reminded of by the book:

The only children that Coles found who did not display ambivalence about government (hating it for doing something but still believing it was the heart of their own identification with their native land) were children in Poland. Those kids, an endearing bunch for sure, absolutely hated their government, regarding it as invading "scum" and, in one spirited instance, even wishing that the Polish people had a nuclear weapon of their own with which to atomize the government. (All other children, needless to say, expressed to Coles deep fears of nuclear weapons.) No other children, apparently, could make the clear distinction between country, or homeland, and state authority. Only those dear Polish children loved their country while hating their nation.

Most other kids, alas, in Coles's experience and in the observations of many others (my mother, for instance) truly believe that the government is the thing that holds everything together, makes life possible and worthwhile, endows citizens with national pride. Unlike my mother, however, Coles seems to believe the kids are on to a basic truth: "Nationalism…energizes the entire moral life of a child, his parents, his relatives—gives them all a structure on which they can hang a range of oughts, noughts, maybes, ifs." One child in a poor neighborhood summed it up: "The government is all we've got, like it or not."

My mother's notion, on the other hand, was that the nation is, at the very best, an evil necessary to keep the Russians at bay, while all the better things in life arise from inner inspiration, self-esteem, and hard work. (She probably should have seen a psychiatrist.)

Knowing that children resent attacks against their government, even while they might echo parental attacks against the politicians currently in power, should remind us all that in grown-up politics something of the same sort also may apply. Attacks against the national government, as an abstract thing, may not be as effective as attacks against the poltroons and knaves running it at any given moment.

But how, then, could a truly antinationalist politics ever be developed in this or any other country? Coles's book is a reminder of how far back in life one has to go to form or re-form fundamental attitudes about politics. As he puts it in the one phrase that I found brilliant and provocative in the entire book, "a political inclination has a 'developmental history." In other words, as my mother might put it, "as the twig is bent, so grows the tree." The political life of children becomes, very simply, the political life of a country.

To the extent that children are taught rote obedience and the virtues of sacrifice to the collective, then blind loyalty to their national government will, indeed, be "the only thing we have." Is there any possible subversion of this blind, totally political loyalty? Coles's book inadvertently suggests one: material well-being.

One of the young Cambodian refugees he interviewed had thrown off her native nationalism and discovered a sort of nonpolitical focus for her loyalties in America. She couldn't understand, Coles reports, how anyone "could live without a McDonald's nearby, or a supermarket or drugstore."

It reminded me that the youngsters you meet who seem obsessed with material things rather than the so-called higher things (highly publicized service to the downtrodden, duty to the flag, etc.) have something useful to offer history. If they lust throughout their lives for material things, rather than for power or for the glory of the nation, they might be part of a generation that forms a genuine antinationalist force. Perhaps many of today's so-called yuppies, preoccupied with material things, will bless us all by refraining from obsession with political power and may, instead, represent a significant dilution of that power.

Coles also observes that children constantly practice the most basic sorts of politics in their jockeying for position, in sensing where the power lies in a family or a schoolyard and going with the winner, and in evaluating parents and other kids in terms of dependability, duplicity, and possible benefits. If, in the educational system, "politics" ever becomes a description simply of the ways in which people negotiate relationships with their neighbors—rather than a way to rule the neighbors or glorify the nation—that too would presage a truly antiauthoritarian, antinationalist force. But the fact that this collection of interviews shows how the worship, literally, of the state is vitally alive in so many children today, reminds us also of how very far we have to go before the individual takes precedence over the collective and before communities of assenting individuals take precedence over the coercive authority of the state.

The politics of children, we are usefully reminded, is, indeed, the root of politics, and of the warlike nationalism, of adults. Outside of that reminder, however, reading this book easily could be skipped and the time more usefully spent talking to your own kids.

Karl Hess, a former child and political speechwriter, is editor of the Libertarian Party News.