356. The Cuteness of Children

No matter how deeply we adults respect children – no matter how seriously we take their words and thoughts – many of us can’t help thinking of them as cute. Some of their cuteness stays with them into adulthood, but some of it is a function of their newness. Their failed attempts to pronounce certain words may
delight us; most parents eventually have the experience of hearing certain pronunciations that make them smile. Their first attempts to do or understand things that may later become easy for them can be adorable.
Some children sometimes like that phenomenon – are flattered to be called cute. Some will work to figure out exactly what they do or say that is cute, and once they figure it out, try to do it more, or embellish it. We adults do that, too; we figure out which aspects of ourselves appeal to other people, and we work to develop and highlight those aspects. Since children don’t have as much experience, their attempts are likely to be less subtle and less effective. What is cute the first time can be obnoxious the twentieth time.
I once heard that in Navajo culture, people are not supposed to treat children as if they are cute. They’re supposed to treat all children’s attempts to become adults as serious business. I try to emulate that approach, but sometimes, when a child’s attempt reminds me of how difficult something used to be for me, I can’t help it. I smile. It’s not that I don’t respect children’s attempts to learn and grow, but sometimes there’s a kind of delight in seeing their little blunders.
Philosophically, I don’t like slapstick comedy. It’s based on laughing at other people’s misfortunes and failures. I remember hearing, once, that people laugh at slapstick comedy because they’re relieved that they aren’t the ones slipping on banana peels or ending up with cream pie all over their faces. I don’t want to laugh at that. Throughout my life, I’ve been somewhat clumsy, and while I learned to laugh with people as they laughed at my clumsiness, I didn’t really like it. But slapstick comedy can make me laugh, notwithstanding my philosophical objection to it.
I think children’s cuteness may appeal to adults for a reason similar to the suggested reason people like slapstick comedy; we’re glad to have learned what used to be so difficult, and we laugh with relief when we see a child still having difficulty with it. It may not be sadism; it can be viewed as catharsis. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket. I like laughing, and some of the things children say and do make me laugh. As long as children understand what’s so funny, and are able to join in the laughter while maintaining their self-respect, I’m all for it. It’s healthy to sometimes be able to laugh at yourself, whether you’re a child or an adult. All I’m saying is that we’ve got to be careful about the timing of our laughter, and balance our amusement and our respect.

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