Would you let a five-year-old child make important decisions affecting your future? We all did this.

September 13, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

Over the years, I’ve often thought of the following quote: “The child is father of the man.”  These words often haunt me deeply.  They capture the absurd but true notion that each of us is nurtured and tutored (and sometimes damaged or destroyed) by younger versions of ourselves.

At one time, I thought the meaning of this quote was obvious, but now I see that it isn’t obvious at all. By the way, my interpretation has nothing to do with the fact that the quote is written in a masculine version.  The quote could and should be translated to cover both male and female.  Something like, “The Child is the parent of the Adult.”

The quote appears as part of a poem by Wordsworth:

“MY HEART LEAPS UP WHEN I BEHOLD”

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

What, then, is the meaning of “”The child is father of the man”? Here is my interpretation. Think of the person you are today. Think of the life that you are currently living.  Consider both the predicaments you are now in and the joys you are now experiencing. Much of that (or all of that) has been made possible as a result of decisions (good and bad) made by younger versions of you.  Here’s an obvious example.   I am alive today because a young boy (a younger version of me) repeatedly made safe decisions when crossing streets and when riding a bicycle near traffic.  My fate was in the hands of that young child.

But my intellectual fate was also in the hands of that young boy who was me.  I am currently 52 years old. Numerous key decisions I made when I was 5, 8, 12, 18, 21, 25, 37, 45 and 48 allowed me to become who I am now. I am truly grateful to former versions of me. Thanks to their sacrifices, I currently have many resources and options.  We are all mostly self-taught, right?  And who is doing most of the teaching, other than younger versions of ourselves.  Perhaps it’s not always conscious, but it’s unrelenting and powerful because those younger versions of ourselves serve as strong filters, determining the kinds of information and social contacts that “they” will allow to future versions of themselves.   And you’re doing that right now, deciding what to notice and what to ignore, thereby shaping that future version of you.

I remember being 9-years old and paging through encyclopedias from cover to cover.  This introduced me to many topics of which I knew nothing until that time.  That 9-year-old kid sent me off on an intellectual voyage that I am still taking. If he hadn’t cultivated his curiosity and gotten comfortable with some aspects of the big world around him, I might have lacked a meaningful basis for stretching that understanding further when I was 12, 16, or 42.

Even when I was five years old, I remember hearing things I didn’t believe and reacting to it carefully, strongly and in a way that lingered.  My 5-year old self taught his skepticism to my 6-year old self, and so on.  For instance, my religious father once took me into an empty church when I was about five.  He tried to convince me that Jesus lived in a small golden tabernacle and that Jesus was a piece of bread. I still remember that conversation because it triggered a crisis for me, even at that young age.  I knew that bread was not alive and that people don’t live in shoebox-sized boxes in churches.  Why was my father saying such strange things?  That five-year-old version of me handed the skeptical baton to the six-year version of himself.  The six-year old took that lesson to heart and reformed it a bit, before passing it to the 7-year old version of myself.  Almost 50 years later, I am still benefiting from that lesson first noted by a five-year old.

The six-year-old version of me took an interest in music that I retain to this day.  It reminds me of the children’s game of “Telephone,” though.  Every time the lesson was passed down to a new version, it changed a bit.  By the time it got to that 25-year old version of me, the love of simple children’s songs had turned into a passion for playing jazz.

The 8-year old version of me intuitively appreciated the scientific method.  “He” explored the world in a careful, sensitive and somewhat skeptical way. He heard and saw a lot of things, but rejected some of them as being too far-fetched. It’s like a long line of torch carriers, of which I am only the most recent.

It also amazes me that there is a powerful path-dependence to this succession of earlier versions of me.   If earlier versions of me hadn’t worked hard in various ways, I would not have had many the opportunities that I ended up having. For instance, about 12 years ago, I started auditing cognitive science classes at Washington University in St. Louis.  Little did I know then, that I would meet some world-class philosophers and writers such as Andy Clark, William Bechtel, Larry May and Jesse Prinz.   I worked hard back then to gain an understanding of many concepts of neuroscience to which I had not previously been exposed. It was sometimes extremely difficult  work.  It challenged many of my common sense understandings of who I was.  It also drew on numerous disparate fields such as neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, an enemy, biology and complexity, among other things. Another one of those excellent professors, Mark Rollins, indicated that trying to jump into cognitive science was like trying to get a drink of water out of a fire hydrant.  I ended up taking class after class, typically three credit hours per semester while I work full-time as a lawyer. I now have about 30 hours of graduate level cognitive science class work under my belt (all of it by audit, although I wrote and turned in many papers along the way).  It was hard world that prepared me to be better able to understand many ideas that I now consider.

Those prior versions of me gave me valuable gifts. Somehow, those earlier version of me had the vision to know what I would need, and they worked hard to get those things for me. They took care of me by giving my highly personal advice. In this sense, I think of those prior versions of me as my “fathers.”  I feel like I should be writing them thank you notes.  Thank you, 8-year old Erich (actually, my name was Richard, Jr. back then) for being careful when crossing streets.  Thank, you, 12-year old Erich, for staying out of trouble, even though the Catholic school you attended was often lackluster, amounting to not much more than warehousing and babysitting.   Thank you, mostly, to those young boys of 15, 16 and 17, who took the time to notice that books could be far more than amusements.  Their attention and focus taught them that words could convey powerful ideas, and they passed down that lesson to me, because they often cared more about that phenomenal idea than they cared about daily routines and amusements.  And thank you, to all of those previous versions of me who carefully choosing the right kinds of friends, for not allowing a tempting herding instinct to corrupt their pursuit of truth.

My training started more than 50 years ago, when I started taking my first steps, mental and physical, trying to figure things out, often without the use of words, rejecting many ideas along the way. That’s an awful lot of responsibility to put on a small child, to impose on him the responsibility to determine what needs to be learned in order to properly hatch the adult version of himself fifty years later.

That’s what I think of when I think of those haunting words, “The Child is father of the Man.”

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Category: Education, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. You changed your name? Always jumping to the most important part of your post, eh? 😀 Just kidding, it was a very thoughtful post. Sometimes when I look back at the kid I was I'm kind of surprised at the smartness of some of my decisions. Usually my memories are dominated by the self-consciousness and feelings of awkwardness I felt as a child.

  2. Bill says:

    This is really a fun post. You're good at complimenting your previous self. For me, there are both good and bad decisions that have definitely set up the life I have.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich, it sounds like you have a very existentialist way of looking at the world.

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