Adults in the role of experts to children


“Children unavoidably treat their parents as though they were experts on life. They, and other adults, are the people from whom the child learns what is necessary. But the extent to which children make demands on adults which the adults don’t know what to do with is not sufficiently remarked on. It is, for example, clear to everyone concerned that the adults are unable to answer, in any satisfactory way, several of the child’s questions. The so-called facts of life are hardly a convincing answer – for anybody – to the question of why people have sex, or where babies are from. Whether children are amusing, or irritating, or ‘little philosophers’, once they learn to talk they create, and suffer, a certain unease about what they can do with words. Paradoxically, it is the adults’ own currency – words – that reveals to them the limits of adult authority. The adults are not fully competent with their own tools, but there is nobody else for the child to appeal to. Children go on asking but eventually they have to settle for the adult’s exhausted impatience and the fictions of life. ‘In the unconscious,’ Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten.’ Curiosity is endless, as every parent knows, in a way that answers are not.”

Adam Phillips (1994)


Source : an extract from ‘The Experts’ by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in The London Review of Books Vol. 16 No. 24 · 22 December 1994.