Peter J. Leithart
June 29, 2012
Godbout (The World of the Gift , 40-41) remarks on the fact that “in modern society, children are the only people to whom one can give without even being tempted to do an accounting.” Many (he says) give to children and don’t expect them to make any return for the first twenty years of their life. Children are “modernity’s god, royalty for whom one can sacrifice all,” comparable to “the sons of kings and princes” of old who were closed off from the world in their Forbidden City.
He doesn’t think this is healthy for children: “There is nothing more difficult than having to assume such a gift. In other societies, the child begins to give in return quite soon, by producing and procreating in turn. One must be especially strong to take on the role of a modern child, but a child is, by definition, weak.”
I suspect that Godbout is being uncharacteristically sloppy with the facts. Most of the parents I know require their children to contribute to the family from an early age. But Godbout’s observation shows how absolutely crucial it is do so: When parents allow a child to remain exclusively in the role of a receiver, they lay an unbearable burden on him. As Godbout says early on: “the desire to give is as important to an understanding of humanity as the desire to receive. . . . ‘The lure of the gift’ is at least as powerful as the lure of profit” (19).
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