Examining Rousseau’s Thoughts on the Significance of Children’s Tears

Crying is an infant’s native language, and tears are the syntax by which he first learns to articulate himself to the world.  At least, so much is true for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his groundbreaking thought experiment, Emile, attempts to give insight to the proper way of rearing a child to adulthood.  The significance of an infant’s tears is held to be most seminal in their early occurrences, as they will serve to determine the infant’s initial experience with a secondary person.  And, even more importantly, the reaction of the caretaker to these first cries will be the formative influence on the child’s future relations and expectations within society.

Infants are naturally subjective thinkers; having to learn about external objects and secondary persons through their repeated interactions with them.  The method by which all children eventually achieve an understanding of the other is through movement, or as Rousseau puts it, “It is only by movement that we learn that there are things which are not us, and it is only by our own movement that we acquire the idea of extension.”[1]  Nonetheless, this ability to use motion as a means to relate to our surroundings is a learned trait, hence the newborn infant suffers a great discomfort as he experiences a need to know and grasp the objects around him, but has to rely on others—constituting more exteriors he is also quite ignorant of—to satisfy this need.  The child is conflicted between the highly personal world he experiences, and the dependence he has for others to satisfy his needs; and “this is the source of children’s screams.”[2]  Tears are the words by which children make their needs intelligible to the world.  But because the infant is much closer to the nature of man, than the grown and corrupted adult, the language utilized is simple and basic, where all ills and discomforts are vocalized as pain.[3]  Although, Rousseau’s philosophy adamantly insists that man is a solitary being, self-sufficient by nature, here he does admit that in the earliest stages of life a person is in need of others for survival.  However, this apparent contradiction can be rectified by emphasizing the role self-preservation plays in Rousseau’s natural man.  An infant cries when he is in need of something, experiencing a specific discomfort, never to arbitrarily bond with his caretaker; his tears are an indication of a matter that he needs taken care of, not a want for pampered attention.  For if the latter was true it would stifle the solitary disposition of the newborn man.  A gross impossibility, since freedom is Rousseau’s man’s primary need.  Hence, it is not the cries of a child calling to satisfy his basic needs that set him on the path to social degradation, but the improper response rendered on to them by his misguided caretakers.

It is a natural phenomenon of modern childrearing to zealously fret over a child in order to prevent any harm from coming to him, only to cause him the greatest long-term harm conceivable in the process; a dependence on servitude, and an unnatural yearning for domination.  “As long as children find resistance only in things and never in wills, they will become neither rebellious nor irascible and will preserve their health better.”[4]  Unfortunately, this lesson is easily ignored, and children are nagged over under the false impression that providing for children’s needs entails accommodating their whims as a servant.  Rousseau urges on parents and caretakers to recognize the ills of this trend as a primary cause for the softening of societal children, in comparison to their more rural counterparts, and recognize how with every pampering, coddling, and needless fussing, a further step is taken to rob the child from becoming a wholly well-adjusted adult.  Tears originate as a means for children to communicate some legitimate distress they may have, but, “if one is not careful they soon become orders.”[5]  This is where man’s fall from the natural order starts.  Man has no need for the concept of servitude, either to serve or to be served, thus any implication to the contrary (including a constant yielding to his arbitrary wishes during infancy) immediately acts to take man away from his natural disposition.  Thus, it can be said that our entire notion of social relations is perverted because our caretaker’s lacked the patience to distinguish between our inherent needs for preservation and our acquired wants for dependence.

As stated previously, a child learns about his surroundings through movement, implying that he must be given the upmost freedom to roam and experience the environment around him.  Rousseau insists that exploration is natural for an infant, and gives the example of a child stretching out his hand to reach a far off object (page 66).  However, because he is incapable of estimating the distance of the object, his attempts to reach the object fail.  Now, the child will cry and scream in anger, not because he does not understand his own external relation to the distant object, but because he wants to will it to him through sheer force.  When such a situation arises the proper response is to ignore the child’s tears for obedience, as it will teach him immediately that he is not the master of those around him, nor can he command inanimate objects to obey him.  This sort of disciplining is also important as it will eventually lead to a general decrease in the amount of tears as children become “accustomed to shed them only when pain forces them to do so.”[6]

Although tears are clearly a natural mode of communication for children, the ease by which they are misused, and the potential dangers this leads to if the behavior is left uncorrected, is the formative cause of society’s degradation.  Rousseau argues that children’s dependency on other’s to satisfy their needs is a weakness, aggravated by the servile response of their caretakers, and that in this weakness “is subsequently born the idea of empire and domination.”[7]  When children learn from early on that their every whim can be satisfied through fury, rage, and temper tantrums, a dangerous precedent is set for how they will interact with the world as adults; they will grow accustomed to the servitude bestowed on them in infancy and through it develop an unrelenting demand for submission from their fellow man, who may or may not reciprocate kindly to the demand.  A struggle for power is thereby established amongst individual persons, each vying for dominance over the other, which will reflect in the despotic mores of society.  And man’s natural solitary state will be lost to the vices of anger, conceit, control, and power; otherwise known as the despicable world we are living in.

Emile is not meant by Rousseau to be a serious manual on how to rear a child from infancy to healthy adulthood, it is a philosophical reflection on how man has fallen to the state he is in, and how this fall begins with the first sounds we make.  Like man, the tears of children start out innocent, used to satisfy a natural need, but excess indulgence leads to the corruption of this natural feature, thus allowing man’s ominous passions to arise from it.  These passions corrupt precisely because they are unnatural, and due to the fact that society is built on these unnatural responses, the degradation is further agitated by each subsequent generation that is nurtured in the civilized fronts of existence.  And if the dilemma is to be remedied, then it must begin at the first whimpering made.


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile, translated by Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), p. 64.

[2] Rousseau, p. 64.

[3] Rousseau, p. 65.

[4] Rousseau, p. 66.

[5] Rousseau, p. 66.

[6] Rousseau, p. 69.

[7] Rousseau, p. 66.

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