Can't play, won't play

Psychotherapist Paul Van Heeswyk on the divisions between children and adults
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We don't know who first discovered water but we do know it wasn't a fish. It is those in unfamiliar or uncomfortable settings, those out of their element as refugees of class, religion or race, who often have the best chance to challenge the paradigms of their age and give us new things to see.

Who might we turn to for a different observation on our "natural" division between adults and children, those two species that have gazed at each other for centuries across the pubertal fault-line in mutual, awkward envy?

We adults were children in our previous lives and expect to speak, in distant authority, of and to our own children. How, though, are children to know of adulthood? Worse, how are we to know ourselves?

George, an opponent of mine in weekly psychotherapy, looks a promising candidate for an unusual take. He tells me one day that he cannot play games with his children because, as a child, he could not even play games with himself:

"I had little tolerance for so called 'free' play. I liked to conform and I loved routines. Nowadays, I like best to come home late from work and discover that the children are asleep."

We have him on two counts. Since, as everyone knows, play is the defining characteristic of childhood, George, it seems, was never a child. And, since adulthood is a set of approved behaviours and postures towards children, a blank screen for the projection of the emerging selves of children, he is not an adult, either. George is our man.

"I feel bad I don't behave as I think I should around my children," continues George, "but I sometimes wonder whether they expect the behaviour I demand of myself." He asks how people like me can be so confident in our claims as to what children really need.

It is a good question, of course. Official psycho-analysis is embarrassed by the brazenness of its most central thesis when it writes its Good Behaviour Guides. In consulting rooms and seminars, we seem able to remember how the unconscious mind operates through fantasy to create or constitute reality. Young people and grown-ups are fluid constructions of desire and anxiety and must, of necessity, resist attempts to normalize or bind them to the fixed certainties of so-called development.

How can we, in this mood, define the adult self? Adults are in earnest. Adults are responsible and committed, sad and suffering but with virtuous fortitude. Adults make commitments in regard to lifework, sexual intimacy and care of the young, and adults legislate to stop children from doing what they themselves do and, at the same time, compel them to do what they do anyway: learn. We adults do not, of course, make laws that force us to work or study. There is no need. We are not children.

Adults are experienced, knowledgeable, big, competent, powerful and over18. And, Freud notwithstanding, the adult is that genus that has crossed over into erotic life. One hundred years of psychoanalysis and, in the popular culture at least, the definitional base of adulthood is still sexual. Let's keep it that way, before there is any trouble.