The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] “The Child is father of the Man”

By Korea Herald

Published : June 28, 2023 - 05:31

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In his celebrated 1802 poem, “My Heart Leaps Up,” poet William Wordsworth wrote the famous line: “The Child is father of the Man.” The poem, also known as “The Rainbow,” reads: “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.” Then, he concludes, “And I wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety.”

Wordsworth implies that the character we build in our childhood forms the basis of our personality. For example, the poet says that a child’s excitement and joy at seeing a rainbow continues into his or her adulthood and old age. Conversely, the poem seems to suggest that if a child sees a rainbow and does not show any excitement or joy, it is likely that he or she will feel numb to a rainbow after growing up as well.

Wordsworth’s poem has fostered the well-known maxim, “The child is father to the man.” Indeed, studies reveal that criminals usually have abnormal, troublesome childhoods, whereas ordinary people have normal childhoods. Of course, some people are able to overcome their traumatic childhoods and become great men and women. However, it is undeniable that our childhood determines our disposition and temperament in adulthood.

If Wordsworth had seen our politicians these days, he must have thought that they had a distressing childhood because many of our politicians now exhibit serious personality issues. Some of them behave as if they were kindergartners, while others act like elementary school children at best. Indeed, no ordinary grown-ups when faced with serious problems would do such childish things as squabble over trivialities in order to scandalize and slander their political enemies. It is quite embarrassing to watch how juvenile our politicians are, especially when they play power games.

Usually, ordinary people are on good terms with their neighbors and live peacefully in the community. However, politicians are different. Some political leaders are waging turf wars against neighboring countries under the excuse of claiming their supposedly “rightful” territory or unifying the country. Others are threatening neighboring countries with nuclear missiles, or antagonizing other countries that have different political ideologies or religious beliefs. Perhaps they should learn from children on how to play harmoniously in the playground, staying within their boundaries and respecting others’ territory.

In fact, we can learn from our children. If we twist the meaning of the maxim, “The child is father to the man,” a little, it may also mean that children can teach us many things. Sometimes, children may be self-centered, greedy and petulant. But at other times, they can be philanthropic, sharing and agreeable. Some kids can be cruel and bullying, while others can be nice and friendly. Some children are even heroic and inspire awe in grown-ups.

According to “10 heroic kids who will make you feel better about the world” by HelloGiggles, some kids are more courageous and mature than adults. For example, Riley Braden, who was only 5 years old, saw an 18-month-old toddler fall into a hotel pool. Since no lifeguard was on duty and the toddler’s parents were far away, Riley jumped into the pool and saved the little girl from drowning.

Caleb Taylor, also age 5, was sleeping in a car. Suddenly, he noticed his mother was having a seizure while driving. He did not panic and calmly climbed over to the driver’s seat and steered the car to a safe place before he called out for help.

Recently, at a busy area in Detroit, a school bus driver suddenly passed out while driving, making the bus swerve toward oncoming traffic. A seventh grader named Dillon Reeves swiftly grabbed the steering wheel and brought the bus to a stop, saving dozens of other students’ lives.

Sometimes, I give a ride to my 2-year-old granddaughter, who sits quietly in the backseat. Whenever I speed up or make a hasty left turn at a yellow light, she chides me gently, saying, “Don’t do it! You should be careful.” Thus, her nickname inside the car is “police officer.” Whenever I hear her warning and reproach, I think it could also be good advice for our political leaders who drive the bus called the Republic of Korea.

On the contrary, childlike politicians disappoint us with their immature thoughts and behaviors. Perhaps they did not feel any excitement or joy when they first saw a rainbow as a child, and this is why they have problematic personalities as adults now. Many people have suffered due to these irresponsible, self-indulgent political leaders who never seem to have grown up. Those political leaders are a threat to world peace and harmful to the international community. Even children would not do such childish things.

After all, Wordsworth was right, “The child is father of the man.”

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.