Dear Adam Smith: Impatience with Infants


We simply cannot sympathize with an infant as naturally as we would with a person in full command of her faculties, and this can be uncomfortable.
Dear Mr. Smith, 

I have heard that you are a great observer of human emotions and behavior. I wonder if you could shed some light on my father’s behavior around his granddaughter. It seems that every time she meets a new milestone, he is only impatient to get to the next one! Is there some way that I can encourage him to slow down? 

Cordially, 

Ms. Mulford


Dear Ms. Mulford,

Thank you for writing. Our behavior towards infants is, indeed, a fascinating subject! Although we are unable to put ourselves in their positions, being so far removed from their innocence and ignorance of the world, we find ourselves readily sympathizing with them and enhancing that sympathy with our own hopes and fears. As I’ve written elsewhere, 

“What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors of the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete misery and distress.” (TMS I.i.1.12)

In other words, we imagine what would make us cry as she cries, or smile as he smiles, as we would with any other person. At the same time, we are sensible to the fact that the infant has no thoughts as complex as those we use to formulate our explanations, making the infant in an important way alien to us. We simply cannot sympathize as naturally as we would with a person in full command of her faculties. 

Because we naturally wish to sympathize, our inability to do so is uncomfortable to us. To address the deficiency, to our incomplete sympathy we add our own hopes and fears until it feels as whole as the sympathy we feel for an adult person with whom we can more easily relate. 

I spend little time with mothers and children and would be at a loss if presented with an infant. I confess to finding older children much more charming. I have speculated that this could be because it is simpler to sympathize with toddlers as we naturally desire to sympathize with every human creature—especially once they are able to speak to express their wishes and aversions. My unfamiliarity with infants leaves me feeling even more than their mother the gap in the completeness of my sympathy. (I also find their fragility dreadfully stressful!)

So perhaps your father is like me: quite at a loss with very small children. Perhaps you can charitably interpret his eagerness to always reach your child’s next milestone as impatience to sympathize naturally, completely, and sensibly with his grandchild. 

Or perhaps (since without meeting him I cannot know more) I am filling the gap in my sympathy for him with my own feelings and experiences and in doing so have badly misinterpreted his actions. How amusing that would be, given the nature of my advice. 

Yours in fellow-feeling,

Mr. Smith


Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, and Janet Bufton. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.
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