In Praise of Difficult Children

Adam Phillips

When you play truant you have a better time. But how do you know what a better time is, or how do you learn what a better time is? You become aware, in adolescence and in a new way, that there are many kinds of good time to be had, and that they are often in conflict with each other. When you betray yourself, when you let yourself down, you have misrecognised what your idea of a good time is; or, by implication, more fully realised what your idea of a good time might really be. You thought that doing this – taking drugs, lying to your best friend – would give you the life you wanted; and then it doesn’t. You have, in other words, discovered something essential about yourself; something you couldn’t discover without having betrayed yourself. You have to be bad in order to discover what kind of good you want to be (or are able to be). One of the things you might have to discover is that some virtues are against the grain: it may not feel real to you to say sorry, or to be grateful, for example.

The upshot of all this is that adults who look after adolescents have both to want them to behave badly, and to try and stop them; and to be able to do this the adults have to enjoy having truant minds themselves. They have to believe that truancy is good and that the rules are good. ‘The most beautiful thing in the world,’ Robert Frost wrote in his Notebooks, ‘is conflicting interests when both are good.’ Someone with a truant mind believes that conflict is the point, not the problem. The job of the truant mind is to keep conflict as alive as possible, which means that adolescents are free to be adolescent only if adults are free to be adults. The real problems turn up when one or other side is determined to resolve the conflict: when adolescents are allowed to live in a world of pure impulse, or adults need them to live in a world of incontestable law. In this sense therapy for adolescents should be about creating problems – or clarifying what they really are – and not about solving them.

A truant mind has to have something to truant from and something to truant for. The adults provide something to truant from and the adolescents have to discover something to truant for. In straightforward psychoanalytic terms, adolescents truant from parents as forbidden objects of desire, as the people who have deprived them; they truant for accessible objects of desire, for the possibility of making up for the inevitable deprivations they have suffered growing up with their parents, for the sex the parents can’t provide. Truanting has something utopian about it, and not truanting something unduly stoical or defeated. The truant mind matters because it is the part of ourselves that always wants something better; and it also needs to come up against resistance to ensure that the something better is real, not merely a fantasy. In our dreams, Anna Freud said, we can have our eggs cooked exactly as we want them, but we can’t eat them. In reality, we can eat our eggs because they are not cooked exactly as we want them. Truant minds need to keep on being reminded that there is nothing more disappointing than getting exactly what you wanted.

Psychoanalysis has had a lot of stories to tell about truant minds; indeed it is these that psychoanalysis has attempted both to rein in, and to sponsor and celebrate. When Freud said that the rider has to guide the horse in the direction the horse wants to go in, or that the ego was not master in its own house, or talked of unconscious slips or of human beings as ambivalent animals, he was describing modern people as being riven with intentions and counter-intentions. For Freud, it was not that there were truant minds, but that the mind was inherently truant; that when people act in their own best interests they don’t in fact know what their best interests are, or whether their best interests are what actually matters most to them. In Freud’s view no one can be wholehearted about anything because everyone is unconscious of and resistant to his heart’s desire. Because what we desire is forbidden to us we have to work hard not to know what it is (if we are asked what we are working on, we can say that we are working on our ignorance). If we speak in Freud’s language, which is surprisingly useful here, the ego is the part of ourselves that wants safety and survival, and as much pleasure as is compatible with this, and the id the part of ourselves that wants sensual satisfaction whatever the cost. To put it differently, there is a part of ourselves that has no interest in our best interests, if our best interests are taken to be our own survival. It isn’t that a part of ourselves prefers risk to safety, it is that a part of ourselves doesn’t use this vocabulary; it is not that a part of ourselves is self-destructive, it is that a part of ourselves has no regard for whether our actions are destructive or constructive. Indeed, the notion of self-destructive behaviour itself presumes not merely that we know what constructive behaviour is, but that that is what we most want (or what at our best we most want).

Adults who look after pre-adolescent children have to have some sense of what is in the child’s best interests. They are, in this sense, the guardians of the children’s future or potential selves. The very small child doesn’t know he mustn’t touch the hot cup; the older child may try touching the hot cup to find out for himself. In that sense, the older child, the truant child, is experimenting: he is finding out whether the adult’s words can be trusted, whether the adult is keeping an eye on him, whether the adult’s word is his bond, whether he can withstand the adult’s punishment, or even hatred. You find out what the rules are made of by trying to break them. To begin with, you learn what it is to follow a rule, then what can be done with the whole business of following rules, what it is about rule-following that is satisfying. And who it is you are satisfying by following the rules.

St Paul talks in the Epistle to the Romans about the law entering human history ‘to increase the trespass’. ‘Where there is no law,’ he said, ‘there is no transgression’: ‘Through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ It isn’t simply that rules are made to be broken: the rules tell you that there is something to break. If there was no law it would be impossible to transgress. The rules, whatever else they are, are an invitation to find out what rules are – and an invitation to find out what kind of person you are. By being born into a society we consent to its rules, but there is never a point when we actually sit down and agree to them all. Adolescence is the time in people’s lives when they begin to notice that there are other things you can do with the rules besides being spellbound by them. The adolescent is somebody who is trying to escape from a cult.

In everyday use, a truant is someone who stays away from school ‘without leave or good reason’, and though originally the word denoted ‘a vagrant’ or ‘an idler’, both meanings suggest someone who takes time out of work – work defined here as real life. When Hamlet asks Horatio why he has come back from Wittenberg, Horatio replies, ‘a truant disposition, good my lord’; to which Hamlet replies: ‘I would not have your enemy say so.’ Hamlet can’t accept this description of his friend, which he calls ‘your own report against yourself. I know you are no truant.’ In Hamlet’s view, it’s a terrible thing to call oneself; he accuses Horatio of self-betrayal, of siding with his enemy against himself. We tend to think of people playing truant from school, from some external, often institutional constraint: like being on day release, or taking a holiday from one’s real responsibilities. Hamlet, in other words, reminds us that it is possible to play truant from oneself. Freud says we can’t help doing this: Hamlet says we shouldn’t do it.

My point is that the adolescent is the person who needs to experiment with self-betrayal, to find out what it might be to betray oneself. Not what it means to break the rules; but what it means to break the rules that are of special, of essential value to oneself. And in order to do this you have to find out which rules are essential. So-called delinquent behaviour is the unconscious attempt to find the rules that really matter to the delinquent individual. And this is a frightening quest. Betraying other people matters only if in so doing one has betrayed oneself. This is what truant minds are for, and what modern adolescence ineluctably embroils people in: the attempt to find out what it is to betray oneself, and what the consequences of self-betrayal are. ‘I have always admired people who have left behind them an incomprehensible mess,’ Bob Dylan once said in an interview. What I am talking about is the willingness to get oneself into an incomprehensible mess.

Winnicott talks about delinquent children having to ‘test the environment’ through really bad behaviour. Children who had been evacuated from their homes during the war, for example, had to be able to be difficult when they finally got home, just to ensure that their parents could be trusted not to send them away again. Only by being really difficult can the child discover whether the parents are resilient and robust – worth having. If the child, or even adult, is never really difficult he will never find out what the world and he himself are really like. The adolescent is someone who is trying to evacuate himself from his own home because there is a war going on. Having a ‘truant disposition’ is to be engaged in this testing that begins in adolescence, and if things go wrong, is given up on in adolescence. The adolescents who give up on this fundamental project turn into adults who secretly envy adolescents, who believe that adolescents are having the best kinds of life available.