Children Like Ender

As a friend of mine living in Germany informed me, Ender’s Game has already started to play in some markets, and the United States release is coming up this week. With that in mind, I thought I’d return to the novel once more.

In the days before The Hunger Games and Battle Royale made the idea of children murdering each other part of mainstream entertainment, the combination of very young characters and serious violence was one of the more provocative and controversial elements of Ender’s Game. Young Ender Wiggin is only six years old when he beats another child to death, and he subsequently kills another kid with his bare hands while in Battle School. Orson Scott Card described one reader who criticized the book for unrealistic depiction of children by noting that “it was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak.” He went on to write that the simplest explanation for why the children in the book don’t think and act the way (some) adults expect children to think and act is that they don’t think of themselves as children. As Card put it, “Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along.”

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra and Asa Butterfield as Ender from the film.

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra and Asa Butterfield as Ender from the film. They are only portrayed at their oldest ages from the book in the film, but in the text Ender is six years old when he arrives at Battle School in the book.

The concept of childhood is a common theme for the child soldiers in the book. One of Ender’s earliest friends at the Battle School, Dink, tells Ender “I’ve got a pretty good idea what children are, and we’re not children.” Dink then observes, “We never cry. We really are trying to be adults.”  But of course they are still children, even if they refer to themselves as “soldiers” or “launchies”. They are just children who are being denied the comfort and safety of a real childhood. As Graff makes clear: “Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way.” Ender himself comes to embody that philosophy as well. His first thoughts of Bean, his youngest and smallest soldier, are that “He was a child. He was young.” But then Ender corrects himself:

No he isn’t, thought Ender. Small, yes. But Bean has been through a battle with a whole army depending on him and on the soldiers that he led, and he performed splendidly, and they won. There’s no youth in that. No childhood.

Ender's confrontation with Stilson as depicted in the graphic novel.

Ender’s confrontation with Stilson as depicted in the graphic novel.

Once again: it’s not that the young characters are not children. It’s that their circumstances are not childlike. There’s no nurturing and safe environment. And it’s goes beyond just Battle School: Valentine observes to Peter, “They call us children and treat us like mice.”

There’s absolutely nothing new with adolescent themes of estrangement, of course. Every teenager spends a decent amount of their time feeling that no one else understands. And so it’s a pretty common theme in literature targeted to that audience. But Ender’s Game wasn’t originally written as YA fiction and (for me at least) the resonance is actually much more profound as I get older than it was when I read the novel as a child myself.

The reason for the resonance is that I’ve come to believe more and more that adulthood is a fiction. I believe that in deep and meaningful ways there are only children on this Earth, and it brings new meaning to old phrase, “I am a child of God.”

Obviously I’m not denying physiological development, going beyond just size and sexual maturity to encompass myriad changes in brain function and so on. But I do think that a lot of the elements of “growing up” are faked, and faked badly. To be an adult is to take on responsibility, to not show fear, to teach instead of to learn. These are all necessary activities as we age, and we shouldn’t shirk from them. But we should probably also keep in mind that we’re just pretending. It’s a facade. We frequently feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, taste fear on the inside no matter what we show to the outside world, and realize that we are desperately in need of someone to teach and guide us.

The mirage of competent adulthood is only possible to maintain within the narrow confines of artificial routine. The more we specialize, the easier it is for us to swim in the shallow waters of our specialties. To feel secure. As long as we’re doing today more or less the same thing that we did yesterday we think that we are masters. But all it takes is one really unexpected jolt to our every day routine to break the spell and shatter the narrative. An emergency, a tragic loss, a terminal diagnosis: we are all naked and tiny before the jaws of pain and fear. At our core, I think there’s really not very much to separate our adult selves from our much younger identities.

The converse holds as well, by which I mean that young children are surprisingly more “mature” than we might tend to assume. One of the most surprising things for me, as a parent of very young children, was how early in their lives they displayed a sense of dignity that was just as vibrant as any adult. Of course, without a richly developed sense of social context, little kids don’t as easily recognize when they are being patronized. But when they do detect it, they react with the same affront as any adult might. In their hopes, their fears, their aspirations, their desire for self-direction little children are not acting out some shallow and superficial simulacrum. They live the real deal.

And that’s part of what appealed to me most about Ender’s Game in my most recent read through. The sense of being overwhelmed and vulnerable, of being a child, is not something that I’ve ever grown out of. A couple of decades of experience have given me the kind of context that makes it easier to maintain my equilibrium when facing experiences similar to what I have felt before, but I find that life has ways of throwing you new experiences no matter how prepared you think you are. And also that some old pains–and also joys–can strike again in the most unexpected of times and places.

I find that when I maintain this perspective, I have much more modest expectations for myself and–more importantly–for others. If there’s one thing that we get better at doing as we get older, it’s concealing vulnerability. And that’s really quite tragic, I think, because so much of the worst behavior in ordinary human life stems from misdirected reactions to pain and fear in an attempt to conceal weakness. I find that I can be more patient and empathic when I think of others (and myself, this isn’t patronizing) as children. As in a bit over our heads.

And not just in a bit over our heads, but also in the deep end together. We have so very many different ways of trying to get the things that we want that it’s easy to forget we mostly want the same things. We have so many different ways of experiencing life that we tend to forget we’re often living very similar lives. The little feelings of peace when the wind blows across your face and clouds race across a blue sky or the heavy dread of not being sure you will succeed at a task you really, really want to accomplish: these little hopes and fears and pleasures and pains are the building blocks of our lives, and they are common across ages and cultures and time and place.

We really are all children of God.

And yes, it may seem strange to derive lessons about ordinary life from a tale of genocidal warfare in space, but that’s part of the point isn’t it? I am a geek with sci-fi in my blood and the stars always in my eyes. It’s how I live and breathe, but in a way it’s just the surface. As alien as Ender’s imagined experiences are from my real, every day life: they resonate. How much more, then, should the lives of my real neighbors–who might have zero interest in imaginary interstellar ships–resonate with me as well?

(Note, this is the third in my series of posts about Ender’s Game. The first is here, and the second is here.)

12 comments for “Children Like Ender

  1. “We really are all children of God.”

    We really are all creatures of God. When the gospel is heard and faith comes, we become His children. Until then we are lost.

    Great review of the movie!

    Thanks, very much.

  2. Two middle paragraphs (the ones starting with “Obviously” and “The mirage”) were simply beyond brilliant.

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. “Every teenager spends a decent amount of their time feeling that no one else understands.”

    This is a theme that I see often. I don’t relate at all. I’ve never had the “no one understands” feeling now or as a teenager. Is it really so common?

  4. This is a theme that I see often. I don’t relate at all. I’ve never had the “no one understands” feeling now or as a teenager. Is it really so common?

    I think it is.

    The catch is that it isn’t so blatant as a teenager moping and saying “No one understands me.” That’s just the most obvious example of it. What’s far more prevalent, I think, is that teenagers act as if their experiences were unique and opaque to the outside world. Primarily by refusing or discounting the advice of those who are older and wiser, for example.

    I think the same is true of the other major adolescent stereotype: that teenagers think they will live forever. Obviously most are smart enough to be aware of their mortality in an intellectual sense, but if you look at the decisions they make there is frequently a total failure to plan for the future which is, again, an action consistent with a belief in immortality. Whether its running their bodies ragged in high school and college athletics (damn the injuries!) or taking absurd risks for low gain, they act as though they think they are immortal, even if they theoretically grasp the fact that they are not.

  5. Long before Ender there was Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.

    Protected childhood is a relatively recent invention, I thought. Considering all the chidren who have been chimneysweeps, mine workers, mill workers, and sold into indentured servitude or worse…

  6. agree that I never felt like a child nor do I feel like a senior citizen now. I just felt like me. and never had that nobody understands me feeling. See that as a self created attitude used as an excuse to either get out of responsibilities or talk rudely to an adult. nobody understand me either.

  7. Nice try at pop psychology. But it did make me reflect on the fact that I’m pretty much Scott Card’s opposite. I’ve never felt like an adult. I’ve always felt much younger than I am, and I often act that way. But that doesn’t mean that I am maintaining a “mirage of competent adulthood.” I have to do some very adult things, and I often do them quite well, and it’s no mirage. It’s the real deal.

    Now, about being children of God. Yes, perhaps, but God doesn’t want us to remain children. He expects us to grow up. That’s what mortality is about. But the whole notion of spirit birth has been brought into question recently. On a few levels, it doesn’t compute. I’ve come to believe, as Sam Brown suggests, that we weren’t born to heavenly parents in a process similar to mortal conception, gestation, and parturition. Besides, Joseph Smith never taught this. This doctrine evolved later. Much more likely is our adoption by a more advanced being, who covenanted with us to become our “Father” and place us in spheres where we could become like him. Anyway, the math alone should make us a bit suspicious of the “spirit birth” idea.

  8. As far back as I can remember, I have basically felt like I was 30 years old. That was the feedback I got from people I met for the first time in all sorts of circumstances, as well as old friends. I have never had that feeling of invulnerability that leads teenagers to take foolish risks. I also never felt intimidated by the older people who were my teachers.

    I still feel about 30, even though my body gets weird aches and pains and fails me in other ways.

    An interesting take on Ender’s Game. I am planning on taking my oldest grandson to see the movie this weekend for his 14th birthday. He took up playing Halo on the original X-Box some 10 years ago, and was soon able to beat some of his Dad’s peers.

    I have seen some remarks in stores about the movie marveling at Card’s prescience about the use of the internet as a forum for anonymous political debate and essays. He was also prescient about the direction that computer gaming would go in, before he actually worked in that field, both in the action shooting adventure genre that is described in the main story, and in the story puzzle genre that Ender experiences on the side.

  9. Lew-

    But it did make me reflect on the fact that I’m pretty much Scott Card’s opposite. I’ve never felt like an adult.

    Card said: “Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along.” Note that “person” is not a synonym for “adult”. His point wasn’t to take a side on the child vs. adult question, but rather to state that the whole distinction is irrelevant.

    That’s similar to the point I’m making: we’re all persons, and the age distinctions seem artificially significant because of our curtailed perspective. I’m pretty sure that to an advanced being like God the difference between the hopes and fears of a young child and elderly adult seem much less significant than they do to us.

    Fundamentally: I think we want pretty much the same things throughout our entire life. We crave acceptance and relationships with others. We fear rejection and isolation. We want safety and rest and comfort. We avoid discomfort and ambiguity and confusion. That, I think, is Card’s point: we’re all just people.

    I just took it one step farther and said that we’re all people and–relative to God–we’re all relatively helpless, ignorant, confused, and dependent. Which I see as attributes of children that are less culturally dependent than the relatively modern Romantic invention.

  10. Raymond-

    I have seen some remarks in stores about the movie marveling at Card’s prescience about the use of the internet as a forum for anonymous political debate and essays.

    Yeah, his accuracy was actually pretty astounding. TCP/IP (one of the foundational protocols that made the Internet as we know it possible) wasn’t unrolled until 1982 and Ender’s Game came out in 1985. The very first BBS (precurors to modern message boards) were also just going online.

    He also has the kids in Battle School using devices that seem a lot like modern tablets. All in all, he did a great job of getting the Internet culture right.

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