In America, Children Are Both Exalted And Exploited. Instead, They Should Be Learning From Their Elders NO ONE who knows me would deny that I am fond of children. Yes, children in abundance, I say; but, children in their place, I add. By the end of another Christmas in America, the Scrooge in me has formed a new collective noun: a chill of children.

Those interminably uplifted and expectant faces, when they think that they can wheedle something out of one! Those interminably pouting and accusing faces, when they find that one cannot be wheedled! Americans are not the most prolific of peoples, so why do their children always seem to be everywhere? No wonder the moment comes when the sight of another child's face makes one chill.

It is not only visitors from Britain who, for two centuries, have complained about the terrorism of the American child: when Henry James returned to the United States, it was one of the phenomena on which he fixed. Something must be done about it before the Tricentennial.

I have always admired a friend who is now a judge in England and who, on one occasion, when my 3-year-old son was disrupting an adult occasion, took him aside to show him the immense kneehole of his mahogany desk. "Simon, my dear chap," he said, "that is a cave. It is the deepest cave in the world, with treasures that have never been found. Go and find the treasures." Simon crawled into the cave and, three hours later, could hardly be fetched out, since he had not found the treasure. When he was at last extracted, his "Uncle Billy" said to him magisterially, "Ah, didn't find any treasure, Simon? I found a little the other day, so you have it," and gave him two half-crowns. That is what "Uncle Billys" are for: to buy off children before they chill.

But it is not really of children that I am thinking. The whole question of generations is one which has received far less attention from historians or philosophers or sociologists than it deserves. One looks around an assembled group during the Christmas holidays, and wonders where the line of generations can be sensibly drawn.

This question seems to me all the more interesting because I think it is now generally agreed -- although only a few at the time had the intelligence and even courage to say it -- that the notion of a "generation gap" in the 1960s was a fiction created by the media. If anyone thinks that there was a "generation gap" in the 1960s, he or she should read Jerry Rubin's "Do It!" which is one of the primary documents of the times. He was not rebelling against his middle-class parents; he was merely carrying their own behavior and attitudes one step further. His book is almost a song of praise to his parents: "You taught us... You showed us." The demoralization of middle-class parents in the 1960s was largely the result of their own recognition that their children were the reflection of their examples.

The idea of a "generation gap" obscured the fact that there may have been a genuine social and political protest to be made; it was a useful way of channeling the protest into harmless activities of picking daisies, drugs and making love. It was also exactly what the commercial side of the media wanted: here was the youth market delivered into their hands. Generation gap? Why, yes. Here are your records. Here are your jeans. Here are your lollipops. Billions upon billions of dollars of them.

IT SEEMS TO ME that the only way to begin to talk honestly about this mysterious question of generations is personally. As I grow older I find that more and more of my life is necessarily attuned to those who are half my age. They may edit my copy! Some of them may even be my editors! There are even a few who take it into their heads to commission work from me! And out of the unestimated number of them, a handful become as true and vivid friends as in all one's life.

The difference of age falls away very quickly. I do not think that they spend much time thinking of me as "old," any more than I spend much time thinking of them as "young." But the difference of generation seem sto me quite another matter. And it seems to me not a gap, but a bridge.

As I contemplate my new-found friends, my mind strays back a quarter of a century, to the time when I was as young as they, and I made firm friends among people as old as I now am. Those elders are now mostly dead. I never thougth of them at the time as "older" than me, or of myself as "younger." Yet they were of a generation not mine, and into my ears and mind, and willing heart, they poured all their generation. They encouraged me, as no one of my generation could have done, from their own experience. If they took that trouble, I would live up to it.

They just had the time of day for me. From their own generation. If I were to pick out one -- and why should I not use the name of a dead beloved friend? -- it would be Philip Harding. He was an editorial writer on The Times of London when I was a brash and up-and-coming one. Royal Marines. Col. P.J.R. Harding, to be exact.

It was about 10 years after the end of World War II, and the Wren churches in the City of London were just being rebuilt. I had not known them as a schoolboy; I had never seen them whole. He knew them all like the back of his hand. Again and again at lunch-time, he took me on walks to see them being rebuilt. Only from another generation could he have been such a guidebook.

And from another generation there was more. Royal Marines, he may have been. He had also had a troublesome relationship with the Communist Party in the 1930s. Bit by bit, as he let names and incidents be known, he gave me a picture of what it was like to be a Communist "intellectual" in Britain in the 1930s, which no memoir that I have read even touches in its detail. One day perhaps I will write his story, but what interested me here is that, without any sense of difference of age, the difference of generation was a bridge.

There is a difference even in vocabulary. He often corrected mine and I, not less, often presumed to correct his own. But it is a bridge to be kept firm on both sides, and never lightly or too eagerly to be crossed. My own description of this difference between generations would be that, whereas two people of the same generation may meet in the middle of the bridge, and then continue on together one way or the other, people of different generations meet in the middle, stay there and converse and then go back their own ways. It is just about as precious a way of knowing someone as any other that is more likely to be celebrated.

GENERATIONS ARE the purveyors of memories. Not only the memories of the older generation to the young, but the memories of the future which the young already hold. To cross the bridge would spoil it all, and America has too casual a sense of generations.

In one of his few masterful essays about America, which is reprinted in "The Dyer's Hand," W.H. Auden said that America needed an aristocracy. An aristocracy not of birth, certainly, and even more surely, not of wealth. What it needed, he said, was an aristocracy of age. The most urgent need in America was for initiation rites. He struck deep there into the American soul, much deeper, as far as I am concerned, than Tocqueville. And one is returned, at that point, to the chill of children.

The children are so ubiquitous -- and so similar, one may add -- because the parents have conceded. It is the parents who have crossed the bridge, when their children only wanted to meet them halfway. These children are not pampered, as the criticism usually goes, they are despoiled: the parents use them as sites to plunder, where they may find the elixir of youth. To say that the American child is spoiled is a commonplace, but that it is spoiled rotten may be nearer the truth. Jerry Rubin's main chant in "Do It!" -- and his main complaint -- is that the children always won against their parents. This may be changing but, for it to matter in the long run, a sea change in American culture is necessary.

The greatest lack in America is the elders, outside the family, who are at least as trusted by the child as the parents. Elders who are friends but, equally, do not attempt to cross the bridge. When I heard from my English master at school that Arthur Waugh, the father of Alec and Evelyn Waugh, lived down the hill, I exclaimed with all my 12-year-old enthusiasm that I wished to meet him. My English master arranged that I should call on him for afternoon tea. The door was opened by the most imposing Victorian figure I have ever met -- he was a great publisher in his own right -- and I lifted my school cap and said, "Fairlie, sir. Mr. Stevenson sent me, sir. Please, sir." The huge Victorian frame gathered me in.

He of some 80 years; I almost a seventh of his age. I sat on the edge of my chair, as he pressed sandwiches on me from silver plates, and I said, "Tennyson, sir, he's my favorite... No, not Browning, sir... I don't think I understand Browning." 8e had met the Great _ictorians! He had published them! At the end of tea, I said, "Thank you, sir, thank you," and he said, "Why don't you come, Fairlie, to tea next Thursday." From that day on, I had tea each Thursday with Arthur Waugh until both our lives were disrupted by Hitler.

As we grew to know each other, I sat less awkwardly on the edge of my chair, and he talked more and more about writing, including some pointed remarks about his son Evelyn: "Evelyn can write, but he can't write a novel. His work may live. But he's not a novelist." This enormous friendship with a man so much my senior. What can I say? I can say that neither of us thought of crossing generations. We enjoyed the bridge too much.