In interviews, Orson Scott Card has argued that adults simply don’t understand children. There was never a point in his life, he’s said, during which he felt like a “child”—in other words, he never thought in the simplistic, sentimental ways that children supposedly think. It’s no surprise that the author of Ender’s Game feels this way—there’s not a single child in the novel who thinks in the “simplistic terms” Card derides. Indeed, it takes us a few pages before we realize that the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is only six years old—based on the way his mind works, he could be sixteen, or even thirty-six.
And yet in spite of Card’s objections to the sentimentalized ways children are usually portrayed in literature, it’s important to think about the role of childhood in his novel. Children aren’t just tiny adults: to begin with, their youth allows them to be educated and trained for purposes that aren’t their own. This is the point of the Battle School: rather than enlisting seasoned soldiers, the IF enrolls young children in their program. If the IF begins its training programs early enough, then its children will grow into (or be manipulated into) soldiers whose abilities far exceed those of soldiers in previous human wars. With this in mind, the IF forces children to spend their entire waking lives studying and participating in battle.
Paradoxically, even though the IF’s children are trained to enjoy the competition of fighting, the children’s other great advantage over adult soldiers is that they’ve never been in an actual war. Using games, simulations, and propaganda, the IF teaches Ender and his peers to enjoy war, without ever exposing them to mass death, injury, or panic—in other words, the things that make experienced soldiers despise war. The result is an army of brilliant, highly-trained, war-loving soldiers who are nevertheless ignorant—and innocent—of war. At the end of the novel—after Ender destroys the Buggers—Mazer Rackham explains to Ender why this combination of innocence and experience is so lethal. Only a young child, ignorant of the traumas of a battle, could defeat the Buggers, because only a young child could muster the creativity and energy necessary to win such a battle. Childhood, at least according to Orson Scott Card, isn’t so much a state of mind as it is an absence of adult experiences. The IF, recognizing children’s potential for combat, seeks to give them the right experiences for winning a war.
But if Card defines childhood as the absence of adulthood, what does it mean to become an adult? The adults in Ender’s Game who have been tasked with Ender’s education at Battle School are largely indifferent to whether or not Ender grows into a mature, well-adjusted man. Even if they express some guilt over their actions, their overriding goal is always to push Ender into becoming a commander capable of destroying the Buggers. In the interest of doing so, they wage psychological war on Ender, distancing him from his friends and throwing him into dangerous situations.
In the end, Ender grows up, but not because of Battle School or his teachers. Instead, he becomes an adult by atoning for his destruction of the Bugger species. In order to do so, Ender must recognize that he has committed a horrible crime by killing the Buggers. He must then accept that he, more than anyone else, is qualified to understand the Buggers, and finally, he must search for a new home for the Buggers. This takes time and effort, and is just as challenging for Ender as his time in Battle School was. As the final sentence of Ender’s Game (“He looked a long time”) suggests, coming of age isn’t a matter of learning a lesson: on the contrary, to grow up, a child needs to self-reflect, accept that he’s capable of evil, and then try to do good.
Childhood and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Childhood and Growing Up Quotes in Ender’s Game
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the Buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid Bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the Buggers came again.
“They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. But you’re also a badge of cowardice, because they dare not go further and practice the noncompliance they still feel is right.”
He could not cry. There was no chance that he would be treated with compassion. Dap was not Mother. Any sign of weakness would tell the Stilsons and the Peters that this boy could be broken.
“Ender Wiggin is ten times smarter and stronger than I am. What I’m doing to him will bring out his genius. If I had to go through it myself, it would crush me.”
Ender wanted to undo his taunting of the boy, wanted to tell the others that the little one needed their help and friendship more than anyone else. But of course Ender couldn’t do that. Not on the first day. On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan.
He caught her wrist in his hand. His grip was very strong, even though his hands were smaller than hers and his own arms were slender and tight. For a moment he looked dangerous; then he relaxed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You used to tickle me.”