Children: some wisdom from the ages

4 Sep

On this ‘Fathers Day’ I thought to share some delightful things I have found through my reading, about children. I think there is a lot of sentimental nonsense written, at times, about children, but then too there is much wisdom to be gained from them, as well as about them.

For instance, the saying of Jesus in the Christian Testament, that ‘unless you become as little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18.3)—first of all, the idea of ‘entering’ is difficult, as is what is meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven’: but what is meant by changing and becoming as little children?

All too easily this is confused with becoming childish. That confusion has encouraged generations of devout or good-intentioned people towards behaviour which is basically irresponsible, morally shallow and short-sighted. I cannot imagine that Jesus, who was morally insightful and wise, would be encouraging such things. My sense is much more that he was encouraging an attitude of openness, wonder, and a willingness to recognize that we are not the centre of the universe. We receive life, rather than create ourselves. We are children of life, of the universe: and we have much growing to do. Life is not finished, but is rather an immense and exciting vista opening up before us, and we are only just becoming aware of it. That, I think, is something of what this saying might mean for us. (And it is wonderful when we meet this kind of attitude in people who are biologically old! Does it take us that long to reach there?)

Recently, in preparing for a sermon I will deliver next week, I went in search of a saying of the German poet and philosopher Goethe about children. I found not only the one I wanted, but several others, and thought to share these as further wisdom about children, from wise ones who have gone before us. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived from 1749 to 1832.)

If children grow up according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses. This saying remarks on the fact that almost all parents consider their child to be wonderful, amazing—often especially gifted, whether in speech or intelligence or physical abilities or all of these! So we tell our friends about all this, with much love and enthusiasm. And that is just fine, so long as we then go on to allow that in reality there are very few geniuses, and in fact most of us make that large central part of the bell curve! ‘Normal’. So we need to learn to affirm our child’s achievements without creating this unfortunate and indeed oppressive expectation that everything she or he does is somehow exceptional. In short, we just need to be realistic and truthful—which leads me to another of Goethe’s gems.

Unlike grownups, children have little need to deceive themselves.  That really needs no commentary. But its impact is strengthened when we add to it this one:

Too many parents make life harder for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.  We do not help our children by shielding them from the truth, about themselves and about ourselves, and about the realities of life around us. For sure, we need to protect them from many horrible things, and it is tragic that in many ways childhood as such has been lost, today, through children being subjected to pressures that drive them into adolescence long before they are ready for it, and so on. Still, Goethe is right: we need to help children to learn that not everything is easy, not everything is just given to you, or comes instantly: some things require hard work, most things you have to wait for, and there are some things you may want but will never happen or may never come your way. To foster delusions is not to make life easy for our children, but in fact to make it harder.

So then, this final gem: There are two things parents should give their children: roots and wings. Roots, to give them bearings and a sense of belonging, but also wings to help free them from constraints and prejudices and give them other ways to travel. 

One final observation of my own, however. When Goethe urges that parents should do these things for children, I think this is too simplistic. As that now popular saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, I’d want to say that these wise sayings invite a collective and wider family and community effort.

All parents are wearing L-plates. Nothing prepares us for this most important of tasks. We are all amateurs, and we all need wider guidance, support, and the humility to say that we can’t do it all by ourselves. (All the more so in our ‘nuclear’ family age, when often we are separated from our wider families, and when so many parents are doing this alone.) We could be helping each other out a bit! Generational wisdom should be preserved and neighbours can lend a hand, or a wise word, from time to time, without interfering. The fact is children need more than 2 adults to relate to, and parents need other parents and other adults to share the journey with. We too need to have something of that attitude of children, with which I began: that sense of wonder, expectation, hope—and knowing that we don’t know it all. And thus we just might enter the ‘kingdom’ of joy and healing together, even with our children!


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