This follows on from my last post about what I’ve learnt about God as Father from my own experience of parenting young kids. This time I want to focus more on what the kids themselves bring to the relationship and the picture.
I must confess that, prior to having my own, I never used to like children much. Other people’s kids seemed on the whole rude, noisy, mean, whiney, unruly and messy – miniature snot-nosed and sticky-fingered forces of chaos. I simply couldn’t understand their behaviour or interests.
I’ve now had a conversion experience; I’ve seen the light. Either that or I’ve gone mad. I think children are fantastic. I love so many of their ideas and attitudes, their view of the world, their way of expressing things, their straightforwardness, their propensity to play. I’m convinced kids have as much to teach us as we them.
That’s absolutely not to say that you have to have kids (or even to like kids much). We’ve all been children, and can hopefully still access something of that ‘inner child’ (mine is fairly active most of the time). Nonetheless, if you do spend any time with kids, I believe they will change you – and mostly for the better (though they may increase your percentage of grey hairs).
Playfulness and simplicity
Perhaps above all children teach you to be playful, to live in the moment, to enjoy simple, ordinary and insignificant things that you’d otherwise miss or not bother with. They have an almost endless capacity for play, for imagination, for turning whatever unpromising props lie to hand into materials for a game or a story. They enter into their play and their stories fully, wholeheartedly, physically and emotionally. I would love to have just a fraction of a child’s energy and excitement and enthusiasm – and often for things which seem bewilderingly unexciting to adults.
Kids have delightfully appalling taste, and the most bizarre sense of humour. They’re also frightened of the oddest things – and unfazed by other things you’d expect them to find terrifying.
Children teach you to see things differently. They see the world more simply and (in some senses) more clearly; literally through child’s eyes. They show you that a lot of grown-up concerns and worries and obsessions don’t matter half as much as you think they do.
They also show you that a lot of grown-up complications and sophistications aren’t as clever as we like to think; that often the childishly simple explanation gets to the heart of the matter where the long-winded adult one misses it. That’s not to denigrate complexity or depth of thought; merely to acknowledge that sometimes we tie ourselves up in unnecessary knots when the plain answer was staring us in the face all along. It takes a child’s voice to cry out ‘But the Emperor has no clothes!’…
The other side of the coin is that children do of course have a fairly limited understanding of the world. They can only understand things up to their level, as you’ll soon discover if you start trying to explain differential calculus, or the workings of global financial markets, to a five-year-old (not that I understand either myself). Mind you, it’s a great exercise to try expressing complicated ideas in a way a child can follow.
And in a way, our own adult understanding isn’t always so much more advanced. Struggling to outline some difficult concept to a child, you can start to appreciate what it must feel like for God trying to explain theology, or the workings of the universe, to finite human beings. You start to understand why the Bible deals at least as much in story, symbolism and poetry as it does in straight fact and proposition. Children get story and poetry in a way that adults may need to rediscover if they’re to get much out of the Bible. Perhaps that’s part of what Jesus meant when he thanked God for hiding his truths from the wise and revealing them to the simple…
Speaking of theology, children will challenge and stretch you with incredibly difficult theological questions, usually at entirely non-ideal moments. My 6-year-old son asked me (out of the blue) whether hell was real, at about 6.55 a.m. one morning when I was in the middle of shaving and due to leave the house in five minutes. At other randomly inconvenient times it might be the Trinity, or other faiths, or ‘why was Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat?’
(These questions are especially challenging when you’re moving away from the standard answers yourself, but want to be able to give an age-appropriately clear answer to your children.)
Children also come out with some great theology themselves. My daughter’s currently convinced that alcohol is evil. When we pointed out that Jesus turned water into wine, she shot back with ‘Just because Jesus did it doesn’t make it right!’ My son once kindly told me ‘Dad, you’re the second best dad in the world’, before going on to explain that ‘God’s the best dad’.
And children can of course be every bit as dogmatic and black-and-white as the best fundamentalist. If an action or word is wrong in one setting, it’s always wrong. If something is true, it’s always true and anything that contradicts it must be false. People are either goodies or baddies. Kids don’t really do nuance or subtlety. But that’s okay; it’s the level of understanding they’re at, and it contains as much truth and complexity as they need at that stage. It’s when we’re fully grown and still haven’t moved past that level of understanding that we need to worry.
Patience, humility, honesty
Children naturally tend not to possess either patience or humility (which is as it should be). But they sure as heck teach you these qualities if you spend any amount of time with them. At the very least they test and try your patience to its limits.
They also humble you, because you see writ large in them your own many failings, and the failings of your parenting. You hear repeated back to you your own ill-considered words, or see your own mannerisms mirrored back. Kids force you to face what kind of person you really are. Indeed, they’re honest to the point of bluntness in expressing their views about your own personal shortcomings (‘Dad, you’re fat’… ‘Dad, why are you always cross?’). You can’t hide your faults from kids – which is actually a good thing.
The more positive side of this is that they are often straightforwardly and refreshingly honest about what they feel and think (and even when they’re not it’s usually fairly easy to detect). There may be some lying and concealing when they think they may be in trouble, but in the early years at least there’s little guile.
And while children may often be naturally selfish, they teach you not to be; they teach you how to serve others when you don’t want to, and even to experience unaccountable joy as you carry out some unpleasant parental duty like washing out soiled nappies. On the other side, they also force you to learn ‘good’ selfishness – how to look after yourself and make sure you get your own needs met while caring for them. I’m still working on that.
Kids show you how you can relate to a God who calls himself your heavenly father. They demonstrate chutzpah and persistence; they test and challenge you; they may disobey you and defy you but they also need and love you completely, and you completely love them. Perhaps above all they teach you about unconditional love – both theirs for you and yours for them.
They also make you pray a lot, because you’re responsible for these dear and fragile lives and often don’t feel equal to the task. You desperately don’t want bad stuff to happen to them, and you want to help them develop their life skills and social skills and spirituality but mostly feel out of your depth.
‘The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these…’
We’ve looked at various qualities children possess in abundance, any of which Jesus might have been referring to when he said this (‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’, Matt 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16).
But perhaps what touched Jesus’ heart most was the way children naturally and spontaneously rushed to him, maybe even hurled themselves at him – recklessly, wholeheartedly, physically, with complete trust and expectation of acceptance, and without worrying about what anyone else would think. They saw someone they liked – who liked them – and made a beeline for him. They wanted to play, to touch, to talk. They probably gabbled away nineteen to the dozen about what they’d just done or thought or seen.
There’s a place for sober weighing of pros and cons, for counting the cost of being a disciple. But it seems to me that this childlike approach is the one that touches God’s heart most. Christianity is always about relationship more than it is about reason or rationality – or respectability.
Postscript: childlike or childish?
So we all know that we’re called to be childlike not childish; that we are to ‘be as little children’ yet also to ‘put away childish things’. Yet what is the difference, really?
I think the two aspects are two sides of the same coin of human nature. Kids have all the very best and worst of human nature in miniature. On the one hand they are trusting, straightforward, playful, joyful, funny, loving, spontaneous. On the other hand they are selfish, spiteful, stroppy, sulky; grasping, controlling, wanting to be the centre of the universe.
But actually, I’d like to suggest that even these ‘negative’ traits actually aren’t bad, just immature. They’re a necessary part of growing up and learning how to be human. We can’t help but start as selfish, and we can use this positively to develop a healthy sense of self, of our worth and needs and boundaries.
Similarly, we sometimes need to be stroppy and even fight. Watching kids squabbling as they negotiate their social boundaries isn’t any more pleasant than listening to a child’s first scraping notes on a violin. But both are necessary first stages. And while kids do argue and fight all the time, their strops and spats blow over far more quickly than adult ones.
Early theologian Iranaeus suggested that Adam and Eve’s ‘Fall’ was childish immaturity rather than adult rebellion, and that the human race simply needed to grow up (as opposed to Augustine’s views on original sin). In one sense the whole Bible is a history of God’s slow, long-term parenting of his wayward children until they grow to maturity; leading us to the point where he can relate to us as adults and friends who no longer need his discipline.
Nonetheless, true growing-up doesn’t merely reject or replace childhood. Rather it encompasses and raises it up, so that in the truly wise and mature adult there will still always be something of the child.