I love kids. Or at least I love my kids. As it happens, like other parents, I love my children in a way only I can. Sometimes I just love watching my kids. I love seeing them at play, observing their behaviour as they interact, learn, and discover the world around them. And while most of the time we adults are teaching our children, we often miss out on the fact that they can teach us much too. Of course to learn from our children, it’s important that we welcome them—that we engage them on their terms, meet them at their level.
I was playing outside with my twin boys (then around 2 years of age) Henry and Eli—while my wife and daughter were in Grand Bay, and it was such a pleasure to watch these two little guys toddle around, toss the ball back and forth, throw snow in no particular direction, and explore the various areas in our yard. There was something so simple about their joy in being able to play, in how they enjoyed their environment. Random twigs and pebbles became toys. Walking from the front lawn to the back deck became a fascinating journey. Their hands and feet made new discoveries with each step. Laughter punctuated our silly conversations. There is a freedom in play that only children seem to know. It made me wonder that afternoon what we lose as we grow older. It makes me wonder still if when teaching our children we’ve gotten into the habit of educating them out of their imaginations, that ready playfulness and receptivity to the possibilities of the world around them. It seems, at times, that we don’t want our kids to be kids—at least not for very long.
As I watched my two sons play that Saturday afternoon, it occurred to me that one of the things I could learn from them is to slow down. Sometimes we grown-ups are in a big, fat, hurry. Life moves at a quick pace these days and catching our breath is always a challenge. Now, it may sound silly to think that kids—especially excitedly mobile toddlers!—can teach us about slowing down, but I guess I mean that they don’t yet know the pressure of having to be in a rush. They have the freedom to enjoy their environment, of taking in the world around them one twig or pebble or insect at a time.
We, on the other hand, miss much that is within view. Our day-planners force a certain kind of myopia upon our vision. This can have the effect of losing the ability to take pleasure in little things, like when our daughter, when less than two years old, spent a great deal of time examining a slug crawling along the ground. She declared it to be beautiful. She did the same thing with caterpillars. Without kids going with us on a hike, what else might we miss that is beautiful?
The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, wrote these words: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1 Cor. 13:11).” So maybe we can say that we’ve just grown up. We’ve matured, and put old ways behind us. While the kids around us have an imaginative, playful freedom, it’s something that we should hope for them to outgrow. At some point our children need to “put the ways of childhood behind” them. We’re simply helping them along the maturing process.
Unless, that is, there is a difference between being childish and being child-like. Obviously, our kids are going to grow up. They will mature, change, and become more sophisticated. But do they have to lose their imaginations in the process? Must they forfeit their freedom to enjoy the world around them, to capture in gleeful glimpses its often unrecognized examples of beauty? Should we encourage them to quit playing or should we instead learn to join them?
In our present culture children are growing up faster than ever. From the education system to our media-saturated environment, kids are hardly allowed to be kids any longer. Toys get packed away sooner and sooner. Exposure to questionable subject matter is becoming harder and harder to control in the age of the iPod and Facebook. Pressure on parents to ensure their kids preparedness for life in every respect looms larger than it ever has. Even worse, the school system is geared to introduce ideas to our children at a stage not all parents deem appropriate, ideas of a certain moral and social complexity perhaps best left to parents and out of the classroom altogether.
I wonder if the reason for this pressure kids sometimes face to grow up is that we don’t always take them seriously as people in their own right—they’re only adults-in-waiting, and until they do grow up they are of no significance. Let’s face it, there are a number of social contexts where children are simply in the way. We experience them as a nuisance. In church we murmur under our breath, “Can’t they make their kid shut up?” Or in a line up at Wal-Mart we think, “Boy, that kid sure is a brat!” All these thoughts cross our minds without us ever wondering at the same time if we’ve made appropriate space for these little people to be a part of the community. How have we welcomed them? How have we made room for them?
In the Gospel of Luke, there is this story about Jesus and his disciples: “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”
Jesus’ welcome of children is instructive for us. If he extended hospitality to children, saw their intrinsic value, and even went as far as to suggest that we should be more like children, then this presents us with a challenge both in how we view the kids in our midst and how we interact with them.
Given that in Jesus’ day children were non-persons, the lowest on the low rung of the social ladder, we shouldn’t be surprised at the initial reaction of his disciples. “Those kids don’t belong here! Don’t bother Jesus with your children. He’s got more important things to do!” Sounds like what we might say while waiting in a line-up at Wal-Mart. But Jesus’ attitude was markedly different. Not only did he teach that we should welcome these little ones into our company, receive them kindly, but he also suggested that we should become more like them. They are our example.
In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus makes this even clearer: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
If we not only welcome these little ones but also dare to become more like them, perhaps we too will experience something of the freedom, the natural sense of playfulness, they seem to know almost instinctively. It’s not so natural to us. An adult must stoop to play with a child. And stooping has a certain undignified air about it to us. But maybe it’s in welcoming a degree of childlikeness in ourselves that we most effectively lose childishness and become fuller human beings. Perhaps it’s when we become like one of these children that we can truly say we’ve grown up.