Learning from Children

(The Nationalist, 22 September 2006)


As every young parent knows, small children are not always delightful and charming creatures. They can be cruel; they can cheat and steal, and then lie about it with happy abandon; they can be wilful and bad-tempered. They can develop to a fine art the skill of getting on a tired parent’s nerves in order to be bought off with having their own way.

Yet, on one occasion, Jesus held up a small child as an example to his followers, saying that the child was what they should emulate if they wished to be truly his disciples.

Was he being naïve, or sentimental to the point of sloppiness? That seems unlikely. In the gospel, while Jesus was sometimes emotional – one of his emotions was anger, a not uncommon feature of the gospel – there wasn’t anything sentimental about him. On the contrary, he was realistic, down to earth, could see clearly to the heart of matters, and could sometimes be pretty tough.

So what did he mean? I can think of two possibilities. One is that children have no difficulty in acknowledging their dependence. It’s the most natural thing in the world for a child to ask one or other of the parents for something. They don’t feel shy about it, or any need to prepare a speech beforehand. It comes naturally.

The gospel is a declaration of dependence. Throughout his life, Jesus was in every respect utterly centred on God, and acknowledged his dependence on him. Jesus saw no virtue in blowing the trumpet of independence. He didn’t say, ‘I’ll do my own thing; I’ll make up my own mind; I’ll decide for myself; I’ll do what I want’. Quite the opposite; for him, doing what God wanted was the only thing that counted: ‘Not my will, but yours, be done’.

The other possibility is that a child, especially a small one, doesn’t pretend to be something that he or she is not. A child is true to him/herself, doesn’t put on airs or graces, or hide behind a mask of pretence. A child is content to be what s/he is, and would approve of what William Shakespeare wrote in his play, Hamlet,

‘This, above all – to thine own self be true,
and then, it must follow,
as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man’.
(Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80)

Jesus never asked people to put on a performance for him. He wanted them to be honest, to tell it like it is, to speak and live the truth. Adults play games with the truth. As the poet T. S. Eliot said, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’. (Burnt Norton, I.) Yet a child can cope with reality much better than with lies or pretence. It recognizes solid ground under its feet.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the child after all.


For those in a hurry: ‘Be careful what you give your children – because they’ll give it back to you’. (Barbara Kingsolver)