I was sitting at our local coffee shop reading a book of Charlotte Mason Summaries a friend recently loaned me, and had just finished reading two small paragraphs that talk about how children have the mark of divinity on them and how we should be careful not to offend them. It was a good reminder. I moved on.
But this shifting of my thoughts was not meant to be.
Several minutes later a few women and a little girl came into the room in which I was working. The girl seemed to be between 2 and 3 years old, and the interactions these adults were having with her were suddenly, and quite simply, jarring. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, I suppose, but suddenly, witnessing the teasing, and flippant way the adults were interacting with this “rotten, handful” of a child (they reminded her several times) seemed to be more the scene of a captive monkey in a cage who was being taunted, than what it was: a pleasant, multi-generational coffee stop. This little girl displayed agitation and an inability to engage. These women appeared to be average, healthy, loving adults. I mean no offense to them in particular, this little girl may have been tired or hungry, but the scene was nonetheless an abrupt reminder that we must fight for the right perspective and attitudes toward our children. I had to leave a few minutes later, and noticed that their entourage had moved to the next room and the girl was sitting pacified by an iPhone. Again, there are times for this, but the whole scene left me unsettled. How often do I take my children’s needs and preferences lightly, and then in frustration pacify them with a device? I mess up daily, hourly, but I keep marching on through the murky waters I poured for myself and pray that God works in me to be the kind of parent He is for my children. I must strive for something better.
This scene was a poignant reminder to me to guard myself carefully as I interact with my sons. I’ll be remembering especially not to take my children’s sense of justice lightly (a thing I remember being specifically guilty of last week), and that misbehaving is not cute and I should never lead my children to believe otherwise.
Being so convicted by this experience, I wanted to explore the full writings of Charlotte Mason on this topic, and was honestly surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to see that she addressed this exact situation, clearly not a new tendency of parents and caregivers.
‘Naughty baby!’ says the mother; and the child’s eyes droop, and a flush rises over neck and brow. It is very wonderful; very ‘funny,’ some people think, and say, ‘Naughty baby!’ when the baby is sweetly good, to amuse themselves with the sight of the infant soul rising visibly before their eyes. But what does it mean, this display of feeling, conscience, in the child, before any human teaching can have reached him? No less than this, that he is born a law abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong. That is how children are sent into the world with the warning, “Take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones.
… But how has it been brought about that the babe, with an acute sense of right and wrong even when it can understand little of human speech, should grow into the boy or girl already proving ‘the curse of lawless heart’? By slow degrees, here a little and there a little, as all that is good or bad in character comes to pass. ‘Naughty!’ says the mother, again, when a little hand is thrust into the sugar bowl; and when a pair of roguish eyes seek hers furtively, to measure, as they do unerringly, how far the little pilferer may go. It is very amusing; the mother ‘cannot help laughing’; and the little trespass is allowed to pass: and, what the poor mother has not thought of, an offence, a cause of stumbling, has been cast into the path of her two-year-old child. He has learned already that which is ‘naughty’ may yet be done with some impunity, and he goes on improving his knowledge. (source)
Last week my attention was brought to a recent piece written by Alan Jacobs entitled Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction and it was difficult for me not to be reminded of this situation again, and grasp at new angles and to dig deeper within myself in regards to the habits of mind and body that allow us as adults, parents, caregivers, to enter into this type of oppressive maneuvering of our children. If you read anything this week, read this article in its entirety. It is good for so many more reasons than I have the time or clarity to portray.
Our ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies’ affects our spiritual and moral lives in every aspect. By our immersion in that ecosystem we are radically impeded from achieving a ‘right understanding of ourselves’ and of God’s disposition toward us. We will not understand ourselves as sinners, or as people made in God’s image, or as people spiritually endangered by wandering far from God, or as people made to live in communion with God, or as people whom God has come to a far country in order to seek and to save, if we cannot cease for a few moments from an endless procession of stimuli that shock us out of thought (Jacobs).
If this is the reality we face as adults and teens, we cannot ignore for long that it must be affecting the way we parent. I feel this in my own life. Do we perhaps have nothing more to offer our children than the same fate of constant distraction and stimulation until their ultimate demise? Children move in and out of moods and emotions easily, and if we allow them, they rise again and move forward with uncanny cheerfulness. (Are there any beings more resilient of mood than children?) It’s a natural process of living and processing our experiences. Are we cheating ourselves, and by consequence them, out of living with and feeling emotions? Do we prod and poke our children into their positions as the disjointed, thoughtless creatures our culture presumes them to be? How are we supposed to treat these little people with giant souls?
Mason offers to us a timeless reminder of the commands of the gospels,
‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘Except ye become as little children ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ ‘And He called a little child, and set him in the midst.’ Here is the Divine estimate of the child’s estate. It is worth while for parents to ponder every utterance in the Gospels about these children, divesting themselves of the notion that these sayings belong, in the first place, to the grown up people who have become as little children. (source)
Our children are so much of what we should be.
I often lament that I feel a barrier between myself and the natural world. I have several good friends who beautifully observe the world around them, drawing their children into their wonder, and declaring it to be the poetry of God that it is. Birds, bugs, leaves, the sky. This disconnect that I feel urges me to grasp at other experiences or tools with which to engage my children. Some are good, but some are not. Am I so distracted that I cannot properly engage with the world around me? I have spent many hours this summer reflecting on my life, my roles, my dreams for my family, our hopes for the future, and I have realized one thing clearly. Without space to think and simply be human, I feel caught in a wind tunnel, unable to hear or see or think. Some of this of course is circumstantial with two young children with me all day. But I see the truth of what Jacobs writes:
I have welcomed this disruptive ecosystem into my mental domicile and invited it to make a home for itself here—like those poor kids who let the Cat in the Hat in.
How can I become more like my children? Free to ponder and discuss the location of the soap tank for the automatic countertop dispensers at a local store. I rush them through, “Dry your hands. Come! Hurry up!” And they just want to peer with dripping hands under the countertops of a public restroom. Perhaps I need to stop trying to make my children more like me. Children push back on our defenses, our expectations and our structure. It is often infuriating, really, but I am not my child’s owner. It is not my duty to push and prod and poke my child into becoming a robot of submission, or the next Mozart or math genius. I am my child’s steward, champion, teacher, wonder-observation-coordinator, example of what it means to be a disciple. Or at least I should be.
Perhaps I should take a few cues from my children. They could be my examples of what it means to expect wonder and discovery at every turn. Rowan Williams muses,
And I think that living in expectancy—living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens— has a great deal to do with discipleship, indeed with discipleship as the gospels present it to us. Interesting (isn’t it?) that in the gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they’re expected to look as well. They’re people who are picking up clues all the way through. (source)
My children are my examples of what it means to be a disciple!? This description paints a vivid picture of childhood, does it not?
We have our own little clue-finders in our midst, pushing us—”Mama! Mama! Look! Guess what!? Watch! Wait!”—reminding us, to taste and see that the Lord is good.
But in trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
William Wordsworth, Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood