In children, our own hearts are often rent by seeing our greatest fears reflected in theirs. So, Jesus bids us to come to him in all things as children.
I sat at the picnic table in the deserted prep school courtyard with one of my students one late November day. He was sobbing, and I had just pulled him out from P.E. class in hopes that he might be spared the embarrassment of the cloud bursting in front of his classmates. He is one of the most contagiously happy children I have ever known, so it was with a bit of concern that I had watched him choke back those tears during history class to avoid breaking down right there at his desk. At last, his resistance was able to give way.
The source of his sadness seemed somewhat superficial at first, the gut-punch springing from the collision of high expectations meeting the reality of a lower test grade. His score was still a good one, but it wasn’t perfect, and as he poured forth his story, it became clear that those tears had little to do with the actual grade and far more to do with his young heart encountering—maybe even for the first time—the very “grown-up” fear of the inherent inadequacy of falling short of fixed marks despite his best intentions and efforts. My own heart was rent by seeing some my greatest fears so clearly reflected in his.
I’ve watched this scene and others like it play out a number of times during this first year of teaching. Not only tearful moments, either, but moments of unrestrained, face-splitting glee, as well. Time and again, I have thanked the good Lord for the privilege of witnessing childhood from the front row, and undergirding this gratitude has been a renewed awareness of just how terribly precious the heart of a child truly is. Indeed, I have been reminded that the aches and joys of any human heart, including its sin and its Remedy, cannot be separated into neat piles of “adult concerns” and “children’s issues,” as if we shed the latter to embrace the former at some arbitrary point along the path of “growing up.”
We know this is true by intuition, I think, but we typically do a poor job of living it out in multiple ways. For one, we are tempted to dismiss the children’s problems by default, simply because we do not believe those problems rise to the magnitude of our own adult struggles. For another, we sometimes pass off their moments of disrespect and disobedience, of selfishness and willful pride, as merely “childish” misbehavior, even though, as Augustine notes in his Confessions, “Such faults are not small or unimportant… The same faults are intolerable in older people.”1 Finally, I fear that we too often look on their moments of wild gladness with merely the eye of an amused or even affectionate observer, forgetting that such unreserved joy might be the very thing for which we too were created.
Any such attitudes are injustices to the children, of course—they run the risk of taking for granted a child’s remarkable resiliency and the fact that Adam’s curse applies to even the most angelic of them, as well. But we also do a grave disservice to ourselves by calling something “childish” before we call it “human,” for if we look seriously into the heart of a child, we can frequently understand the joys and sorrows and sins of our own lives with startling clarity, just as I understood my heart a little better while sitting at that picnic table with a weeping boy that afternoon.
I think Marilynne Robinson begins to capture this phenomenon in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead: “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant.” 2 I would expand her observation to apply to children in general.
In a child’s face, we can observe a type of honesty that is noticeably absent from our own well-practiced and proud visages. Children naturally engage life at face value until they learn to do otherwise. Moreover, while they have not the wisdom to discern many of life’s nuances, perhaps this kind of vulnerability allows them to more unequivocally rejoice in goodness and weep at the presence of sadness, and maybe even to confess and forgive with hearts that are more willing to offer grace and accept it, as well. In this, I cannot help but wonder if many children are actually quite a bit more “fully human” than most adults. It is no wonder that when my friends ask me how the new job is going, I typically respond by noting that the kids are likely teaching me far more than I could ever hope teach them.
Several times during the course of the year, I’ll be assigned to greet the students as they arrive at our school’s front gate every morning. Some of them pass through as if they were wearing jet packs instead of book bags; others walk in slowly with furtive glances back to their parents—parents whose expressions are often almost as anxious. Still other children, particularly the little ones, show up with saltwater streaks still fresh on their faces, and Lord only knows why.
I pray for them as they make their way up the outdoor hallway, and moreover I pray for myself, that somehow I’d be given the grace to take them seriously in every possible way. And as the morning sun drapes itself over our campus, dropping down through the cracks in the roof to tinge their small figures with gold, I am comforted by the reminder that the Man from Galilee takes them seriously in ways I could never imagine. I am reminded that I myself am still a child. And I thank God that he still bids the little children to come to him, bearing with them their test scores, their quiet confessions, and their not-so-quiet praises.
Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts | Benjamin West Christ Blessing the Little Children
1. Saint Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 28.
2. Robinson, Marilynne, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 66.