Being a child means growing up
It is fashionable to say that childhood is not a preparatory stage in being human.
This is right insofar as it is true that the child is truly human and to be respected as such.
It is not right if it is said the child is fully human and so does not need to wait to grow up to be fully human.
Why is that not right? Because it seeks to combat a false notion falsely. The false notion is that adult humanity is full humanity and so normative and so also the goal of the child. That view of adult humanity is not to be combatted by the child’s engaging in a competitive struggle seeking to be accepted as being as fully human as adults. The right way to combat this notion is to remember that adults are not fully human but are still on the way. It helps to take away the word mature from people who have got beyond childhood chronologically – which is quite easy since they shame themselves again and again by their many different immaturities.
Adult behaviour is supposed to be responsible and a good model for children; but adult entertainment is precisely what we don’t want children to see or get involved in. Adulthood is still human, being a mixed up condition, messed about and messing about, tempted, not trustworthy, needing radical decision and daily turning towards what we have not yet attained. The adult is thus like the child, not in some perfection of ideal being (which is how child is almost always seen in religious and other child advocacy) but in imperfection, in being ‘not-yet’, in needing to live as a pilgrim. A pilgrim is not a lost wanderer – a pilgrim has a destination, and he knows he is not there yet.
I do not count myself already to have got there – Paul in Phil 3, a key text.
This is a more hopeful way of looking at the child than claiming they are fully human and should not be seen as beings in a preparatory stage of existence. Instead of pretending they are in a state, they are to be seen truly as on the way. And thus they are human, with other humans, and they are what they will be all their lives – immature but perhaps growing. The best way to stay immature and not growing is to imagine we have already arrived.
This theological and religious view of child is not only in line with Jesus and the Bible, but it fits empirical knowledge and necessary practice. There is no value in idealising children and having a picture of them which is contradicted by reality. And it is not any part of the duty of faith or theology to help us to believe what is incredible. It is obvious that children are in a preparatory stage of life. They are only children for a few years and we hope they may live for a hundred. They are not ready to take on many of the tasks, both in self-management, social relations and working in the world, which have to be done if people are to live for more than a few days. So they are kept out of these things, and we guard childhood (Rowan Williams, Lost Icons). But these years before they can take on the struggles of life (tilling the ground with sweat, bearing children with tears) are not empty leisure. Children are not blessed when they grow up without chores (Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, ‘Children, Chores and Vocation: A theological and social lacune, in P.M. Brennan The Vocation of the Child (2008) pp 295-326). Whether or not they are educated well, children busy themselves with growing up. They are carried forward in time, and leave the past behind quite easily – they do not want to go back to being like the ‘little children’ as they see those who are merely two or three years younger than themselves. Children thus bear witness to the nature of childhood as a short passing form of life which is directed towards the future.
Both in our theory and practice, we should not contradict the way children are. We rightly object to parenting which is in love with the baby and won’t let her become a little child. But there are grand and respectable theories which do the same.
William Wordsworth as a child theologian
Wordsworth and Gray
Beware of the seductive ambiguity of Wordsworth’s view of children in Intimations of Immortality. As we shall see, there is more than a grain of truth in this poem, but it has, over two centuries, been seriously misleading at some points. The damage is done fairly early in the poem, in probably its most quoted words; the later parts which go a long way to limit the damage are less noticed. The poem is in some ways a significant even exemplary piece of child theology, a witness to the grace given through the child in the midst. For the child is observed (lines 19-36) and thus gives the weary, ageing poet joy and strength, and challenges him to give up grief as he goes along with the ‘Child of Joy shouting round me’. That is his enlivening experience of the child in the springtime and he is rightly grateful for it, and shares it with us. But then in the fourth stanza (lines 59 ff) he embarks on a lengthy account of the child, with theological references, which is the problem. The child comes, ‘trailing clouds of glory’ from ‘God, who is our home’. So the child signs God but only at the expense of a fatalistic gloom about growing up and being adult. ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy’ and so the inescapable gradual process carries him on to ‘the Man’ who perceives the vision ‘die away and fade into the light of common day’. Wordsworth witnesses to the way in which the memory of being a child and the observation of children lifts his spirit, keeps him joyfully, questioningly open to the world, even in his duller adulthood. The child brings these intimations of immortality. We can be grateful for that witness. But we cannot follow him in seeing life as an inevitable downward path from infancy to adulthood. It is a naturalistic fatalism, which is very tempting. It besets many adults, sooner or later. It is at bottom the work of death as negation which may set in long before the body dies. It identifies a real enough problem – the enemy – of human living, but its way of going about solving it gives too much ground to the enemy. This is partly because Wordsworth is strong on the child, weak on the Kingdom of God in the way of Jesus. His view of growing up is of an increasing distance from God, who is our home. It is not a following Jesus towards the Father.
What is objectionable is that Wordsworth makes so much of the child, but actually offers the child – the prospect of doom. He does not do it with the hopelessness of Thomas Gray in A Distant Prospect of Eton College:
Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today:
Yet see how all around ’em wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune’s baleful train!
Ah, show them, where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murth’rous band!
Ah, tell them, they are men! 60
To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
What can be said to a child if this is our view of the course of life? The best educational wisdom would seem to be what Gray offers: ‘where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise’. Necessarily then the truth about human being is concealed from children. Let them play while they can.
With the help of this kind of poetry, education and nurture may run into a debilitating contradiction. On one hand they seek to stimulate children to be hopeful beings who go forward eagerly, to make the most of life, to fulfil potential, as the educational jargon now it. On the other, they know all the time that the path goes down into the dark.
This is no way for disciples of Jesus to think, though they often do