Children as burdens or gifts?

Christmas, the season for gifts and children, is approaching, and lately I’ve followed some discussions on social media about whether children themselves are secretly seen as burdens rather than gifts by their parents. Unlike in the Hebrew Bible where children are considered God’s gift to the Chosen People, in secularized Western communities we tend to prioritize individual freedom before family or clan. Traditionally, children are idealized in our culture and represent the innocent and good in life, are precious objects worth cherishing and protecting. On the other hand, real children demand adult time, energy and resources which creates conflicts and exhaustion, and limits the possibility of adult personal self-fulfillment. I recently re-read the anthology The Child in Christian Thought and found inspiration from previous thinkers on children as God’s gifts.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a Lutheran theologian living at the beginning of the 19th century, held the view that children owed their parents complete obedience but that parents were also absolutely responsible for their children’s spiritual well-being. If children sinned, parents were to blame. It seems to me that Schleiermacher had good psychological insight into destructive parenting. If parents failed their children by ignoring or ridiculing them, by subjecting their children to emotional mood swings or impossible expectations, they ultimately risked depriving their children of the ability to trust in and relate to God. (An idea reminiscent of Ana Maria Rizutto’s theory of how our relationship with God originates in the mother-child relationship.) By carefully accepting the divine gift of children, parents could learn to repent and live in the here-and-now, spontaneously and in touch with their own emotions, close to and dependent upon God.

Mary Ann Hinsdale writes on Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian from the twentieth century. Her starting point is that in a capitalist society we all become either merchandise, consumers or burdens. In such a society children by necessity become burdens or objects, until they are old enough to qualify as consumers and producers. Rahner provides a contrasting view: children must never be objectified or regarded as mere proto-adults. They are always individuals in their own right from the very beginning, beings characterized by their “infinite openness to the infinite”. And it isn’t until a person opens herself to God that her actions are transformed and become truly human. The adult person’s journey through life is therefore also a conversion to childhood. (This idea reminds me of James Fowler’s theory of faith development where it’s only late in the process that an adult manages to return to the young child’s non-judgmental openness to the universe.) In Rahner’s reasoning, the adult person must cherish and respect the child as a complete individual and learn trust, joy and dependence from children, to be able to revisit her own life as a child again.

I’m personally fascinated by the idea of parent-child relationships as vehicles for mutual spiritual development. In a time when pressures from outside and within increase, where children’s needs challenge distracted parents, it demands something new of us to consider children as teachers of spontaneity, mindful presence, intimacy and mutual dependence, while parents should teach their children trust and compassion. (In her book Arthur’s Call Frances Young has written deeply on the profound effect the relationship between a disabled child and a parent may have.)

English sociologists David Hay and Rebecca Nye suggested in The Spirit of the Child that children are born with empathy and a holistic approach to life and that modern society teaches them just the opposite – selfish materialism and individualism – and it would seem they make a valid point. Mental health problems and stress disorders reportedly plague young people more and more each year. Many despair of their own ability to succeed with school, finding friends, love and future jobs for themselves and consider their own lives worthless and meaningless. As Christians we say that we want to help children find faith, courage and hope. Then we must learn how to treat them as individuals with intrinsic worth, God’s gifts to the world, not objects, possessions or burdens.

Be Converted and Become as Little Children: Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood, de Vries, Dawn in: Bunge, Marcia J, The Child in Christian Thought, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001

“Infinite Openness to the Infinite”: Karl Rahner’s Contribution to Modern Catholic Thought on the Child, Hinsdale, Mary Ann in: Bunge, Marcia J, The Child in Christian Thought, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001

About This Author

Maria Hammarström studied for her Master of Divinity degree in theology at Uppsala University, then went on to take a vocational degree as church educator and youth leader within the Lutheran Church of Sweden. After some years of parochial work she came to work as theology coordinator at Church of Sweden Youth, a movement for children and young people within the Church of Sweden, and has remained there for seventeen years. Alongside with this job, Maria taught theology during ten years at a vocational school for church educators. Apart from a lifelong love of doing theology and trying to follow Jesus, Maria's passion has been with human rights issues, child spirituality and children's literature. Telling stories that help you live and asking the right questions remain her life goals. Maria is married, has two children and lives in Sweden.

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