Letting kids be kids

Photo by John De Boer
Photo by John De Boer

Perhaps you’ve heard: “Insanity is hereditary.  You get it from your kids.”

Chances are that bit of humor originated with a frustrated parent.

Even from before our children are born, we have expectations and hopes — sometimes specific, sometimes vague — of who they will be and what it will be like to be parents.  Early in our marriage, my wife, who is the eldest of five, envisioned having five kids.  I, however, the youngest of two, could envision only two.  I could easily picture myself walking in the mall with a child happily and obediently holding each hand.  But when I tried to imagine having more children than hands, the surplus was always charging about and annoying innocent people.

Circumstances eventually limited us to two, so we’ll never know what might have been.  But the point is that while we may not always be aware of the expectations we have for our children, we have them.  And we can get frustrated, even exasperated, when things don’t go the way we expect.

Our child wakes in the middle of the night, afraid, crying, and we go to her, knowing that all we need to do is rock her a bit, whispering, “Shh, shh.  I’m here.  Everything’s all right.”  But she’s not comforted.  Our rocking becomes more intense; our shushing more insistent.  The emotional balance begins to shift: our discomfort becomes more important than hers.  We feel somehow rejected, and are tempted to return the favor.

That’s often the unglamorous reality of being a parent, whatever idyllic expectations we may have had before real flesh-and-blood children entered our lives.

I wondered about that reality recently while reflecting on this well-known story from the gospels:

People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them.  When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children.  I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.”  Then he hugged the children and blessed them.  (Mark 10:13-16, CEB)

Some years ago, I saw this scene acted out in a Passion play being put on by a local congregation.  The tone was all wrong: there was no anger, no indignation on Jesus’ part.  The character minced about the stage giving mild correction, as if the disciples needed nothing more than a lesson in etiquette rather than a complete overhaul of their understanding of the kingdom.

And then there were the children: a whole group of them, who waited patiently while Jesus and the disciples worked things out.  Once released, they sat down in a quiet and disciplined fashion, looking up expectantly as they awaited Jesus’ teaching.

I don’t think so.

We can romanticize the episode, as if Jesus were confronted by an orderly line of parents, all cradling quiet and freshly scrubbed babies who still smelled of soap.

Or we can imagine a more unruly crowd and more unkempt children.  Some have been playing in the dirt; some are streaked with mucus.  Here and there, mothers have their children firmly by the wrist, dragging them before Jesus, harshly whispering the Aramaic equivalent of, “You’re going to be blessed, young man, whether you like it or not.”

Which of these children did Jesus turn away?  Which of them did he refuse to bless, refuse to embrace?  And what did he see in them that he would dare to tell the adults to become more like children, rather than the other way around?

That’s not to say that children don’t have some growing up to do, as do we.  But we must welcome the kingdom with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.  Knowing the welcoming embrace of Jesus, we can in turn embrace our children for who they are in this moment.  In time, they will mature; for now, they need us to be adults who welcome them with warm and grace-laden hospitality.