The cry of a newborn baby catches at the heart. It says, “Love me. Help me. Protect me.” As adults, we consider ourselves the helpers and protectors. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that we need children more than they need us.
Experts inform us that overpopulation is destroying the earth. I disagree: greed and selfishness are ruining the planet, not children. They are born givers, not takers. They are also born teachers, if we are wise enough to hear the truths they bring. In the midst of our complex adult lives, we must make time to take in the lessons that only children can teach.
Children demand honesty and simplicity. They expect words to line up with deeds. Though children can quickly get angry, they forgive just as fast, giving others the great gift of a second chance. They have a strong sense of justice and fair play. They look at everything with new eyes, and point out to us the incredible beauty of the world around us.
Imagine what would happen if we applied these values to our government, foreign policy, corporate business models, environmental decisions, and educational theory.
A society that doesn’t welcome children is doomed. Yet the odds don’t appear to be stacked in favor of children or their caregivers, whether parents or teachers. As the gap between rich and poor steadily widens, more and more families can hardly afford basics like housing and insurance. In many cities, desperate family conditions have necessitated the rise of twenty-four-hour childcare. Parents who work long hours have no choice but to yield their children to caregivers who must take over many traditional parenting tasks such as dressing the children, providing breakfast, caring for them through sickness, and tucking them in at night.
Meanwhile, new and untested political mandates that threaten children’s originality and abilities are handed down to teachers and students. Voices of opposition rarely reach the ears of those who drive these decisions.
Beverly Braxton, a retired teacher and administrator, has worked on behalf of children for decades. She sums up our current dilemma:
I ask people in my community what concerns them most about children growing up in today’s world. Most people list similar concerns: the amount of time spent on media and technology, children’s exposure to sexual content and violence, lack of family time and eating on the run, the stress related to academic excellence, and children becoming less interested in spending time exploring the outdoors. Yet, when asked if they have any ideas regarding how these issues might be addressed, everyone I speak to seems to shrug their shoulders in exasperation.
Resignation may be an understandable response to this tangle of evils. But it is not the only response. If all of these concerns seem too great to tackle at once, at least each of us can start with the children we encounter every day.
My wife, Verena, and I both grew up in large families and were blessed with eight children of our own. God gave us forty-four grandchildren and, so far, one great-grandchild. We are thankful for each one of them.
During our marriage of almost fifty years, we have traveled together all over the globe. We have spent time in many developing countries as well as in war zones such as Rwanda, Iraq, Gaza, and Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” On each of these journeys, we met hundreds of children. In their schools, we saw great determination despite very little funding. With eyes full of eagerness, these students showed us what they were learning, sang songs, and made us feel welcome. Some had walked miles for the privilege of an education. The hunger and hardship that many had endured was not yet written in their faces.
We saw that in some of the most impoverished nations, children are considered a national treasure. They represent the future of an entire civilization, not only the inheritors of a family name. Even some of the most destitute villages had a school in a central location, raised by community effort and whatever meager materials could be scraped together.
Every time we returned to America, we experienced a culture shock. Western society is fueled by money, but relatively little finds its way into childcare centers and schools. Are places of learning the center of community life? Are children considered a national treasure? In terms of future income earners with buying power, yes. But as unique individuals who offer hope for the renewal of civilization? Not so much. In fact, often the discussion centers on the pros and cons of having children at all: the financial risks, the unaffordable health costs, and the burden of education.
When I spoke with my neighbors Steve and Shannon, who have four children, about this tendency to view children in economic terms, Shannon answered decisively:
Unfortunately when the media and the surrounding world tells us, “A child costs this much money,” that puts a lot of stress on people. You have to say, “How much love can I give?” not, “How much money do I have?”
Most parents, when they see their baby for the first time, can’t say, “Take him back,” or “I don’t want her.” I would be hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn’t look into the eyes of a child and feel an instant love, an overwhelming sense of joy.
What good is it to be happy if you don’t have someone to share it with? Is it possible to have joy by yourself – selfish joy? It’s meant to be given away; the more kids you have, the more joy there is to spread around and amplify it.
The world needs children, but they also need us. We owe them more than mere survival. In the words of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:
Children are living beings – more living than adults, who have built shells of habit around themselves. Therefore it is absolutely necessary for their mental health and development that they should have not only schools for their lessons, but a world whose guiding spirit is personal love.
This article is excerpted from Arnold’s book, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World.