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Sandpile Parenting

Lessons from a Carefree Childhood

Johann Christoph Arnold

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Every child needs to discover the magic of making snow angels, splashing in puddles, or climbing trees. Parents need to slow down and savor the precious years with the children God has entrusted to them. The years do not come back. Before you know it, your children are adults. The relationship you share then depends on the quality of the time spent together in their earliest memories.

As a child of European refugees who fled to South America during the Second World War, I grew up in the backwoods of Paraguay. My parents raised all seven of us children on ­the reformer Friedrich Fröbel’s educational principles, focusing on the importance of play, singing, and storytelling, with the outdoors as our best classroom.

We had no fancy playgrounds and nothing that could be classified as play equipment. What we did have was a big sandpile and a nearby river where we would entertain ourselves for hours. These places became like friends to us. Here our imaginations could run wild, and we built castles, houses, and any other structures we could dream up. Being mostly outdoors, we discovered insects, plants, and animals.

We were completely satisfied with our adventures, and did not wish for anything more. We had such a great time that often our parents and teachers had difficulty getting us back to do our farm chores, of which there were plenty. In today’s modern age, the importance of the sandpile can be rediscovered. If it kept me happy, it can surely keep other children happy!

Someone once gave my family a small monkey for a pet. We named him Berto. He was very lively and affectionate. Berto became a part of our family and would jump on our shoulders as we went on walks. We loved him very much. He had, however, one very bad habit, which our neighbor Martin did not appreciate. Berto always ate up all the tomatoes and other garden plants which Martin planted and nurtured with great care and effort. Although his children also enjoyed the monkey, Martin complained to my father, Heinrich, about Berto’s garden thievery. My father had to find a way to get rid of the monkey. One day he asked me to help him return Berto to the wild.

That was a hard day, and we children cried, unable to imagine our family without him. I bravely went along with my father, taking Berto deep into the jungle. When we thought we had walked far enough, my father let him go, and Berto very happily climbed the closest tree. Monkeys are incredibly smart. They can mimic human behavior, such as waving with their paws, laughing, and crying. So as we turned and walked away, Berto waved goodbye to us. We sadly returned to our house.

Upon our return, Berto was waiting for us at the door. He was very happy to see us and waved his arms to welcome us. After we had released him, he must have swung from tree to tree at great speed, to get to our house before we returned. We children laughed and cried for joy, but we also knew he couldn’t stay.

After a few days we took Berto back into the jungle. This time we went much further and crossed a river before we released him. We knew that because monkeys cannot swim, this parting would be final, and it would be the last time I could carry him on my shoulder. His departure left a big hole in our family, but gave me a new understanding for the ways of animals, from mimicry to homing instinct, and for the ways of humans, as we learn to let go of something we love. It also gave me a wonder­ful story to tell my grandchildren!

Looking back on my childhood, I realize that poverty and disease affected us, and hard physical work was part of daily life. There was no indoor plumbing, no central heating, and, for many years, no electricity. Meals were cooked on an open fire, and there was always wood to split and stack, and water to carry. Grass was cut with a machete; it was coarse, heavy, and high, especially after rainfall. As a teenager, I grumbled about the never-ending chores, but my parents had no pity. And in retrospect I am grateful. I see now how their insistence taught me self-discipline, concentration, perseverance, and the ability to carry through – all things one needs to be a father.

It’s important to give children chores and expect them to contribute to the family on a daily basis. That is not the same as scheduling a continuous round of organized sports, clubs, and academics, and robbing them of the time they need to develop on their own.

Granted, children ought to be stretched and intellectually stimulated. They should be taught to articulate their feelings, to write, to read, to develop and defend an idea, to think critically. But what is the purpose of the best academic education if it fails to prepare ­children for life?

The parental desire to have brilliant children is surely just another sign of our distorted vision – a reflection of the way we tend to view children as little adults. And the best antidote to that is to drop all of our adult expectations entirely, to get down on the same level as our children, to look them in the eye. Only then will we begin to hear what they are saying, find out what they are thinking, and see the goals we have set for them from their point of view. Only then will we be able to lay aside our own ambitions for them. As poet Jane Tyson Clement writes:

Child, though I am meant to teach you much,
what is it, in the end,
except that together we are
meant to be children
of the same Father,
and I must unlearn
all the adult structure
and the cumbering years
and you must teach me
to look at the earth and the heaven
with your fresh wonder.

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Their Name is Today book cover - a child holding on to her mother’s arm This article is from Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World
Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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