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Discovering Reverence

The Forgotten Virtue that Is the Key to Educating Children

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A procession of angels passes before each human being wherever he goes, proclaiming: Make way for the image of God! —Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi (Deut. Rabba 4, 4)

In a society overwhelmed by countless problems, the dangers to children are obvious: poverty, violence, neglect, disease, abuse, and countless other ills. But what can any one of us do to overcome them? In an essay on the question of social renewal, Hermann Hesse suggests that the first step is to recognize their root cause: our lack of reverence for life.

All disrespect, all irreverence, all hardheartedness, all contempt is nothing else than killing. And it is possible to kill not only what is in the present, but also that which is in the future. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a child or young person. Life is waiting everywhere, flowering everywhere, but we only see a small part of it and trample much of it with our feet.1

Hesse touches on something that endangers children more than anything else in the world today. Irreverence for children pervades almost everything in a culture that glorifies sex and violence at the expense of innocence and gentleness. While no one is unaffected by this destructive bent, the greatest victims are children. Often it seems that they are not given the chance to grow up at all – they are thrown into adult life before their hearts are able to distinguish between what is good and what is glamorous. They end up copying the worst of adult behavior without knowing what they are doing. They may not be grown up, but they are no longer truly children either.

Diane Levin, a child advocate, highlights the source of much of this contamination:

A decline in social skills can be amplified when combined with the media’s message of violence, aggression, and mean-spirited behavior as well as sex, sexualization, and focus on appearance. The media culture frequently supports a stereotypical view that, for girls, the basis of relationships is how they look and the things they have, rather than their connection to others. And media culture teaches boys to judge themselves and one another based on how strong, independent, and ready to fight they are, not by their positive connection with others. In a sense, both boys and girls are made into objects. Objectification of self and others makes it much easier to act in mean and uncaring ways in relationships.2

A detail of the portrait painting of Margot Berard by Renoir.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Margot Berard (detail)

When children sense that they are being treated as objects, why shouldn’t they respond accordingly? It’s as if all that is wonderful, unique, and miraculous in each life is brought down to the lowest common denominator: gender. Without a clear sense of self, they can have no appreciation of who they are or how they came into being. Then they are fed a new, perverse interpretation of what it means to be male or female.

This promotes the formation of cliques, which often leads to bullying. Boys tend to take on a false manliness, a macho swagger that hides (at least from themselves) collective cowardice. Girls’ cliques can be equally damaging in their exclusiveness and cruel pressure to conform. Worse, these children are prematurely burdened with adult sexuality.

So many features of our “advanced civilization” seem bent on destroying the spirit of childhood. Be it materialism, over-dependence on prescription drugs, standardized testing, too much technology, or the debased sensationalism that passes for entertainment, all of it harms children.

I believe that at birth, all children bear the stamp of their Creator. Their purity and innocence is a great gift. Once it has been lost, it cannot be replaced. All the more, it must be guarded as a treasure which no one has a right to destroy.

A detail from John Singer Sargent's painting, Portrait of Lancelot Allen.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Lancelot Allen (detail)

Our response upon encountering a child must be nothing less than reverence. Perhaps because the word sounds old-fashioned, its true meaning has been blurred. Reverence is more than just love. It includes an appreciation for the qualities children possess (and which we ourselves have lost), a readiness to rediscover their value, and the humility to learn from them.

Reverence is also an attitude of deep respect, as expressed by the following words of my grandfather Eberhard Arnold, a theologian and educator:

It is children who lead us to the truth. We are not worthy to educate even one of them. Our lips are unclean; our dedication is not wholehearted. Our truthfulness is partial; our love divided. Our kindness is not without motives. We ourselves are not yet free of lovelessness, possessiveness, and selfishness. Only sages and saints – only those who stand as children before God – are really fit to live and work with children.3

Understanding reverence can change our perception of the world and our task in it. This simple word can help us keep our own lives clear of entanglements that may try to drag us down. With the knowledge that a young audience is watching our every move, we can be models of integrity and respect. We can dress in a manner that expresses our inner worth, instead of degrading it. Instead of bombarding young children with explicit information about sexuality and reproduction, we can let them grow at their own pace into an understanding of what it means to be a human being, and answer questions honestly and simply as they arise.

We can model healthy relationships. I learned the importance of this from my own parents, who could disagree with each other quite openly, but would end the debate with a laugh and a hug. I saw that my father was not ashamed to show tenderness and that my mother’s gentle guidance was backed up with enormous courage. Their marriage, built on faithfulness and respect, was an example to all who knew them.

Once we have reverence for every life, we will also have compassion, and teach others its value. Even the most hardened and distant child can learn empathy, and it is amazing to watch it happen. That’s what Mary Gordon discovered when she founded Roots of Empathy, a program that brings babies into classrooms, with remarkable effects in reduced bullying. She writes:

Darren was the oldest child I ever saw in a Roots of Empathy class. He was in eighth grade and had been held back twice. He was two years older than everyone else and already starting to grow a beard. I knew his story: his mother had been murdered in front of his eyes when he was four years old, and he had lived in a succession of foster homes ever since. Darren looked menacing because he wanted us to know he was tough: his head was shaved except for a ponytail at the top and he had a tattoo on the back of his head.

The instructor of the Roots of Empathy program was explaining to the class about differences in temperament. She invited the young mother who was visiting the class with Evan, her six-month-old baby, to share her thoughts about her baby’s temperament. Joining in the discussion, the mother told the class how Evan liked to face outwards when he was in the infant carrier, how he didn’t want to cuddle into her, and how she wished he was a more cuddly baby. As the class ended, the mother asked if anyone wanted to try on the carrier, which was green and trimmed with pink brocade.

To everyone’s surprise, Darren offered to try it, and as the other students scrambled to get ready for lunch, he strapped it on. Then he asked if he could put Evan in. The mother was a little apprehensive, but she handed him the baby, and he put Evan in, facing towards his chest. That wise little baby snuggled right in, and Darren took him into a quiet corner and rocked back and forth with the baby in his arms for several minutes. Finally, he came back to where the mother and instructor were waiting and asked: ‘If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?’

A seed has been sown here. This boy, who has seen things no child should see, whose young life has been marked by abandonment, who has struggled to adolescence with scarcely a memory of love, has seen a glimmer of hope. Through these moments of contact with the uncritical affection of the baby, a young man has caught an image of himself as a parent that runs counter to his loveless childhood. The baby may have changed the trajectory of this youth’s future by allowing him to see the humanity in himself.4

Today even small children hear about many threatening events, from terrorism and warfare to global warming and widespread hunger. All this can make a child fearful. Here a child’s simple faith in the power of good – that love and compassion are stronger than hate or indifference – can quickly transform this fear into confidence and a desire to do something for others. I have found this faith in children all over the world, regardless of their religion. But parents need to nurture it. When we tell our children that the God who made the world loves each of them personally, we give them a deep assurance that, whatever happens, they are never alone.

As a pastor, I believe that even though God and Jesus are “illegal” in public school classrooms, teachers should never be afraid to live out their faith, even if wordlessly, and let it guide their daily interactions with children. We can acknowledge and protect the spark of the eternal that lives in each of them, the unique soul that needs our reverence and respect, no matter how difficult or unhappy the child may be. Children’s own faith should be respected and affirmed. If they believe that God sees everything, that their guardian angel watches over them, or that Jesus is their friend, this can help them withstand the pressures that flood our culture.

There’s another sphere of life that must be brought to a child with great reverence. To me, the mystery of birth and death can only be expressed in terms of eternity. This is not only because of my upbringing, since my parents lived their faith more than they talked about it. Rather, it’s because of the times in my own life when something far greater than words could clearly be sensed, through someone who never spoke a word. I have seen how even the shortest life can transform all those within its reach.

My little sister Marianne died when I was six. Our family had waited for her arrival with great eagerness. She was born after my mother went through a very difficult labor for over sixty hours and suffered near-fatal heart failure. It was miraculous that she survived delivery at the primitive village hospital in Paraguay. But the baby was critically ill, and only lived for twenty four hours. Because we lived quite a distance from the hospital, and because I was only six, I was never able to see, touch, or hold my little sister. Still, I have felt this loss my entire life. Over time, it has become all the more important to me to remember that Marianne was – and is – a real part of my life and my family. Though she was here on this earth for only one day, she will always be my sister.

Years later, I experienced this link with heaven even more clearly through another child, my granddaughter Stephanie Jean, who will remain in my heart for the rest of my life. When Stephanie was born, we knew right away that she was a very special child with severe abnormalities. She was diagnosed with Trisomy 13, a genetic disorder characterized by a short life expectancy. Most infants born with this disorder die within a few days.

Stephanie had three sisters and one brother. They struggled to understand that their parents were not going to bring home the healthy baby they all had longed for, but an extremely disabled child who would not live long. We prayed constantly that God’s will might be done in her life, and that we would grasp the meaning of her birth.

As grandparents, we experienced the wonder of holding her almost daily. Stephanie lived for five weeks, and when the time came, died peacefully. At her funeral, we could not believe how many people attended. They had all heard of her birth and diagnosis, and it affected them deeply. They wanted to participate in this last expression of love for a small child who somehow belonged to everyone.

People came from all over the neighborhood and beyond: construction workers, her siblings’ teachers and classmates, the county executive, the local sheriff, and others from the law enforcement community. When the earth was shoveled by hand into her little grave, these friends and neighbors all wanted to take a turn, in an unforgettable gesture of reverence. It was remarkable how in such a short time this little girl had touched and influenced the lives of so many people.

My granddaughter has not been forgotten. She is like a ray of light from heaven that continues to work in people and change their lives. My wife and I still thank God that he gave her to our family, and to everyone else she met.

A detail of Konstantin Makovsky's painting Potrait of the Boy.

Konstantin Makovsky, Portrait of the Boy (detail)

There are many others like Stephanie. To me, every child is part of God’s plan, and he does not make mistakes. When a child is disabled, her life takes on special significance. Whenever we encounter such children, we need to pay attention. They have amazing things to teach us about unconditional trust and love.

At a time when people are often assessed in terms of their worth, intelligence, or attractiveness, there are many who are not wanted or appreciated. But if we truly love children, we will welcome them all. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

As a teenager I was privileged several times to meet Dorothy Day, the legendary pacifist who founded the Catholic Worker, and to participate in some thought-provoking discussions. In her bohemian days, Dorothy had had an abortion, but several years later gave birth to her daughter Tamar, and was moved to write, “Even the most hardened, the most irreverent, is awed by the stupendous fact of creation. No matter how cynically or casually the worldly may treat the birth of a child, it remains spiritually and physically a tremendous event.”5 Tamar’s birth changed her mother’s life, and indeed, every child has such transformative power. This is just as true of a stillborn baby, or a child who dies young.

Whether or not we believe in a loving God, we can all show love and respect toward the children in our care. This will in turn awaken their own inborn sense of reverence – both for themselves as unique individuals, and for others, just as precious and distinctive. Only then will they truly understand their purpose and responsibility in the world.


1. Herman Hesse, Vivos Voco, March 1919, as quoted in Eberhard Arnold, Salt and Light (Plough, 1997), 48.
2. Diane Levin, Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young Children in the Media Age (NAEYC, 2013), 16, 37.
3. Eberhard Arnold, Children’s Education in Community (Plough,1976), 13–14.
4. Gordon, Mary, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World, Child by Child (Thomas Allen, 2005), 5–6.
5. Dorothy Day, Dorothy Day: Meditations, comp. Stanley Vishnewski (Newman, 1970), 10.

Diane Levin quote copyright © 2013 National Association for the Education of Young Children. Reprinted with permission.

Carlton Murrell Carlton Murrell, Thinking, Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
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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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