Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. – Proverbs 22:6
Educators have long held that the first five years of a child's life are the most formative; whatever children experience in this period will influence them for the rest of their lives. The nineteenth-century German educational reformer Fröbel writes that a person's spiritual life is formed to a great degree by the experiences of early childhood. A child's future relationship to parents, to God, to society at large, and even to nature depends chiefly on his or her development during this period.
Recent studies have confirmed this scientifically. In light of this fact and the tremendous responsibility it places on every parent, it is vital that the bonds between father, mother, and baby are nurtured beginning at birth. Parents should remember that God has given the child to them, and that it is their responsibility to steer the child on the path that fulfills God's purpose for him or her.
The significance of interacting with a baby cannot be emphasized enough. My mother always said that education starts in the cradle. Babies should be held, stroked, and caressed. They should be sung to, talked to, and smiled at. Most important, they should be loved unconditionally.
But parents must guard against seeing their children through rose-colored glasses. I have seen the lives of young people destroyed because when they were small, their parents could not say "no" to them: they saw their children only as "cute" and failed to discipline them. These parents were held hostage by their own children, who then grew up spoiled, unable to accept disappointment or hardship, and unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.
As children become toddlers, they should be stimulated and encouraged with simple games, rhymes, and songs. Their mental potential at this stage is unrivaled, and what they do not take in now will be absorbed only with great difficulty later. That is why experts speak of a "window of opportunity" that will never be opened as widely again.
To be sure, development cannot be measured only in terms of learning or achievement. Children's emotional and spiritual development is equally important, and this is often acquired when they are by themselves. Time spent alone is crucial for the development of the imagination and will teach children to entertain themselves without adult involvement.
Hours spent in daydreams and quiet play instill a sense of security and provide a necessary lull in the rhythm of the day. All too often, however, adults needlessly disturb and pester children with their intrusions. They cannot pass a baby without picking it up, holding, kissing, or doing something to it. If the child resists or struggles, they feel hurt, and what was a happy scene only moments before is now one of anger and frustration. Fröbel takes this idea a step further and maintains that uninterrupted play is a prerequisite for uninterrupted work. The child who plays thoroughly will become a thorough, determined adult.
At every point of contact, loving consideration for the inner disposition of the child – for the spirit of simplicity, honesty, and vulnerability – is crucial. Raising children does not mean molding them according to our own wishes and ideas. It means helping them to become what they already are in God's mind. "Unlearning" our adult mindsets is never easy. Even the disciples were indignant when children pushed through them to get closer to Jesus. When there are children around, things don't go as planned. Furniture gets scratched, flower beds trampled, new clothes torn, and toys lost or broken. Children want to handle things and play with them. They want to have fun, and they need space to be rambunctious and noisy.
Thus for the parents of small children, the first years can seem overwhelmingly strenuous at times – and at the end of a long day, children can even seem to be more of a bother than a gift. They are not porcelain dolls but rascals with sticky fingers and runny noses. They cry at night. Yet if we have children, we must welcome them as they are.
From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.