Views of Childhood

Dear Reader,

I promised you a few more posts based on my reading of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. You can read my review of the book here. Though my review was not unequivocally good, there were a number of things in this book which made me think (and that is always a plus on a book, even if I disagree with it).

One thing I wondered about was what Esolen’s view of children is. Clearly he wants them to have the space, time, and freedom  to become creative individuals. But how does he view children themselves? Lumps to be molded? Unique individuals with their own innate personalities? Are they complete people as they are or must we train and teach them in many ways? I read a lot of books on children and education, and I think we can learn a lot about where a person or philosophy is coming from if we can tease out how it answers these questions (for an example, see my post on Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning“; you could also look at my many posts on the different approaches to homeschooling).

While I found myself wondering as I read Esoloen’s book, what his views were, I only found a couple of passages to help me tease out the answers. Here they are:

“We know full well that you can’t transform lead into gold. You can only transform gold into lead.” (p. xi)

“If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little.” (p. xii)

Part of me likes the first quote, but I think in the end I have to disagree with it. On one hand, it is a humbling reminder that we often do more harm than good in our efforts to shape our children. On the other hand, I don’t really think our children start out as gold, at least not pure gold. There is clearly a very exalted view of childhood here — a poor, innocent darlings view, of you will. I do believe children are made in the image of God and are inherently valuable, but they are also fallen people, like the rest of us. The picture the Bible gives of humans — and therefore also of children since they are people — is of a lump of metal in which there may be gold, and it is inly through the refining fire that we learn if there is anything solid and real in each one (cf. Zech. 13:9, I Peter 1:7).

While the first quote originally struck me as a good one and it was only on further reflection that I decided I disagreed with it, the second one rubbed me the wrong way from the start though I was initially hard pressed to say why. The end of the quote, the bit about children’s sense of wonder, taken in the context of the earlier one, seems to show Esolen’s exalting of childhood again. Children do tend to have many qualities which are good though often lost in adulthood. Jesus Himself says we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven as little children so clearly they are not without their merits. Still I am wary of anything which seems to elevate children too much or to speak of them with idealistic tones. But I think the part which most discomforts me is the middle bit: “we would want them as children.” Is this true? Do I want my children as children? I am not sure I do. Now, don’t get me wrong, like many a mother whose children are getting older, I am happy to hold others’ babies and can get a little nostalgic about the toddler years (age 18 months was always about my favorite with my kids), but I also rejoice in seeing them grow physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Perhaps I misunderstand how Esolen means this statement, but I do not think I want them as children. I am enjoying their childhood. I love them and I don’t particularly look forward to the day when they won’t be under my roof. But I also don’t want to keep them here as children. That would not be natural or right. And if I do appreciate them, it is as individual people. But then I have never been the sort to love children in a  general way. I love my children. I like some other children, but there are still others whom I don’t particularly like and certainly don’t love.

So I can’t help but feeling that there is something just a little bit off in Esoloen’s view of children. I may be thinking about this more than it deserves based on two short quotes. Part of the reason for that is that there is another thing I read recently which also gave me similar feelings. It was an e-mail from a  local homeschool group. It read in part:

We seek to honor, preserve, and respect childhood. It is truly a sacred time that informs their development as human beings.”

A bit earlier they speak of each child’s personhood which I usually consider a good thing. A a devotee of Charlotte Mason and her approach to education, I am big on treating children as people. But as they continue and get to the quote I have above, I begin to feel again that something is rubbing me the wrong way. Something is off from how I would say or view it. I feel again, as in Esolen’s book, that childhood here is being elevated beyond where it should be.

I wonder if part of this is a reaction against our culture (which Esolen at least is clearly critical of) which it is often said forces children to grow up too fast. By this I think people usually mean that it exposes them too early to sexual and violent situations, and I have to agree that this is the case. But at the same time, I think we also keep our children from growing up in other ways. We isolate them from the rest of society and keep them from doing meaningful work until they are at least 18. Then we lament the fact that they “fail to launch” and continue to want to be taken care of and to live off their parents. We give them adult themes in their entertainment but not adult responsibilities. This is exactly the opposite of what it should be.

So perhaps these people I criticize, Esolen and this homeschool group, are reacting against this trend on our society and the popular conception that “kids grow up too fast.” But I think in doing so, they go farther than I am comfortable with in idealizing childhood.

I have heard it said that we didn’t ever used to have teenagers, that adolescence is a creation of modern western society and that in other cultures or in our a couple of hundred years ago there was no such thing. Children maybe got an education till they were 12 or 14 or so (if that) and then they worked. They helped on the farm. They became apprentices. They had things to do. But somewhere along the way, this stopped. The end of child labor is not an entirely bad thing, of course, but I think there is also a downside that those kids who are in their teens, just at their peak of energy and creativeness, are wasting away without anything truly valuable to do. And so I wonder too if we misrepresent childhood when we speak of it as if it were a completely different thing, separate from the world of adults. I don’t want to send my 12-year-old to work in a  factory or my 9-year-old into the mines, but I also view my role as training them for real life, not as something that comes later and is apart from what they do now, but as something they are already growing into.

How then are we to view childhood? I think the most important thing is this: our children are made in the image of God, just as we are, and also, just as we are, they are fallen creatures. They share both our strengths and our weaknesses because we are of the same nature. When we emphasize either their innocence or their sinfulness too much, we end up erring on one side or the other.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Many very interesting thoughts here. 🙂 I’ve been reading through Esolen’s book and have found it to be quite rich, mentally.

    The second quote you included above, about how we would love children as children, has been one of my favorites from the book. Of course, I believe that you can’t separate growing up from genuine childhood, so when I think of childhood, I think of that growth as an essential part of what we are to cultivate.

    I got the impression that Mr. Esolen was objecting to the idea, often held by society in general, that children should not be inconvenient. That they should be quiet and neat, and do these things just because they’ve been told quietness and neatness are what they should do. That they should be intelligent only in ways that make our life easier, curious only about things that are easily explained, that children who don’t bother us much are “good” children, and children who need our attention are “bad” children.

    To love them as children, means, in my view, embracing the difficulties that come with guiding them into wiser channels. It means teaching them over and over, a hundred times, to pick up their toys; but to do this with patience, acknowledging that this skill does not come easily, and to do it with determination, understanding that this child must acquire the necessary skills, and that they need my strength to conquer their own apathy towards the issue..


    • Posted by Nebby on September 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Lizzie. As I said I am not sure I got what he meant by this quote so it is good to hera how others took it. I realize that though I said I was not crazy about the book that it generated four or so posts from my thoughts on it so in that way it is a worthwhile book.


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