What did Jesus mean when he said if you don’t receive the Kingdom of God as a little child you will not enter in? (Mark 10:15). That cryptic statement is reiterated similarly in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke. There has been plenty of commentary about it over the centuries. The usual interpretation has to do with the humility and innocence of children being some kind of prerequisite to entering Heaven or The Kingdom.
As with many things Jesus said, there are plenty of interpretations. For me, one of the disconcerting things about scripture is that we often don’t know what the speaker or writer meant. There is usually a lot of wiggle room. But then there’s a school of thought that believes if we just read it in the original Greek or Hebrew and then cross reference it with other scriptures we can figure it out. Maybe, sometimes. But for me Jesus’ statement about children defies interpretation–but perhaps I’m overthinking it.
I recall some statement Brennan Manning made to the effect that children weren’t innocent, they were incompetent. I tend to lean that way. We are all needy. We are all the poor in spirit of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3). We bring nothing to the table as far as meriting Grace, and we mostly are all imbeciles when it comes to understanding God and His economy. And I think accepting our “poverty” sets us on the right track as far as becoming like a child.
WORKING WITH CHILDREN
I am a therapist–or as an old counselor friend of mine used to say, a “Psycho-therapist.” I have worked in mental health for over 50 years in various settings. I started my career in the late-60s working for the state of Illinois in their Zone Center system. The unit I worked on at Singer Zone Center was called Family Management. We worked with kids and parents both in the community and as inpatients. Our therapeutic approach was behavior modification. We had a smidgen of training in family systems therapy, but we were mostly behavioral. That went along well with my academic background which was almost totally experimental and behavioral.
At that time, I was in my mid to late-20s and knew next to nothing about people or real life. The kids we worked with were to me nothing more than behavior problems that the right program could solve. Sad to say, I really didn’t see them as human beings.
I worked on the Family Management Unit for nearly five years. Then I quit the state system and ventured to Florida. My longest job here was nearly 14 years working at a community mental health center. Much of my caseload was kids, but I really preferred counseling adults. When I went into private practice in 1987, I continued to work with kids. Close to 50% of my cases were kids. It was my bread and butter. My later contractual work was through an organization called “Our Children First.” Mostly, I did evaluations of kids in foster care.
That was about twenty years ago. It was then that I could see my heart starting to change. Most of these kids were just terribly sad. They were victims of neglect or abuse. I did many of the evaluations in the home. Sometimes, after an eval I’d go back to out to my car and I’d just want to cry. And sometimes I did. I did quite a few evals at Florida Methodist Children’s Home. It was a wonderful place, where the kids were well taken care of and yet every kid I evaluated didn’t want to be there. They wanted to be home with their family, even though the person who neglected them or beat them was there.
Anyway, it was about a decade ago that I stopped doing behavior plans with my kid clients. Now I just try to enjoy them and give them what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” Coming to see me I try to make a positive experience–seeing an adult who listens and tries to be non-judgmental. Many parents are not pleased with my approach. They want me to “FIX” their kid and they want it NOW. Some of these kids are not all that likeable–but I do my best. A few are downright nasty, but overall, I view kids as victims of faulty parenting, neglect and abuse.
More and more kids are labeled “autistic” or Asperger’s syndrome. They’re “on the spectrum” as they say. Now every weird, unique kid has to have a label, a diagnosis. Wanting to categorize folks kind of dehumanizes them. I don’t think labeling is a healthy trend.
Over the years I’ve distilled my thoughts on children and child rearing to a few principles that are so basic they’re likely written in our DNA: (1) We want to be loved and nurtured by our parents. (2) Our parents should be together and should always have our best interests in mind. (3) Children crave discipline and boundaries, although some kids will severely test them. (4) When those conditions are not met there’s a disturbance in our psyche. The extent of that disturbance is to some extent mitigated by one’s genetic and nurtured resilience.
SEEING CHILDREN ANEW
As I’ve aged, I think about my own childhood more and more. There were a few traumas but most of my memories are pleasant. I had days on end of mindless joy when I was 5, 6, 7 and 8. But when I was nine, I went to a Catholic boarding school for a year. That was a very memorable but not always pleasant experience. Anyway, all the joy came to a screeching halt when puberty overtook my virgin body with savage truculence right at my 12th birthday. I didn’t handle that transition at all well. Nobody in my family told me that my whole body would feel like it was an on-fire sex organ. I was reared in an atmosphere of extreme modesty and ignorance. My maternal grandmother Mimi ruled the roost, and she was kind of a Victorian. She was born in 1894, and so I guess qualifies as a Victorian.
Anyway, I prefer to think of Mimi as the strong, nurturing person that every kid needs to develop good ego-strength. As a kid I spent more time with her than anybody, and she always had my back. She was a tall, big-boned woman of Irish, French and Chippewa descent–born on a reservation in northern Wisconsin. Her first husband, my grandfather, died in an auto accident in 1932. She lost an arm in that accident and had to support herself and three children as a one-handed pastry chef during the depths of the Great Depression. She had great strength, determination and character, and I like to think at least some small smidgen rubbed off on me.
Mim and I listened to the radio together: soap operas like “Helen Trent” and mysteries like “The Shadow” and the Cleveland Indians ball games. And when I was at her place we slept in the same bed listening to the radio. That lasted until I was about 11 or 12. My fondest early memories are of times with her. One particular memory that replays over and over is of me about age four or five being towed on a sled thru heavy snow going to visit her sister, Aunt Edith. Mimi slipped and fell, raising a huge cloud of powder snow. But she wasn’t hurt, and we made it to Ede’s okay.
And when I was sick, she always fixed me my favorite lunch: a BLT with tomato soup. I was blessed. I was fortunate to be born when I was, where I was and to whom I was. I thank God pretty much daily for that fact. However, I worry about the millions of kids who aren’t that lucky. What can I do for them? I give money to support various charities that feed hungry kids. I give money to an orphanage in Haiti. I’ve gone on some mission trips and had the opportunity to minister to a few kids firsthand, but it all seems like such a drop in the bucket, like a feather in the wind.
And I can pray. When I see a young mom with two or three kiddos in tow struggling across some parking lot, I always say a silent prayer. I bless them and pray that they will have a good life, that they’re loved, and that they have more than a few days of mindless joy.
As I’ve reached old age I’m more in touch with, and more accepting of, my own inner child, and perhaps that’s part of why I can care about other’s children as well. I try not to see kids as just a complex of behaviors. I try to see the world thru their eyes at least a little. Even as adults our childhood never leaves us, and I find it sad when some of my adult clients say that can’t remember much of their early years. It probably wasn’t very pleasant. But I have toys in my office. We play, but I wouldn’t call it play therapy. It’s mostly to establish a relationship so we can talk–and also to maybe think of the 30 or 40 min with me as memorable–and fun.
I never had any children of my own. I guess that is part of God’s plan too. I have a stepson, Jeremy. When I inherited him, he was nine–now he’s 54. That’s a long time, and though he lives in California we’re very close. He has a 16-y.o boy, Shea and a 10-y.o girl, Madilynne. And would you believe it, they’re exceptionally smart, attractive and talented. I guess like most old folk’s grands. Anyway, I don’t see enough of them, and that’s likely part of God’s plan too. They are well cared for.
T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”