Do children ‘make us grow up’ or ‘keep us young’?

April 1, 2013

16weeks_1In the modern-mind-muddle (#483) being married and having children is often implied as being the ‘making’ of adulthood, a rite of passage to settling down to responsible adulthood and maturity…

But having children in your house, your church, your cafe, your social occasion is often implied as reducing the ‘adult’ level of sophistication…or requires segregation in order to maintain the integrity of the ‘adult’ activity…



What do we think the ‘adult world’ is and means? And what about it is inappropriate or inaccessible to children. If you were to search ‘adult’ ongoogle (but don’t…) the slice of culture which appears is anything but mature – it is full of cliche, abuse, reductionist humanity, monochrome, one track-one dimensionality. Surely, this is not the best representation of what we mean by adult – and if it weren’t for my steadfast refusal to use the word ‘childish’ pejoratively, that is what  would call it.

On the other hand, we are full of stories about children who offer the occasional commentary on adult lives, which we tell with (mock, I hope) surprise exclamations like ‘Oh he doesn’t miss a trick!’

Or ‘Out of the mouths of babes’ (surely a biblical reference which, if used by followers of that tradition should lead us in much higher expectations of infants that is currently witnessed in the architecture of most church buildings.)

We act as if we are astounded that our children can see our lives for what they are. We ought not be so naive. Children are deeply intuitively connected to the adults they share life with. They are great observers – speaking out what they see, sometimes with less inhibition and more truth  than we find comfortable, and great amplifiers of our (sometimes barely) suppressed emotions.

And beyond commentary and emotional amplification, they are participants in life with us – in our griefs and failures and broken hearts – our struggles with identity, security and opportunity.

What ever the ‘adult world’ is – the majority of the world is a mix of ages, with children and young people thoroughly and vitally present – an active agent in the mix.

Much of our muddly thinking and speaking about the role of adults and children in distinction to one another, arises from imbalances of power. Like the ignorance of how desperately contingent the lives of the rich and the poor are on each other, we we act as if adults ‘manage’ and ‘shape’ the lives of children. The agency children have on adults is suppressed, problematised and apologised for (like the vicar, who each time children are present in worship congratulates them on being so quiet that we can hardly tell they are there.)

Rather, children – as whole human beings constantly act upon other human beings – this is a shared life we are living on this planet. While there are many pretenders to power and  ‘over-above-ness’ in fact such distinctions are distortions of reality and  temporary – (fortunately for all of us). The gospel that Jesus and his followers spoke of and lived is often typified as a ‘reversal’ of power. The weak are strong, the poor are rich, the blind see, the wise is shown to be foolish, the dead rise to life, the powerful are made humble. Children are signs of the kingdom of God, and adults are called to be born anew.

I am not sure that ‘reversals’ is quite right though – it is not the case that the poor are ‘eleveated’ to the insanities of the rich, or that the weak are unleashed in powerful assault. That would be a ‘reversal’ of our current world – and would be no good news for anyone. Rather, the poor and the rich are unmasked as equally dependent and contributive. What would that look like?

so – do children ‘make us grow up’ or ‘keep us young’?
or do they have the capacity (if we are open) do both at the same time, and make us all just truly ourselves…not ‘immature and irresponsible’ and not ‘pretentious and crusty’ – but simply human, with all the ongoing challenges, moments of insight, fragilities and gifts.



  1. In defence of adulthood –

    “Children are deeply intuitively connected to the adults they share life with.” Well, yes, but I believe they are also, in an important sense, mistaken.

    What I might say to my child has a very different meaning in her mind because she does not have the sophistication to imagine my context, inner experience and history. As the adult in the relationship, I have the responsibility to consider the frame that my words fall into, however mysterious she may be.

    Complexity underpins my capacity for compassion, insight and effectiveness. So I can value my child’s perspective, but I can’t expect her to understand important aspects of mine. In conscience, I will not limit my action to what my child can approve, and in kindness, I will not immerse my child in issues that she cannot imagine. This responsibility to act on behalf of someone before or beyond their consent, is commenced in infancy as a momentary necessity, but the conditioning becomes deeply embedded in both of us and binds us together. The power is not merely temporary, and it is inherent in good parenting, not fundamentally a distortion. The task of disentangling is a never-completed project of the child growing up into normal mature adulthood.

    Having children did not make me an adult, but it certainly tests my willingness to be one. We have seen harm to children from parents who were too determined to remain childlike. We have seen harm to adults from those who rebel against sophistication.

    We can honour the desire to learn, compassion, insight and honesty in children and adults alike.

    However, I wonder whether what comes “out of the mouth of babes” is a red herring. Lk 18:17 seems not to value children for their contribution, but for something innate.

    • The adulthood that you speak of here is, I agree as important for children to witness and encounter as it is for ageing human beings to inhabit and explore. You write here of an intentioned conscious engagement with your child, in which you reflect on it’s range of dimensions for both of you ‘separately and together’. (The way we all learned to play our scales.)

      The intuition I was highlighting was to do with the connectedness our children have with adults and the multi-faceted world around them, which is not always neatly graded and quarantined. I am reflecting on the way children are implicated in a wider world, beyond our intentions, and beyond their capacity to interpret. It is often said of children that they are great observers, but poor interpreters. The classic example of this being the child who sees all of the nuances of a delapidated family system riddled with toxins, and can name ‘Uncle Fred does this; older sister always…;granny is….’ with piercing insight – but concludes that all of this is somehow the child’s fault (the natural outworking of developmental egocentrism).

      This strengthens the importance of listening to our children’s observations – uncomfortably accurate as they may be – but also to have courage in our role of narrating and interpreting alongside them. As you say – not to immerse the child in issues that are beyond her imagination, but to acknowledge that her imagination is currently piecing things together in a certain way.

      ‘Out of the mouths of babes’ indeed is poorly used, often a red-herring to deflect from the actual insight, but in the context I quoted this in my post – it is most times with surprise that children have anything worthwhile to say. It is both the deprecation and the idealisation of the contribution of humans of any category that wields power: limiting, dismissing, exceptionalising – these we know are the mechanics of dominion. In my previous post about LEgo for girls, the example of creating ‘special’ Lego for girls masquerades as ‘promoting female creativity’ – but we can all see through this as a mechanism of limitation for commercial purposes.

      Finally, what you say about adults who ape a false ‘childhood’ of manipulation, dependency, neediness, and unclear communication – just as distressing as children who ape a false ‘adulthood’ of sexualisation, independence and power (often violent power) – is important. Being human in ways that do not befit the truth of our years damages and abuses us and those with whom we share the global neighbourhood. Thanks for that. Great to have your input.

      [I am reading the ways various culture ‘construct’ and manage adult and child relationships. One of the key triggers for attaining ‘adulthood’ and maturity is marriage (in the historical cultures I’m studying, all pre-20th century, marriage automatically signals progeny). One of the features of many cultures is the delay of adulthood, for males. (females in contrast, who were widely thought to be intrinsically incapable of maturity at any age are thus put to marriage and child birth as early as is safe – creating a gendered dissonance of ‘adulthood’.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: