Embracing the Child, Part Seven: How to Handle Little Brats

On a visit to my aunt and uncle as a teenager, one day I was left to babysit my two young cousins.

I happened to be reading a book called Some Main Problems of Philosophy, and I figured I’d spend a quiet day reading while my little cousins played. No such luck. The first thing they did was to hide my book, proceeding to lead me on a merry chase for hours as they teased and tormented while I bargained and cajoled—to no avail. Not until just before the adults returned did I finally get my book back, by which time I’d concluded there was at least one main problem of philosophy which the book did not cover—namely, How to handle little brats. Of course this is not a philosophical problem at all, and any attempt to approach it philosophically will meet with as much success as I did that day. As Plato put it, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

How will you know when you have embraced your alien child? There will be a lightness in your step; you will relax with people; you will sleep more peacefully; you will laugh easily and tears will flow readily; you will take the hand of spontaneity; you will approach work more playfully; gratitude will be your native tongue; you will breathe forgiveness. 

These are a few of the blessings and glories of becoming, once more, a child. And that is what we are. 

Hardly had I written that last sentence when my doorbell rang, and some concluding lines were handed to me: 

While writing an essay on childhood
two small boys appear at my door—
my neighbors—collecting pledges
for a school walkathon.

I invite them in, find some cash,
fill out the form, make small talk—
the whole time keenly aware I’m not
in the presence of ordinary humans

but of something more mysterious,
more redolent of Another Place
than earth. So here I am, brought

up suddenly, my abstract topic

made flesh in a gentle rebuke.
You see, it is not so easy to capture
such a wonder in words, wherefore
Jesus placed a little child front and center. 

Who was that child, I wonder?
Boy or girl? And did he
or she feel blessed? No doubt.
Yet that was not the point. 

The point was all of adult
wisdom and know-how held
up to question in the presence
of littleness, as befell me today. 

I tell you the truth, unless
you change and become like
little children, you will never
enter the kingdom of heaven—

for back there, not up ahead,
is where the light blazes

and the gate is not
only narrow, it is low. 












The above essay, the last of seven parts, is excerpted from An Introduction to Child Theology, edited by James M. Houston, pp 220-29.

I’ve also written on the theme of childhood and childlikeness in my book The Mystery of Children: What Our Kids Teach Us About Childlike Faith, available as a free ebook on this site, or in paper from Amazon.

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