"Let the children come to me. They are the kingdom of heaven."
Jesus said that in a famous story in the Gospels. He was popular, crowds were pressing for him, pushing and pulling to get a miracle, a word of wisdom, something from the remarkable Galilean. His disciples, thinking they were good handlers, warded off a group of children trying to meet him. He rebuked his disciples with that line, so famous in the King James version: "Suffer the children, and forbid them not...for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
We are cruel to children. The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book that became a bestseller when it appeared in English in 1981, is a moving account of that cruelty and how it shapes us. Alice Miller, the author, was a Swiss psychotherapist and surviver of the Holocaust. Although the title suggests the book is about particularly gifted children, it deals generally with childhood trauma. Children want respect and recognition, but they lack power, initially even of the most basic communication and movement. They are often treated as if their desires are not real, as if they should be able to understand why they are being frustrated or hurt. We do this, Miller, like many others, thought, because it was done to us. We repeat our earliest and unremembered experiences, replicating patterns that are familiar to us. Even if they are destructive.
Like every story that lasts thousands of years, the story of the children and Jesus is not only about a literal event. It is about all of us. Think of those little children. They were not hunting after miracles, seeking healing, wondering how Jesus would solve some vexing problem in Jewish law. They were just tiny cute and curious little people. They wanted to meet the strange and famous man.
Do you know what Jesus did? According to the story, he "laid his hands on them." This is both affection and blessing. The "laying on of hands" is an archaic phrase still in use to mark ceremonial conferrals of power and blessing (like in church rituals). Jesus probably put his hand on their little heads, felt their hair, and murmured a prayer for them. He acknowledged them, accepted them, and gave them a part of himself.
Do you not feel someone in yourself pulling on your clothes, asking for your time? Someone that sometimes comes with a simple curiosity, comes wondering and asking, or perhaps just comes to be looked in the eye or touched gently? But we too often taught that being mature, or tough, or a "grown up" means keeping that inner child at bay. We treat the inner child worse than our pets. How often do we reject our pet's affection? Yet we do this all of the time to ourselves and to others.
Children's innocence and ignorance marks an easy target for any trace of adulthood embittered by pain. Many people reject the things they love as children because they reject the child they once were. Among the rejected animals, dolls, and toys of childhood often lie a beloved stack of books. For me these include the Berenstein Bears, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and countless other stories my mother read to me and my siblings.
Some things we love as children no longer entertain us as adults. That is natural. But love without guile is often an uncanny judge of quality. Many children's books are simply good books: permanently pleasurable, delightful to read and reread. We don't want to seem childish. Imagine a suited banker reading Goodnight Moon on a Wall Street bench! Perhaps it's only me, but you know what? I find that picture beautiful. I would be charmed by such a sight, and I might even ask the person about their other favorite books.
The courage to read like a child is not easy for us adults. But we could start by being gentle to ourselves, and remembering that delight, pure joy in simple things, is beautiful. Why have contempt for such a lovely thing, if not for fear of our own vulnerability, how it made us suffer? Find a space that is comfortable and safe, and consider making there a practice of joy, like reading things you love, even if you never tell another soul.
But let me whisper a little secret to you: children's books changed my life, they saved my life, as a suffering young man on the verge of a catastrophic breakdown. It was the heart of a child that steadied my soul. Let the little children come. They are, truly, the kingdom of heaven.
This is part of a series on valuable virtues that merit recovery.
The previous essay, "Why Piety Matters," can be found on my Patreon account