Childhood in Society today
It’s a difficult subject, not obviously a Lenten subject, but it’s one of those covered by the study course ‘When I survey’ which we are following for this sermon series.
So let me begin by going back 25 years, to when I lived in a big vicarage in Berkshire, looking out over fields towards the Thames valley. The large field in front of the Vicarage drive was always sown with barley and I have lovely memories of when it had been cut in the summer, and my children being able to play with their friends in the summer sunshine roaming over this wonderful expanse of ‘rural playground’. The freedom, and the lack of anxiety about them wandering half a mile away and still feeling that they were safe. It was how you imagine childhood should be.
And then I can go back another 25 years to my own childhood in the 1950’s when every day during school term time I would walk a mile from home to the station, 15 minute train ride, and walk half a mile the other end to get to and from school, winter and summer, and my parents quite confidently sent me off aged 11 or 12 with no mobile phone if I was late arriving home, and for the first few years no car to come and collect me if I got stuck.
Contrast those safe and secure images and experiences of childhood with children’s lot today. Not given freedom to roam, parents anxious about letting children out of their sight because of fears both real and imaginary; and driving them everywhere because ‘it’s too dangerous to let them travel by themselves.’ Add to these fears the pressures on children today, the pressure to grow up too quickly and the consequent loss of childhood. ‘Childhood’ in my youth extended until you were about 15 at least, and you would certainly play with toys until then or later – Dinky toys, Meccano, model railways, even train spotting: those were our passions – unheard of now for any self-respecting teenager. New technological toys – computers, video games Wii etc. introduce children to the perils of the internet, and mobile phones, Facebook etc, open up virtual social networks which distort their understanding of what building relations and dealing with real people involves.
Children from a very young age are now targeted through sophisticated marketing turning them into ‘consumers’, and a report published this week has highlighted the problem of the premature sexualisation of children and young people through teen age magazines, pop videos and media images, which exert subconscious pressure on children to confirm to certain images of body-shape, dress, sexual availability etc, at far too young an age.
Again in terms of family life, and schooling, children have moved from being junior members of the pecking order to being centre stage, so that child-center parenting and child-centered learning has created a generation of young people who are self-centered and unpleasantly egotistical, thinking that the world revolves around them and their personal desires and needs. We constantly read articles about parents who don’t know how to say ‘no’ to their children or set appropriate boundaries, and school teachers in despair because they simply haven’t got the sanctions necessary to maintain discipline and order anymore. We’ve moved in 50/60 years form a culture where ‘children should be seen and not heard’ to one where children’ rule the roost’ and know it only too well.
Now it would be easy to carry on in this vein - but not very helpful. What we can say is that childhood today is not the golden age that it once seemed to be (but was it ever?): instead, it’s a tune fraught with difficulty for many. But also in many ways, certainly for children in the developed world, it can be a very good and rich and fulfilling time, with opportunities and experiences available that were unreadable of for previous generations. In our perplexity, let’s turn to the Bible and see what Jesus says about children and childhood.
We heard one of his most famous sayings in our Gospel reading today ‘whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me.’ And in Matthew’s Gospel he says ‘Unless you become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.’
People often assume that because Jesus brings a child into the centre of his teaching in this way that children occupied a special place in 1st century Palestine – like they do in our society today. Far from it. Children, especially girl children, were on the lowest rung of the pecking order – girl babies sometimes just thrown away at birth because nobody wanted expensive daughters to bring up. Children weren’t special at all. Jesus seems to have used the example of a child because he knew that what we do to and with our children and how we regard them is a pretty accurate indication of what we think about the world and about God.
Children are weak, they are vulnerable, to some people they are a nuisance, but they are each unique and they do matter. They have their own dignity, their own questions, and their own future. And this little child- it could have been a boy or a girl, we aren’t told – unsure, shy, vulnerable, but also trusting, ready to listen and to learn, to be loved and to love – is a symbol, Jesus is saying of what true godliness is like. But Jesus isn’t just using her as a teaching aid; he’s concerned for children themselves. He doesn’t have a romantic cosy vision of childhood, but nor does he undervalue the place of children in society either. He is challenging us both to be like children ourselves, and to value our children for themselves. Not as an adult in waiting, or as a consumer or as a prematurely sexualized being or as an exam statistic, or as a problem, but as a real person with their own unique identity, a valued member of society just as they are. And perhaps church could be a place where they do feel they belong just as themselves and where they experience the acceptance and unconditional love which is the bedrock for true human flourishing.
Placing our children at the food of the Cross means allowing them to be children and not simply there to meet our won psychological needs. It means resisting letting them be exposed to the demands and pressures of the adult world before they have matured, it means attending to their vulnerability and needs without becoming obsessive. It means remembering that in caring for them we care for Christ himself, for ‘whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.’