This Sunday is Children’s Sunday at church when we hear about what they have learned in Sunday school and make them feel special. Indeed, they are adorable with their patent leather shoes, swishy dresses, and clip on bow ties. But childhood was not always as romantic as we perceive it today. Puritans didn’t name their children for the first two years of their lives because so many died in the early years of their lives. Historians say somewhere around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the perception of the nature of childhood changed rather dramatically in Europe and America.
The first change was the idea that childhood was a separate developmental stage. Beforehand, children were often thought of as little adults. The second shift was the idea of who was deserving of childhood. Upper class families tended to have a sense of childhood as a developmental stage and were pampered, protected, and cultivated. Children of lower classes tended to have an extended infancy and were then thrown into an adult world of labor. This was especially true at the height of the industrial revolution when every family member had to make a contribution to the household economy.
It was not until 1875 that the world’s first organization devoted entirely to child protection came into existence-the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Prior to 1875, many children went without protection or worked as indentured servants.
Many of these early efforts to provide care for children were based on Jesus words that we fondly quote on Children’s Sunday: “Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18: 15-17). Yes there are times when we have botched it in spite of our good intentions.
Many of you may have read the best-selling book “The Orphan Train.” Between 1854 and 1929, many of these trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?
But we have come far since those days with child labor laws, public education, quality health care, social service agencies, and child abuse prevention to protect our children. Still we know how many children in the world suffer from neglect, lack of food, water, and basic medical care. It’s amazing how adults can abuse such vulnerable, innocent, creatures so deserving of love.
But the Christian faith at its best has turned the value and importance of children on its head. Children are estimable in their own right not simply for their function as farm hands or workers or little adults. To be sure, we have a “cult of childhood” today, but that’s a subject for another reflection.
My children have always been prophets and priests to me. Many years ago when Nathan was young enough to still be in a car seat, somebody cut Peggy off and she yelled, “Moron!” Then, in all innocence came a question from the back seat, “Mom, how come we’re the only ones who know how to drive?”
How many times have your children brought you down to “your own right size,” as the Shaker hymn puts it? My children have always been prophets and priests to me. As Isaiah put it “a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). It often takes a little child to teach us and remind us of what’s important.