They big questions we grapple with as children sometimes end up being the same questions that haunt us for the rest of our lives.
Matthew tells the story of 12 year old Jesus who ditches his family on a visit to Jerusalem, only to be found three days later, safe and sound in the Temple, questioning and being questioned by the teachers. I wish that I could have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. There is, of course, no record of it anywhere. But I would love to know what questions young Jesus posed to these teachers.
I wonder if those questions posed by this child who always had rumors about his parentage swirling around him, this child who was never really accepted as “Joseph’s child,” had anything to do with the kind of “questions” he tackled in his adult ministry?
“Let the children come to me…”
“If anyone harms one of these…”
“And he placed a child in the midst of them…”
I’ve spent some time in the last couple of weeks visiting juvenile detention centers, listening to young people’s questions.
I’ve got a question: are children poorer today than they were when I was a child?
I think the answer is a double YES! They are poorer in terms of cash resources. And they are much poorer in terms of “adult gold.”
What is “adult gold?” Poverty today is not just about not having shoes to wear to school, although that may be the case for some. Child poverty today is also about the wholesale abandonment of children by the only resource of value they should be able to count on: their parents, the adults in their families and in their communities.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem with his family give us the impression that Jesus is the one who “stayed behind” and his parents did not know where he was. His parent’s thought he was lost and it cost them much anguish.
I don’t think today’s children are lost. I think today’s adults are lost. And, it’s causing children much anguish.
How is it that children can have costly sneakers, costly jeans, a cap for every outfit and more technology than any one person would ever need — and not have one adult in their lives who will eat dinner with them, enforce curfew, insist on seeing homework, approve or disapprove of friends, get up early in the morning and jack them out of bed to make sure that they get to school on time, accept no excuses about behavior, insist on kindness as a mark of character and ask them about their dreams?
We are unwittingly conspiring with the failure of systems, with racism, inequity and injustice by also failing to provide the children in our own community with the kind of “wealth” that only we can give them. We can give them “us.”
From everything I’ve heard in my conversations, they want that more than jeans and sneakers.
Meeting with a group of boys in detention, I said to them, “I know that it is hard just to live in our city. It’s hard for parents to try to make ends meet and to care for their families.” Then I asked, “if there was one thing that we could do to help support your families so that they could better support you, what would that one thing be?” A young boy, who admitted that he had problems with anger management, said this: “Help my family learn how to show love. We don’t have that closeness (he said as he hugged himself), we don’t have that.” Another boy chimed in, “yeah, intimacy.” And yet another, “yes, that’s true, my family needs counseling.”
For all who are working with children:
1. Find the mental health and counseling resources in your community. Work with them to offer parent counseling and family support for the families of the children under your influence. They will be resistant. Keep trying, be creative, keep pushing….
2. Figure out a way to send some key messages to parents through your programs that will support this truth: children need love, guidance, boundaries, discipline, love, love, love — so much more than they need caps and technology. You won’t be popular and it will be hard to be consistent, but that’s the definition of parenting.
3. Send the message and make it happen for parents and adults who are caring for children — parents need to talk with others who are there or who have been there. Children are supposed to cause adults “anguish and worry.” That is a part of their job description. They are supposed to push the envelope, try your patience, test the boundaries. That is what healthy, well-adjusted children do. However, parents and adults are not supposed to cause children “anguish and worry.” That is not a part of our job description. We are not special if we are being patient. That is our job. We don’t “deserve credit” if we establish boundaries and keep children from crossing them. That is our job. It’s hard and few of us can do it consistently without support. But it is our job.
4. Tell parents to stop thinking that a child is supposed to show you “gratitude” right now for all the things you do to “sacrifice” for them. Children learn to be grateful as they grow into maturity and that learning is a mark of maturity. They don’t learn to be grateful because we yell at them for not being grateful. Talking with professionals, with others will bring some of this into perspective and will keep us from causing our children “anguish and worry” over adult madness; from giving up on them because they can’t handle adult madness; for throwing them out of the house because in our “adult madness” we don’t have time to deal with children who make stupid, youthful decisions.
We are God’s children and we make incredibly stupid decisions everyday. And God does not throw us out. God doesn’t expect us to be God. God gives us a place to bring our questions, our doubts, our fears, our irrational thoughts — all the things that are truly a mark of our own spiritual immaturity. And God holds those things in trust and loves us enough to talk with us about them, loves us enough to walk us through them. In God’s presence we find forgiveness, grace, mercy, understanding, unconditional love and safety.
The question many of our young people are grappling with is indeed a very heavy one: does anybody love me enough to really parent me? My prayer is that our children will find the answer that the psalmist found:
“For my father and mother have forsaken me,
But the LORD will take me up.”
Psalm 27:10 (NASB)