Partnership with Children

by Hal Miller

Even though parents go out of their way to help their children become responsible adults, other groups of adults often make their complicated task even more difficult. The ways we try to fit children into groups outside their families cause them ' and us ' more harm than good. Even in church groups, we rarely think of children as partners, and because of this we rob them and ourselves.

TAKE, FOR INSTANCE, our uncritical embrace of an institution that Christians managed to do without for centuries: Sunday school. It's not that Sunday school is a bad thing; it's that it incarnates some attitudes we groups of adults have toward children, which can be destructive. We conceive of it as "school" (a formalized, structured experience), as if training in Christianity could be reduced to such a thing. It allows parents the possibility of escaping their responsibility for growing their children in the faith, as if the "pros" could do it better.

Most importantly, however, we rely on Sunday school as the major way we as churches deal with our children because we are committed to the questionable process of isolating humans by peer group. We assume, usually without argument, that it is good to segregate people by age and interest. This is one reason we think churches must be large: only large churches can provide peer groups for the endless variety of people within them.

And, to a point, the homogeneity of peer groups is a good thing; to some extent, it is also unavoidable. The problem comes when we deliberately and exclusively create homogeneous groups for ourselves. This segmentation increases alienation rather than overcoming it; it isolates people in an environment of "the same."

In fact, many younger people find it difficult to carry on conversations with older ones. Why? One reason is that they have little experience in it. They have been socially confined to "peer groups" for nearly their whole lives. Nevertheless, we continue to create the problem for the children among us. We insist that they "need" a peer group in order for them to develop socially. And we're right, to an extent. But that is only one kind of social development, and a kind which does not help them integrate themselves into society.

Most children today reach puberty relating little to adults other than parents or teachers. All these adults are in authority roles for them; they must give the only adults in their lives a certain deference. They seldom have had an adult friend. No wonder we have the phenomenon of "adolescence" and the violent explosion into adulthood which it expresses. Perhaps the only way they can see to become adults is to alienate themselves forcefully from childhood.

We could ease their transition by reaching out to them and bringing them into adult society. Rather than just emphasizing their peer group, we should also encourage being connected with others outside their peer group. In fact, we should encourage them to be connected with us.

Communities need to help integrate people, not alienate them. This will mean beginning early on to treat children with respect and integrity, to reach out to them and offer them the friendship of adults, and to bring them into the decision-making processes of the community.

Too often, though, what we mean by "including" children in community is that they become the object of our attention. We watch them perform in Christmas pageants and junior choirs and think we have thereby included them. This is, naturally, better than nothing, but it has not yet come to see children as part of the community. To be part of a community is to participate; to include children is to include them as partners, not as objects of a "show" of attention by adults. We adults need to come into their world rather than simply observe it. And we need to let them be a part of our world - a real part, a legitimate part, a participating part.

WE KNOW WE teach our children. But we need to tell them'explicitly and often'that they teach us, and teach us things we desperately need to know. This is not mere posturing; it is real and we need to understand its reality.

Children teach us about the value of play. Adults are terminally boring when left to themselves. Children give life and lightness when they come into a group as participants.

Children teach us about the meaning of our projects. I remember watching two brothers playing in a mud puddle. They built a fantastic city there, with bridges, homes, and factories. But when the time came to go home, they bid it farewell, knowing that the joy came in building it ' not in admiring it. All too often, we adults sit around admiring our mud-cities instead of taking joy in building them and then (like children) being willing to give them to God for preservation.

And children teach us about wonder. I cannot count the times I have seen a child transfixed by some trivial object or other. They sit for what seems like hours examining some new treasure from the street. But we adults usually lose interest in things as soon as we are familiar with them. When was the last time you sat back in wonder at a $10 digital watch? That plastic package contains a little particle of silicon counting the thousands of vibrations in a little particle of quartz. Unbelievable! Yet we are numb to the wonder; we often accept such things as quite ordinary rather than as astonishing. We need children to let us see again with new eyes, to cast off our blinders and open up to us the amazing worlds of a frog or a piece of lace. Children take joy in things that we adults are above; they can teach us to find that joy, too.

Children teach us about sin. Optimistic visions of human nature have one serious hurdle to overcome: children can be monsters! They can be selfish, uncultured, and brutish (as well as tender, compassionate and accepting). They teach us about the doubleness of our real nature, which we prefer to hide behind cultural conventions. If you strip off all our politeness, civility, and phoniness, there we are, deformed creatures, of two minds about our fellows.

And children keep us young. One reason the elderly are so tragically alienated and despairing is that children are kept from them. I have gone into nursing homes where the signs said: keep children at home, please. If we isolate ourselves from children, what is left to keep us young and vigorous?

In order to learn these things from children, we need to give up the pretension of always being their teachers. Certainly we do have things to teach them. We give them models for living and ways of negotiating life. But we have concentrated so thoroughly on that dimension of our relationship that we are impervious to learning from them. We need a renewed vision that we adults are partners with children, that our relationship is genuinely two-way. Sunday school thwarts us in realizing this vision. Maybe what we should do instead of Sunday school for a while is let our children play with adult friends. We could call it "Sunday recess," which is much more a Sabbath rest than school.

TREATING CHILDREN AS partners may also require a change in the way we see families fitting into larger communities. Our present cultural mores dictate that children be kept within the confines of a home, and then within the confines of a school or day-care center. They are to be reared by their parents and teachers in isolation from the unstructured interactions of genuine community. Many children today live in a world of isolated and controlled experiences, not a world that is a community of friends, some related, some not, some their own age, some not. We communicate to them that the larger world is a dangerous place, and we feel we must protect them from all the unknowns and terrors lurking there.

This, however, is self-destructive. We are creating a cultural time-bomb and strapping it to our chest. Children have no path into adult society, no adults they can count as friends, and so they are forced to assert their independence from their structured world with a violent assertion of "me."

Yet it need not be so. We can teach our children to become adults by assimilation rather than by explosion. But this requires that they be integrated into a community where they have a clear sense that they are taken into account.

Left to themselves, children would never come up with the idea that the world is a dangerous place. Children are enormously accepting and vulnerable. They are open to friendship with others beyond their peer group and their family. We need to nurture this openness, not repress it. Treating the children in our churches and community as genuine partners, we ease their passage into the world outside themselves.

HOW CAN PARTNERSHIP with children take shape concretely? Most basically, it means taking their concerns and issues seriously. We may increasingly let children make "their own decisions," thinking we are thereby increasing their self-reliance. But often, adults make family or community decisions and then simply inform their children, thereby increasing their isolation. The children must then make of this what they can. By doing this, we teach them that the adult world does not take them seriously; things change as if by fate and they must passively accept it ' and the more passively, the better. It's no wonder we have the most politically apathetic citizenry in the West.

I am not saying that children ought to set a community's agenda, only that they really be included and heard in the process. Parents and churches often make decisions based on "what would be best for the kids," but they seldom give "the kids" any significant say in determining what that is. Some difficult transitions would be far easier for children if they were actually partners in the process of coming to those transitions. When Mom and Dad genuinely include their children in the decision to change jobs and move to another state, it is much less traumatic than informing them of the decision ' and helping them "accept" it ' after the fact.

If parents find it difficult to include children in decision making, the situation is worse in the larger circles of community, which surround and undergird families. There, especially, we need to take children's concerns and issues seriously. Churches, for instance, need to give children a more and more significant voice in their affairs until, by about puberty, they are recognized as fully responsible members. In the same way, schools need to treat children not as objects to be taught and controlled (which, thank God, many children will not allow to happen) but as partners in an educational process in which they have a larger stake than any teacher or administrator.

Not only should we take children's concerns and issues seriously, we need to give them adult friends who treat them with respect and help them break out of their own world into our world. Many of our children are skittish and shy around unknown adults. Part of the reason is that they have never had an unstructured relationship with an adult. Friendships between adults and children need to be nurtured and treated with the same respect as friendships between adults. We can do this by playing with other people's children, doing things with them on their terms as well as ours. Take somebody else's kid to the zoo and you've relieved a parent as well as befriended a child.

Now, when I call my friend on the phone and his six-year-old daughter answers, rather than saying, "Hi. Is your daddy there?" I say "Hi, Elizabeth. How are you today? What are you doing?" And I am childish enough to believe that little things like that create a more humane world.