the vocation to childhood

In preparation for a seminar we’re launching on vocation through the lifespan, I’ve been researching how theologians reflect on different stages of the lifespan: the theology of childhood, of adolescence, of young adults, of adulthood, of retirement, of old age. Makes for fascinating reading as well as insights into what theology has largely ignored. Good luck finding a decent theology of retirement, for example – a stage where people today can spend decades of their life.

But unsurprisingly, one of my favorite areas to research has become theology of childhood. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect so deeply on a reality unfolding before my very eyes, and I have learned so much about various Christian traditions’ views of childhood, the child, and the relationships between adults and children, and God and children.

As we imagine what a theology of vocation through the lifespan will look like, one of the key points that the best authors make is that each stage of life has a vocation all its own. Children are called to be children – as they are right now. They are not simply on-the-way to becoming adults; their vocation does not lie ahead of them somewhere in the future. Instead, God calls them and gifts them to be fully human right when and where and how they are as children. Yes, part of this vocation does involve preparing for what comes next. But they are also uniquely called to be children.

An article from the Wall Street Journal this week speaks to this very truth, without once using the religious language of vocation or call. (Thanks for passing this along, Homemade Mothering!) It is a short but smart defense of childhood written by a Dartmouth professor, and he makes the point that children have the right to enjoy the unique gifts of childhood without being hurried on towards adulthood.

Childhood, he argues, is a time of moral innocence, of openness to the future, of freedom from time, of curiosity and creativity. When adults hinder children’s enjoyment of these gifts, there is a real loss – to both children and their parents. While parents certainly struggle with maintaining a balance between letting kids be kids and helping them to become successful adults, recent trends towards over-scheduled and hyper-supervised approaches to child-rearing have stifled the enjoyment of childhood in itself.

I couldn’t agree more. The most vivid memories of my own childhood are hours of imaginative play with my brothers, time spent running around outdoors, adventures we concocted that seemed to last for days without end. The world of childhood was the playroom and the backyard – places where kids could be kids. I always felt safe that there were adults nearby to take care of us, but we had the freedom we needed to explore. I believe my years of childhood helped me to develop a healthy imagination and a lively sense of curiosity about the world. Probably my parents would never have named “the vocation to childhood,” but that doesn’t matter – they understood the importance, even sacredness, of this unique time in our lives, and they let us live it.

I always assumed I’d be able to give my children the same kind of unstructured, imaginative childhood. Now I realize how this may be more of a challenge than I first thought.

As a new parent, I already feel strong social pressure to protect my child at all costs: from predators, from bullies, from germs, from the media, from every danger the nightly news reports lurking at my doorstep. I also feel the anxiety to help my child succeed in every way possible: to stimulate his intellectual development with the right toys, to prepare him for school as early as possible, to ensure all right influences in his life help him become a healthy, well-adjusted, happy, balanced individual for life. Yikes.

These are questions and challenges F & I will surely be struggling with for years to come, as the pressures to overschedule and overprogram our children’s lives with sports and arts and school and music become all the harder to resist. I hope that all this reflection I’ve been graced to do on theology of childhood will be an equally strong reminder that as a parent, part of my vocation involves helping my kids to live theirs. As they are, as children, in a stage of their life that is too quickly over and will never come again.

I hope I can help my children to enjoy the gifts of childhood. I also hope I can be open to receiving the gifts that my children’s vocations bring in turn.

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