The Difficult Times of Children: The Church’s Role When Lives Are Troubled
by Rebecca Davis
The ideal of childhood is characterized by the poet Francis Thompson writing on Shelley:
Know you what it is to be a child?
It is to be something very different from the [adult] of today.
It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism;
it is to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief;
…it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness,
and nothing into everything.
This is the world we want for our children. Yet far too many children must cope with a very different reality. One in six children in the US lives in poverty and is hungry. More than 30% of US children live out the realities of divorce. Health concerns, such as juvenile diabetes and the rising diagnoses of autism disorders, mean more children now live in households whose window of childhood is dwindling. Then there are our children whose giftedness or privilege bear the fruit of excessive expectations and over-whelmed schedules.
The church has a distinctive role to play in difficult times of children. While we may draw on the expertise of the social scientists, we are first and foremost theologians and educators bringing the wisdom of faith to life for children and their families. There are three areas I find helpful in nurturing children when the waters of their lives are troubled: Story, Hope, and Sanctuary.
There are two aspects to story. The first is personal stories. As adults we often talk about “our story.” We listen to one another’s faith journey, inquire of how another is feeling and sometimes spend hours sitting with a friend during a difficult time. When it comes to children, however, we are quick to assume we know their stories based on what their parents tell us, and ascribe to the children our understanding of their feelings. Children need the opportunity to describe their reality in their own words. Asking a child the open-ended questions that we often reserve for youth and adults can unbolt a wealth of emotions for the child and provide us a glimpse into his or her world. Creating time in our overly-booked schedule to sit with children in their homes, hospital rooms, libraries or play areas is essential to listening to their sacred stories. Children can sense when we are more concerned with the next appointment and the next task than with what they have to say.
The second aspect of story is the story. Children are fascinated with power—particularly when they feel as if they have none in their situation. Secular studies have found that children often gravitate to superheroes and fantastic tales of gods and rulers to help them deal with illness, death and struggle. The church has many stories of God’s power that can help children through difficulties. The young David who defeats the giant Goliath can become the story that helps a child through leukemia. Daniel in the lion’s den, Samson, Paul in jail, Esther, Joshua, and Joseph are just a few of the biblical stories that help children transcend their current situation.
Story, and transcendence from their pain, is intrinsically linked with hope. Children, who know the stories of those who have overcome hard times and can give voice to their own experiences, are open to hope. In many ways our job is to hold up a mirror that shows them the true reflection of who they are: God’s loved and valued child, rather than the reflection given by the world, or their illness, or the situation they are living in at the moment. They are children whose spirit streams from the waters of baptism.
The third aspect of helping children cope is creating space in the church where children feel welcome, valued, recognized and safe. Then the church is a place where children can share their stories, are listened to, experience hope, see their baptismal reflection, explore possibilities and leave empowered. Children need such a place—why not at the intersection of faith and childhood?
Rebecca L. Davis is a Minister of the Word and Sacrament and a Certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She currently serves on the faculty of Union Presbyterian Seminary on the Charlotte Campus. She has been both ordained and non-ordained ministry staff in small, medium and large congregations across the south. She was Director of Christian Education at Enslow Park Presbyterian in Huntington, WV, Associate Pastor at Central Presbyterian in Mobile, AL, Pastor of First Presbyterian in Monahans, TX and Executive Director of its child development center, Associate General Presbyter in Peace River Presbytery in FL and Associate Pastor at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.
This article first appeared in APCE Advocate, Winter 2006.