The mystery of the child

Illustration: Sveta Gaintseva/Shutterstock
Published September 12, 2016

This past summer offered a special occasion for my partner Marlene and me.

We welcomed the arrival, between us, of our eighth grandchild. Her name is Julia Grace. For us, the coming of a grandchild is nothing new, and we love all seven of her predecessors. But for me, Julia’s arrival was a special occasion. I think I was finally ready to appreciate what this newborn can teach me, as I was previously unprepared.

Gradually, and into my eighth decade, I believe that I am transitioning from understanding babies and children as objects of my adult will to persons of respect in their own right. What do I mean by this? Let me unpack that and try to translate something mysterious into words.

When we find ourselves in the parent role for the first time, we are normally shaken by the magnitude of the responsibility. A fragile and malleable human life is in our hands! When previously we were the responsive or reactive children in relation to parents, we are now the parents! That is a major life discovery. In response, many parents become intense rather than laidback.

We don’t want our kids to reflect our inadequacies. We start “living through the lives of our children” rather than seeking the best way to help them mature into their own true selfhood.

Time and circumstance change us. My partner and I have now arrived at a period in life when our role is that of enjoying and responding to the children rather than controlling them. We have great respect for all modern parents who take their teaching roles seriously, and think that many of them are better suited to the task than we ever were. We observe them practising a variety of parenting techniques, often thoughtfully determined and evolving with experience.

Some parents seem to believe that discipline is primary. Some, perhaps reacting to their own upbringing, consider discipline anathema. Most seem caught in the muddy middle and are frequently self-blaming for a lot of what transpires. I have the luxury of standing back and reflecting on it all. What am I learning?

Over the past decades, Canadian society, at the prompting of the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, has been challenging us to be much more attentive to children’s rights. Where might that begin?

“Children are not problems; they are mysteries”-is a lesson I am trying to learn.  “Each child is a mystery surrounded by a mystery rather than a problem faced by a complex of problems.”*

Children receive. They live in a gift relationship with others. We need to grow as adults and once more become receptive like children, as Jesus said (Mt. 18:2-5; Mk. 9:36-7.) We are all, parents and children, givers and receivers.

When I look into Julia’s lovely face, nestled in her mom’s or nana’s arms,

I consider myself the recipient of a great gift. I have so much to learn from Julia; but I hope I will always be there for her, too, if ever she needs me.

*A special thanks to Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus, University of Chicago, whose shared experience and book, The Mystery of the Child,  helped me write this column.







  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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