In my day job, I work as a nanny for three adorable children. The brother-sister twins are almost a year and a half, and their older brother, Sam, is four. I’ve learned some things that I more or less expected to learn after taking this job: how to change a diaper, how to prepare bottles, how to spot from across the room a baby chewing something he’s not supposed to chew. However, I’ve also learned some things that I didn’t expect as much.
Caring for small children provides a sharp insight into what it means to be human, often on a daily basis.
Children reveal aspects of human nature that are present in adults; we’re just better at hiding them.
One characteristic I’ve come to appreciate about young children is that they speak exactly what is in their hearts: they don’t dilute or filter their feelings like we grownups do. A typical example could be Sam becoming distressed that one of his siblings has commandeered a toy of his (that he may or may not have been playing with), say, a piece of the wooden train set. Perhaps on the verge of tears, Sam will say, “But I don’t want him to play with my trains!” The pure confession of a child. Even in children who are not my own, I see our shared humanity and flaws: my selfishness, my narcissism, my sometimes overwhelming desire that things will just go my way. It’s easy to believe that we all have a four-year-old within us, a small version of ourselves that rants and raves against authority, that never wants to share, and that resists responsibility and things that are difficult. Really what I see is our shared sin, our shared tendency to turn away from good things.
When we direct children, we are also directing ourselves.
This one I’m stealing from a mother friend of mine who shared the thought on Facebook. As a nanny, I’ve also realized this (although to a lesser degree, I’m sure). When it’s your job to tell a child what’s okay and what’s not okay, what’s good and what’s bad, and how they should behave, you realize that such directions apply to yourself, too. You’ve got to have a larger frame of reference for why you are telling a child not to push his little sister, or not to throw a tantrum when he can’t watch television, or even why it’s important for him to always wash his hands when he’s done going to the bathroom. Even if it’s just implied, even if only the adult is aware of it, we direct children on how to live well based on deeper beliefs about what it means to live well. Underlying (almost) every direction, there’s a bigger reason, a bigger life lesson: you can’t push your sister (because we have to be kind to each other); you can’t throw a tantrum (because you have to learn to respect authority and that things don’t always go your way).
Which leads me to the next lesson I’ve learned as a nanny:
There’s nothing quite like a questioning child to force you to define your beliefs.
I read somewhere a wry comment about parenting that went something like this: “I realized in a panic a few months before my first child was born that I needed to throw together some sort of morality.” As grownups, it’s easy to take the world and what we believe about it for granted. We don’t stop to question everything we don’t understand; who’s got time for that? It’s also easy to skate through our day-to-day without really considering our deeper beliefs about the important things: family, relationships, God, death, sin, redemption. We fall into the sometimes mindless rhythm of work, cleaning, errands, and to-do lists, and it’s easy to let ourselves get away with it. After all, confronting our beliefs about life’s biggest matters and forcing ourselves to define and refine them is hard and painful and takes time and effort. Why would we seek that out?
But that changes when a child enters the picture, if it doesn’t before. Being the Adult In Charge often means that it’s your responsibility to explain everything from the laws of physics to appropriate interpersonal behavior to who God is to a little person who has every right to be asking about such things. After all, in Sam’s case, he’s only been on the planet for four years.
A child will ask about all of the things we don’t really think about anymore, that we were once taught but have forgotten the teaching, like: “Why is it raining?” or “Why do I have to share?” or the big ones, like “Who is God? Why do people die? What is sin?” The questions are harder to ignore when they’re asked of you directly by an ever-questioning child. And when a child who trusts you and looks to you for direction is asking the question, it’s a reminder of the importance of the answer. You take things more seriously when you’re responsible for helping guide another human life.
Children are scientists and explorers, and they make no assumptions. They don’t take things for granted like we grownups do. They don’t ignore a question just because they don’t understand it or have a good answer. Children are thirsty for knowledge, and they continually ask “Why?” and “What’s that mean?” and “What does that say?” Oftentimes, I must admit, I am exhausted by the questions. But when I’ve had some time to rest and reflect, I’m thankful for them, in a way. It’s as if little children are simply giving voice to the big questions of life and the universe that are always there, but just so often left unasked. We grownups don’t challenge each other or ourselves as much, although we should, both for our sakes and for the sake of the children in our lives. We must consult our priests and pastors; we must study Scripture and the Church Fathers. We are told to always be prepared to defend what we believe (1 Peter 3:15).
Sam has not yet asked me any question as big as “What is sin?” or “Why should we love God?” Perhaps he never will. Those are questions better answered by his parents, anyway. But I hope and pray to have children of my own one day, and if I do, I know such questions will come.
And I need to be ready.
Image via IM Creator