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February 26, 2023
The Kids Are Alright
Many years ago, when my oldest nephew was around six and curious about a lot of things, we were sitting at my parents’ breakfast table. Cam’s little brother Jamie had asked for cottage cheese for breakfast. So Cam turned to me and asked, “How do you make cottage cheese?”
Now I haven’t got much more than a vague idea how cheese is made, even after watching quite a few YouTube videos about the process; but I gave him the best explanation I could come up with: “Well, you make it just like any other cheese. You take milk, and mix in some special cheese germs, and they make the milk turn into chunks, and that’s cottage cheese.”
(I sort of take after my dad in the conviction that if you don’t actually know the answer to a question that doesn’t have life-or-death impact, it’s fine to just make something up that sounds plausible.)
But Cameron wasn’t through. “Where do the cheese germs come from?”
I said, “Well, they come in a box that says ‘Cheese Germs’ on the outside.”
“But where do you get them?”
“I don’t know. You can’t just get them at the store; I suppose you have to order them.”
Luckily at that point the conversation at the table went in a different direction, because I had no idea whatsoever how one might go about ordering cheese germs.
(I related this story to my church folks in Iowa, and one of them had worked in his family’s dairy years before. He said my explanation really wasn’t all that far off. I still don’t know exactly what “cheese germs” one would need or where to get them, but I do know that they sell rennet tablets at the Stoplight Market.)
Do you suppose Cam’s curiosity about the world around him was what Jesus had in mind when he said we needed to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? (This may be the way the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—say what Jesus says in John 3 when he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”)
Christians—scholars and regular folks alike—have debated for centuries exactly what it was about children that Jesus wants us to emulate. Some of the speculations are over-romanticized, and not entirely true.
Kids are innocent, so we’re supposed to be innocent, somebody may say. But kids aren’t somehow naturally pure and perfect; not everything they do or say is cute or adorable.
I’m sure we’ve all been there when a toddler has a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store, and even though every child throws a tantrum from time to time, it doesn’t really keep their parents from being embarrassed by it. Knowing that it’s a normal thing all little ones go through as they get frustrated about one thing or another, but lack the words to explain why, makes us sympathetic, and rightly so. But tantrums aren’t, even when we understand what’s behind them, cute or adorable.
Most little children also go through a phase where they experiment with stealing. It’s part of their learning process, figuring out how the world works, their place in it, what the limits are on their behavior. But we can’t just smile indulgently and say, “Oh, how cute,” when we find a child has stolen something; we have to teach them stealing is wrong.
And children can oftentimes be mean to one another, and sometimes it’s intentional.
Kids are the most truthful people on earth, we hear occasionally. But another phase a lot of kids go through is lying.
And to be honest, that truthfulness isn’t always welcome. Like the time when I was at my sister’s house while she was putting up Christmas decorations. Cam was four or five at that time, and he was playing in the box the decorations had come out of. He was pretending it was an airplane and he was about to fly it somewhere, so I asked him if I could go, too.
He said no. “You’re too wide.”
Or maybe someone suggests that the thing about children we ought to imitate is their unthinking generosity. Except it seems like the first word a lot of toddlers learn, after “no,” is “mine.” Again this is part of their development, as they learn where they end and the world begins, not a sign that kids are naturally bad. But we have to teach kids to share. Once they’re taught that, they may be inclined to do it without worrying about adult things like whether a person “deserves” to be given something; but kids are pretty selfish creatures, until they get to a point in their development where they can recognize that other people have feelings and needs, and they start to have some empathy and consideration for others.
I actually think what Jesus had in mind wasn’t something pretty and romantic about childhood, about innocence and play and curiosity, all the things we tend to believe childhood is about nowadays.
In Jesus’ time, children were valued mainly for their potential—one day they’d be adults who could work; until then they had very little to offer in return for the food, clothing, shelter, and education their families had to provide. They were humble in the truest sense of the word.
Even now, very small children are totally dependent on someone to care for them. They cannot earn a living, or provide for their own needs; they can’t cook their own food or even change their own clothes when they’re really little.
Perhaps this is part of what Jesus meant: to be Jesus’ disciples and to be part of the kingdom of heaven, we have to recognize and accept that we are totally dependent on God to provide for our needs. That’s a pretty tough thing for us to hear, immersed as we are in a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency almost to the point of idolatry.
But I think humility and the recognition that we are all dependent on God are just part of what Jesus wants us to hear, and like so many other things he says, this one can be interpreted in a great variety of ways.
Matthew 18:3 is Mike’s favorite Scripture. He told me a story to explain why.
In the early 1950s, before he started school, Mike and his mother moved to Waco, Texas, so she could attend Baylor University. It wasn’t too long after they moved there that the two of them had to go to the laundromat, and there Mike saw something he had never seen before (since up to that point he’d only lived in California and Illinois).
Instead of one water fountain, this place had two, and there were signs above them, which he couldn’t read. Ann told him what they said: One said “White,” and the other said “Colored.”
Ann got busy starting their laundry, while Mike stood and pondered those signs and those water fountains. Before too long he went over and ran some water out of each one, and was surprised to discover that the same water came out of both fountains. He had thought maybe the “Colored” fountain would dispense water that was blue, or green, or maybe that the water would look like a rainbow. But no, it was clear just like the other one.
So he went and asked his mom about it.
She couldn’t really give him a good answer, even though he persisted, beyond that in Texas it was the law that black people had to drink from a separate water fountain. Finally she just had to shush him, because she was concerned what others there might overhear, and she sure didn’t want to have him pin her down so she’d have to say what she thought about segregation. They were new in town, and it just wasn’t safe to have that kind of conversation in a public place.
Mike says he never forgot those two fountains, putting out exactly the same water. He never forgot that as a preschooler, he was completely baffled by the whole idea of racial segregation.
“Mother, why are there two fountains?”
“Daddy, why do some people act like they’re mad at people just because they’re a different color or talk different?”
Well, honey, some people are afraid of people who aren’t like them, and that’s why they act like that.
In those questions, especially that last one, I think we may have another answer to why Jesus calls on us to become like little children. As adults it’s easy to harden ourselves to the grim realities of our world, like poverty and racism. We build homes and communities and lives where we can be insulated from the realities others struggle with every single day.
But the child still sees, and asks, “Why?” Do we?
And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
 I do know, incidentally, that the correct spelling is “all right”; but since the song title I borrowed this title from spells it “alright,” I thought it should be left that way.