Learning with children

Krista Tippett, host of the Radio Show “On Being” has on several occasions referred to a Jewish proverb that also has a version in Islam. The basic idea is that before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells him everything, all the secrets of the universe, then kisses him on the forehead, and he begins gradually to forget it all. I like the story, though I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it from any other source, so I don’t know how popular or prevalent it is in Judaism or Islam.

Part of what is attractive about the story is that it gives us a different way to think about childhood and growing. The model we carry in our minds most of the time is just the opposite. We think of children as being born with very few abilities and very little knowledge and they process of their growing as one of gaining knowledge and information and abilities. I suspect that our usual way of thinking is, actually, more helpful than the proverb, but I like to look at things that I take for granted from a different perspective.

There is something wonderfully special about being a grandparent. We get to look at the precious infants and children in our lives from a slightly different perspective than we viewed our own children. Even though our grandchildren live many miles from us, we have the luxury of getting to know them pretty well through visits and regular video conversations over the computer. And we live in the era of instant pictures and videos. We get fresh pictures of our youngest grandson nearly every day. And most days we have new pictures of all of our grandchildren. Pictures and video clips aren’t the same as being with them, but they are a gift of great value.

I don’t think the proverb is literally accurate. The great wisdom of infants and children isn’t the product of having lots of information - of knowing everything - but rather a product of being open to everything. Children greet each new experience as something to be explored and discovered. Our six-month-old grandson tries to taste every object with which he comes into contact. He picks things up and put them in his mouth. His parents, of course, are extremely careful about which things are within his reach. There are lots of choking hazards and things that should not go into a young child’s mouth. He certainly reminds me of Psalm 34: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

What we seem to lose as we grow and age is not information. We don’t become less knowledgeable unless a stroke or other brain injury causes trauma. We do become more set in our ways and less open to newness and being influenced by new information. Our attitude changes.

It seems to me that in general our culture in the part of the world where I live is a bit less appreciative of experience and wisdom than once was the case. Youth is valued in many job searches and often trumps experience. Mid-level executive jobs are often occupied by people with far less experience than was the case a few decades ago. There are jobs where those hiring would have never considered someone without a broad experience base twenty years ago that are now occupied by people with little or no experience. Those younger and less experienced people possess other qualities and skills that make them attractive to employers, not the least of which is a level of comfort and skill with computers and social media. In the balance of youth and experience vs age and experience, the pendulum has swung a little bit towards youth. I’m pretty sure that i would have argued for such a swing earlier in my career. I was often told that I need not consider applying for a particular position because I lacked the prerequisite experience.

I don’t get told that any more. Most people consider me to be near the end of my career. They don’t expect me to be honing my resume and looking for another job. I understand that. There are times when it is appropriate to step aside and allow others to assume leadership. It is, however, a new experience for me to put myself into the category of “the old guy.” I remember, in seminary, a conversation with a teacher and mentor who at the time was 74 years old. The topic was ministry to and with older persons. In those days the term we used was “senior citizens.” As we talked I suddenly realized that when speaking of these older persons, I was thinking of my teacher’s generation. He, whose mother was still alive at 94, was thinking of her generation and not including himself in the category of “senior citizen.” I play the same game. I’ve been tossing membership appeals from AARP for the last 15 years. I don’t really think of myself as being an elder, even though I’m considerably oder than my colleagues serving congregations in the region. I’m older than the Conference minister and the Associate Conference Ministers. I’m older than the people who serve in leadership positions in the national meeting of our church. I read about colleagues who are retiring who are a few years younger than I. Just this week I read a Facebook post from a friend and colleague who wrote, “After 40 yers I am going to retire at the end of June. We’ll move to the Preacher’s Aid Society’s enclave in Wells, ME - put out to an old Methodist pastor’s pasture.” It’s probably no big deal, but I started as a pastor two years ahead of this particular colleague, and I struggle to use the word retire when I think of the next phase of my life.

What I understand from all of this is that the next part of my life will involve taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to observe, listen to, and share space with children and youth. The idea of moving to a place that is geared around the lives of retired persons holds no appeal for me. The idea of living near my grandchildren and having time to volunteer in their school does. There is much to be learned from children and much to be said for discovering ways to keep relationships between children and elders strong and healthy.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!