Parental agonizing over children’s presents goes with the territory at Christmas. Many of us can identify with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in ‘Jingle all the way,’ desperate to secure this year’s must-have toy for our offspring and terrified that it will be out of stock when we finally make that last, harried shopping trip.
Such angst is understandable since giving gifts is the main way we show love to our children at this time of the year. Along with coming up with the right presents, how else can we love our children this Christmas?
What is the best love of the child? That is the question posed by a multidisciplinary book edited by Timothy Jackson with contributions from history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, law and Christian thought. The startling thesis of the book is that the right of a child to be loved is best fulfilled by teaching him or her how to love others.
The subtitle of the book says it well: “Being Loved and Being Taught to Love as the First Human Right.” “The best love of the child” requires the child to be both object and subject of the loving.
The 1989 United Nations’ ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ lists the inalienable rights of children as “special care and assistance,” and spells this out as food, shelter, clothing, education and health care. The right to be loved, let alone to love, was apparently considered too subjective and sentimental to be included.
The book is a salutary reminder, in the midst of all the hubbub, that along with lovely presents what our children need most is to be taught how to love others. Back in the fourth century, church leader Chrysostom argued that families should resist the temptation to become isolated and inward looking, preoccupied with accumulating possessions. Instead, he urged them to be community-minded and to reach out to the poor and needy in society.
Ethicist Marcia Bunge notes that teaching children to love others is not accomplished merely by instruction. The best results come when parents embody and model the values of love and involve their children in projects of love. Examples include helping neighbours, visiting the sick and regular charitable giving.
There are simple ways to ensure that our Christmas celebrations do not descend into rituals of self-indulgence. One idea is to include those at our celebrations who might otherwise, for whatever reason, be left out of the festivities. It’s worth remembering that at the first Christmas, with “no room at the Inn,” Jesus’ parents were themselves in need of hospitality.
Giving gifts of overseas aid is another idea. Organizations such as TEAR Australia and World Vision offer a selection ranging from livestock to mosquito netting to water sanitation. Imagine your child’s delight when one of her gifts is a goat that she has in turn given to a needy family!
Psychologists Peter Benson and Eugene Roehlkepartain maintain that we have settled for too negative an ideal for our children. Rather than regarding them as ‘adults waiting to happen,’ who must be kept amused and out of trouble in the meantime, they emphasize optimal development rather than pathology avoidance. Children have a responsibility to love and serve others now, and not just in the future when they grow up.
Similarly, lawyers John Witte and Heather Johnson argue that the vocation of the child must not be limited to being loved but also includes the obligation to love. Whereas personal autonomy seems paramount in most discussions of ethics today, true freedom paradoxically can only be found in recognizing and empowering social relations of interdependence. They urge us to take seriously what they call the communal wellsprings of human selfhood.
Jesus himself turned upside down the common assumption in his day that the primary role of children is to learn from and obey adults by insisting that children can teach and challenge adults. On one occasion he pointed to children as models to be emulated: “whoever becomes humble like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And he told his proud would-be followers that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.”
To fill out the notion of a childlike spirit German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher pointed to the ability of children to live fully in the present and to trust God implicitly, and to their sense of play, flexibility and capacity for awe and wonder at what we often regard as mundane.
With Christmas fast approaching we’d do well to make plans to teach our children how to love and to take time to learn from them. It’s probably also a good idea to shop early!
Dr Brian Rosner is the Principal of Ridley Melbourne and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the author of Beyond Greed and Greed as Idolatry.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The Australian, 18/12/2012